By the time you read this, Microsoft will have delivered its first and only prerelease version of the Windows 8.1 update for both Windows 8 and RT. Dubbed the Windows 8.1 Milestone Preview (MP) internally, this release is meant to encapsulate the Developer Preview, Consumer Preview, and Release Preview milestones of previous Windows versions in a single release, a sign of this product’s much quicker development schedule. And there’s a lot in it, both for users and for businesses that, until now, were ready to give Windows 8 and Windows RT a pass.
The Should-Have-Been Original Release?
That may be a hasty decision, as it turns out. After spending two weeks with a near-final version of the Windows 8.1 Preview on several PCs, I’ve found that this update does indeed smooth over many of the rough patches in Windows 8, providing a more cohesive and complete experience than what Microsoft first delivered late last year.
Is this the release that Microsoft should have shipped originally? It’s perhaps trite to suggest such a thing. But yes, that's obviously the case.
Windows 8.1 represents a lot of things for Microsoft. Its bizarre name suggests that it’s a new Windows version and not just an update, and perhaps not coincidentally even Microsoft has sometimes referred to it as such. Windows long-timers might draw some not-unreasonable comparisons between this release and Windows 3.1 from 20 years ago; like its ancient predecessor, this release is essentially a fine-tuning of an earlier major update that was perhaps released a bit too quickly.
Windows 8.1 is also our first peek at what the Windows team can accomplish in a year. Based on conversations with numerous sources throughout Microsoft, it’s become fairly obvious that this team has moved more uncomfortably into the online services model that has been embraced by other parts of the company like Office and Windows Server. (The phrase “kicking and screaming” was used in one humorously descriptive note.) And while there are ongoing murmurs of discontent about being forced to update Windows so quickly, this much is clear: If ever a product needed this rapid an update, it’s Windows 8.
Of course, Windows 8.1 can’t change the fundamental disconnect in the underlying product, which remains a strange amalgam of the classic Windows desktop environment we’ve been using since Windows 95 and a brand-new touch-first mobile environment that I will continue calling Metro. Jammed together like a technological Frankenstein’s monster, these two environments established an uneasy coexistence in the original release of Windows 8 (and Windows RT), with jarring transitions between the two that were made all the more painful by the way that most users were still using classic PCs without touch capabilities.
Finally, Fixing Windows 8
Looked at from a high level, some of the biggest changes in Windows 8.1 are designed to address these problems.
For example, Microsoft designed the system so that those who wished to stay in the desktop environment—typically those with classic PC hardware—could skip the Metro Start screen at boot and go directly to the desktop. And while in the desktop, these users can mostly ignore (or even disable) annoying Metro-style UI elements.
There’s even a modern take on the Start button (which was removed in Windows 8/RT), with the option for it to trigger an ancillary All Apps view instead of the reviled Start screen if desired. (Sad trombone moment: Like the Start screen, All Apps is a Metro experience, too.)
On the flip side, those who actually want to stay in the Metro environment—yes, I’m told such people exist—can do so more easily now as well. These users, who will most typically be using a new generation of tablets and hybrid PC devices, will find that Windows 8.1 adds far more customization settings to the Metro-based PC Settings interface, negating the need (as in the original release of Windows 8) to find and use the desktop-based Control Panel.
Start Screen Changes
But it’s not just about settings. Metro is also a more elegant environment now than it was in that first Windows 8 release. The Start screen sports optional animated backgrounds and can use the same wallpaper as the desktop if you want, cutting down on that annoying jarring effect when you switch between them. The Start screen tiles now support four sizes, instead of just two, and the larger sizes offer both more live information, often attractively presented, and relief for those on high-resolution displays.
Those who want to customize the Start screen no longer need to learn about and locate hidden commands found in far-off places. You won’t inadvertently move tiles around, as it was easy to do in the initial release, and you can now customize Start directly from Start, seeing your changes as you apply them. And there are many more changes to be had, including a literal rainbow of color choices, instead of the stock few in the first release.
Eventually, of course, you’ll need to get past the Start screen. And again looking at this release from a high level, I'd choose its new and deeper integration with SkyDrive as perhaps the biggest and most important change in this release.
If you’re familiar with Windows 8, you know that the system lets you sign in with a Microsoft account, then sync a limited set of settings across all of your PCs through SkyDrive. That is literally the extent of SkyDrive integration in Windows 8, and if you want more—such as PC-SkyDrive file sync—you need to find and install an application. (And that application isn’t available on Windows RT.)
In Windows 8.1, SkyDrive becomes a profound and truly integrated part of the Windows experience. During setup, you’re asked if you want to integrate your SkyDrive storage with Windows. If you choose to do so, your SkyDrive storage is integrated into the file system, and if you navigate through that folder structure (in a SkyDrive folder in your user profile), you will believe that all of your SkyDrive-based files and folders have been downloaded and synced to the PC. But that's not the case.
