Windows 8.1 deep-dive review: Well, it's a start

The preview of Windows 8.1 brings more cohesion, less frustration and a direct login to the desktop. But is it enough to save the OS?

Although the preview of Windows 8.1 fixes some of the problems users complained about in the previous version of the OS, is it enough? We take a close look at Microsoft's update.

With the just-released preview of Windows 8.1, Microsoft has gone a long way towards fixing many of the interface goofs and anomalies of Windows 8; it's also cleaned up the OS's rough edges and introduced some nice new features and apps.

[ALSO: 10 factors that hobbled Windows 8 that Windows 8.1 will fix]

Windows 8 remains a dual-interface operating system -- the touch-oriented "Modern" interface (previously called Metro) and the desktop -- but one that is less frustrating to use and a bit better integrated than previously. The changes don't solve all of Window 8's problems, but they make it more palatable to use.

At first glance, Windows 8.1 looks very much like Windows 8.Click to view larger image.

The Start screen and the desktop

The Start screen and the desktop have been at the core of most complaints about Windows 8. In Windows 8, you're forced to boot into the touch-oriented Start screen, and because it is primarily designed to launch Modern-style apps, many people would prefer to bypass it and head straight to the desktop when they log in. Microsoft made that impossible in Windows 8. Like many people, I was not pleased.

Finally, in Windows 8.1, you can bypass the Start screen and go to the desktop when you log in. Oddly enough, to do that, you don't change a setting on the Start screen. Instead, you have to do a bit of tweaking over at the desktop.

The Navigation tab lets you go straight to the desktop when you sign in.Click to view larger image.

Go to the desktop, then right-click the taskbar. Select Properties and from the screen that appears, click or tap the Navigation tab -- a new tab added in Windows 8.1. Divided into two sections, Core navigation and Start screen, it lets you customize many of the frustrating things about the way the Start screen works.

Look for the setting "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in" then check the box next to it. After that, each time you sign into Windows, you hop straight to the desktop. It's simple and straightforward, and desktop fans will be extremely pleased -- me among them.

There's more on that little tab that can go towards making the Start screen a more useful tool. If you have no need for the Start screen's tiled interface, and mainly use it as an app launcher, there are several settings that do that for you. Check the box next to "Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start," and every time you head to the Start screen, you'll instead see the Apps view -- a listing of every Modern and desktop app on your system. Click an app to launch it. I find this far more useful than the Start screen's normal multi-sized tiles.

The Apps view is a listing of every Modern and desktop app on your system.Click to view larger image.

If you mainly use desktop apps rather than Modern ones, make sure to check the box next to "List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it's sorted by category." That way, your desktop apps show first on the screen, so it's easier to find them. I have found this small tweak quite helpful, because I frequently head here to launch Office. Now it appears high on the list.

Note that even if you leave the normal tiled Start screen intact and don't change the settings on the Navigation tab, there's now an easier way to get to the Apps view. On the Start screen down towards the bottom, there's a new arrow that was introduced in Windows 8.1. When you click it or tap it, you're sent to the Apps view.

Microsoft has also taken a very minor stab at trying to make the desktop and Start screen look as if they are a single, unified operating system, rather than two separate ones. A setting on the Navigation pane allows you to use the same wallpaper on the Start screen that you have on the desktop.

That's a nice piece of eye candy, but that's all it is. The two interfaces still look and work differently from one another. It's not quite like putting a lipstick on a pig; it's more like outfitting a pig and a giraffe in the same dress and hoping people will mistake them for twins.

Microsoft has tried to make the desktop and Start screen look as if they are part of the same, unified system. However...Click to view larger image ...the two interfaces still look and work differently from one another.Click to view larger image.

The Core navigation section of the Navigation tab has a few settings that I find a bit less useful, but you might want to give them a try. You can turn off the Windows navigation feature that displays the Charms bar when you point your cursor at the upper-right corner of the screen. You can also turn off the navigation feature that switches between your recent apps when you click the upper-left corner.

There's one more setting there, and it slightly alters the Power User menu that pops up when you press the Windows key + X or right-click the lower-left corner of the screen. It replaces the Command prompt on the menu with the Windows Power Shell command-line automation tool. That setting is turned on by default in Windows 8.1.

The Start button and shutdown

The next big question you likely have about Windows 8.1 is whether there's a Start button. Well, there is and there isn't.

If you hover your mouse over the lower-left-hand portion of the Start screen or while you're in a Modern app, the button appears. It also appears on the desktop's taskbar (without your having to hover your mouse).

But calling it a Start button is a stretch, because that implies that it does what the Start button did in previous versions of Windows -- that is, launched a menu that lets you browse and launch your apps, search, find links to various Windows locations and services, and so on. Instead, it's just a task switcher that switches you between the Start screen and whatever else you were just doing. I rarely find myself clicking the Start button for the simple reason that it doesn't really start anything -- except my blood boiling about how useless it is.

The Power User menu makes it easier to shut down or restart your device.Click to view larger image.

However, Microsoft has taken one Start button feature from earlier Windows versions and made it more accessible in Windows 8.1: the ability to shut down, restart or put your device to sleep. Pull up the Power User menu and click Shut down to find those options.

