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?

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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.

Windows 8.1

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.

Windows 8.1

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.

Windows 8.1

The Photos app has been updated and now includes some useful editing tools.

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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.

Windows 8.1

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.

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