Instead, what you’re seeing is a set of new shortcut types that look and work like the actual files. If you’re online, you can simply open them as usual: Word documents open in Word, Photoshop documents open in Photoshop, and so on. Everything works.
Going offline? Simply right-click any file or folder and choose the new Make available offline command from the menu that appears. (You can reverse this as well.) It’s powerful, granular, and speedy.
Back in Metro, SkyDrive works much like it does on Windows Phone. You can configure the system to automatically back up all pictures and videos that you take with the device’s internal camera to SkyDrive, and at full resolution, if desired. And there are far more settings being synced between your PCs and devices, an enhancement of the functionality that debuted with Windows 8.
Metro App Changes
Microsoft updated several of the built-in Metro-style apps in Windows 8/RT earlier this year, and Windows 8.1 will arrive with some more changes. In the Preview build, we see a dramatically updated Photos app, for example, though the early version I’ve used has lost some useful functionality (only temporarily, I hope) around photo acquisition and online services integration. Xbox Music gets a prettier and more usable UI that more closely resembles traditional jukebox software like iTunes and uses a single screen instead of Windows 8’s rambling panoramic experiences.
There are new apps, too. Bolstering the selection of surprisingly useful and beautiful Bing apps from the initial release—Bing, News, Sports, Finance, Travel, and Maps—Windows 8.1 includes two new Bing apps: Food & Drink and Health & Fitness.
There are also new utility apps such as Calculator, Help & Tips, Reading List, Scan, and Sound Recorder. Reading List is a news reader type app, which looks attractive. And yes, Scan is exactly what it sounds like: A Metro-based scanner utility.
Desktop users don’t get as many updates as do Metro users, but let’s be fair: Most of the big issues were on the Metro side. But in addition to the ability to boot to the desktop and show All Apps instead of Start, there are other improvements for us Luddites.
Windows 8.1 lets you sort that All Apps view so that desktop applications are listed first, before Metro apps. You can disable the Metro-based Charms and Switcher interfaces. And the secret power-user menu (WINKEY + X) now has more commands.
But the biggest change on the desktop, I think, is the introduction of new desktop display scaling capabilities. Available via Display in Control Panel, this new capability will automatically scale the desktop according to the resolution of the screen and the physical size of the display, making, say, small screen or high resolution devices like Surface Pro instantly more usable.
This capability has other niceties: You can manually override the automatic settings, and, while it doesn’t appear to work in the Preview release, there's an option for maintaining different display scaling settings for each display attached to your PC. So using that Surface Pro as an example again, you might see (or configure) 150 percent scaling on the device’s tiny internal display but 100 percent scaling on an attached 27-inch display. Can I get a Hallelujah?
Amazingly, and inexplicably, Windows 8.1 also arrives with a surprising range of new features aimed directly at businesses. Querying Microsoft about this—surely most businesses are planning to skip this product generation, I said—I was told that the firm really does expect businesses to roll out Windows 8.x alongside Windows 7, using the former on devices instead of traditional PCs. We’ll see whether that view translates into reality, but there’s no denying the effort.
Windows 8.1 adds such networking features as NFC tap-to-pair printing, Wi-Fi Direct printing, Miracast wireless display, broadband tethering (Internet sharing), and massive improvements to the built-in VPN capabilities, including compatibility with several third-party VPNs (sadly, not Cisco). A new version of Internet Explorer--11--provides “faster page load times, side-by-side browsing of your sites, 3D graphics, enhanced pinned site notifications, reading view and app settings like favorites, tabs and settings sync across all your Windows 8.1 PCs.”
Windows 8.1-based devices (including RT) will support selective remote wipe, so that users who bring their own machines to work and decide to remove them from corporate control won’t lose their personal data. It features a new WorkPlace Join capability so that users can easily join a domain from Metro and set up their devices for policy-based corporate control.
A new Work Folders feature (part of Windows Server 2012 R2) will provide SkyDrive-style client sync with corporate document libraries. And admins can now control far more of what users can see and do on their Windows 8.1-based devices, including which apps appear and how the Start screen is laid out.
Is It Enough?
While it’s interesting to see how much the Windows team can accomplish in just a year, questions remain. Windows 8 got off to rough start and Windows RT might be charitably described as a disaster so far.
The changes in Windows 8.1 are sometimes major—especially for Windows RT usage at work—but as is the case with many Windows updates, it's the combination of many minor changes that puts this release over the top.
You should see for yourself. The Windows 8.1 Preview is freely available from the Microsoft web site and will update any Windows 8 PC or Windows RT device. Note, however, that those who do install the Preview will lose any installed desktop applications or Metro-style apps when they later upgrade to the final release, which should be completed in August.