Internet Explorer 11

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft has addressed a serious Windows 8 shortcoming: the close-to-useless Modern version of Internet Explorer 10. How seriously can you take a browser without the ability to create and use bookmarks, or that won't allow you to have more than 10 tabs open at a time?

Not very. And so I simply didn't use the Modern version of IE10.

In Windows 8.1, that's changed. Like every other browser out there, IE11 lets you have as many sites as you want open in separate tabs. And -- be still my beating heart! -- you can actually bookmark pages as Favorites. The bookmarking feature includes the ability to organize Favorites into folders.

However, the Favorites feature still isn't perfect. The Favorites in the Modern version of IE don't show up in the desktop version of IE, although the desktop IE Favorites do show up in the Modern version. That's something that should be fixed.

You can now also open tabs side by side, so that you can view more than one tab at a time, each in its own window onscreen. Normally you'll be only able to view two tabs this way, but on high-resolution displays, you can view up to four.

The new Internet Explorer also has improvements under the hood: notably, its addition of WebGL, a JavaScript API that renders interactive 3D graphics and 2D graphics. WebGL allows websites to essentially deliver the same interactive experiences as game and multimedia apps, but from inside a browser. Competing browsers such as Chrome already have this. In a world in which HTML5 and associated technologies will become standard, the lack of WebGL in Internet Explorer was a serious shortcoming. It's a shortcoming no longer.

A powered-up search

Search has been considerably improved, which wasn't that difficult, given how poor Windows 8's original search feature was. Previously, when you did a search, you didn't see all the results on a single screen. Instead, you had to highlight the category you wanted to search through (such as Settings or Apps) and you'd see just those results.

In Windows 8.1, search has become more universal and far more powerful. You now get results from the Web (including graphics and videos) as well as local files, apps and settings, all presented in one interface.

If you like, you can filter to search only settings, only files, only Web images or only Web videos.

Search now includes both Web and local results.Click to view larger image.

A great addition is the so-called Search Hero, which takes results from your device and the Web, and aggregates graphics, videos and information onto a simple-to-browse page. Here you can not only click to get more information, but if you search for a musician, you'll be able to play music right on the page, via a widget from the Xbox Music app. I find this feature especially useful, because it lets me search for and play music without having to launch the Xbox Music app.

How does Windows search do all this? The page you click to is essentially a Bing results page.

Keep in mind, though, that many searches you do won't display results this way, because many searches don't have a rich set of results including Wikipedia entries, photographs and videos.

Search Hero takes results from your device and from the Web and aggregates it all into a simple-to-read page.Click to view larger image.

This isn't to say that search is perfect. It still has its quirks. For example, if you're in the Windows Store, you can't simply start typing in a search term as you can on the Start screen. Instead, you need to display the Search charm, and then do a search.

New and updated apps

Internet Explorer isn't the only Modern app that Microsoft has done work on. It's upgraded others, and included new ones as well. And in doing so, it's addressed a major Windows 8 shortcoming: the general awfulness of its Modern apps. Those apps have been extremely underpowered and feature-poor, anemic and touch-focused.

In Windows 8.1, that's changed. The Photos app, for example, now does more than just allow you to view photos, as it did in past versions. Now it includes some very good editing tools. Is it as powerful as Photoshop? Of course not. But it has plenty of features, including color editing, brightness and contrast changing, special effects, cropping, rotating, red-eye removal and more. I've used it several times for simple editing chores such as removing red eye and cropping, and found it simple and straightforward.

The Photos app has been updated and now includes some useful editing tools.Click to view larger image.

Microsoft has also introduced some very nifty new apps as well. The Food and Drink app is a particularly good one. When you find recipes, you'll be able to integrate them into a shopping list, meal planner or collections. It lets you plan out meals for the week. It's all very clear, clean and well done. And it also shows off a new trick Microsoft has taught Windows 8: hands-free mode. Rather than use the keyboard and mouse or touch, it lets you move from screen to screen by waving your hand (it uses your device's built-in camera).

Or at least, it's supposed to. I was never able to get hands-free mode to work, although at least one other reviewer has reported he got it working. Still, if it ever works properly in this app, it will be great for those times when you're in the kitchen, up to your elbows in flour and don't want to foul the screen.

The Food and Drink app features a hands-free mode.Click to view larger image.

There's also a semi-useful new Reading List app, which lets you clip content from the Web or other location, save it and then read it when you want.

To clip something, you open the Charms bar, select Share, choose Reading list and save the page. Later on, you can open the Reading List app to see everything you've saved. You can search through the list and delete from the list.

While it's nice to have this feature, the app pales compared to similar, more powerful apps already out there, such as Evernote. Reading List clips entire Web pages rather than highlighted content like Evernote does. And Reading List has one single list; it doesn't allow you to organize your data into folders or notebooks. I'm certainly not about to give up Evernote for it.

More settings in the Modern interface

One of the frustrating things about the Modern interface has always been that you could change a few system settings via its Settings screen (accessible by going to the Charms bar and selecting Settings --> Change PC settings), but if you wanted to dig deep and change many of your settings, you had to head to the Control Panel on the desktop. That's still true to some extent in Windows 8.1, but more settings can now be changed from the Settings screen.

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