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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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.

To make it easy to use those settings, the Settings screen has been redone. One of the most useful changes is that when you head there, you'll come to a Top settings screen, which makes it easy to change those settings you most frequently use. The screen alters according to which changes you make most often. So if you often change your Bing settings, they'll show up there.

If you're a dedicated tweaker like I am, you'll still need to head to the Control Panel to change things such as whether to show hidden files in File Explorer. But otherwise, you may be able to make most or all of your changes from the new Settings screen.

Windows 8.1

The Top settings screen lists those settings that you change most often.

Click to view larger image.

Other changes

There have been plenty of other changes. SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage service, is now more deeply ingrained into Windows. You can set it up so that by default all your files are saved to SkyDrive. You can also configure it to have all the photos you take with your mobile device automatically saved to SkyDrive.

The Windows Store has also been given a revamp, with a more pleasing graphical look and features that make it easier to browse and find apps. For example, when you've viewing an app and you scroll or swipe over to the right, you'll see a list of related apps, a feature that is old hat by now in other places, but is now finally making its way to the Windows Store.

Also, if you drag or swipe from the top of the screen you'll see a listing of all the categories in the store. Again, pretty much every other app store already has this, so the feature isn't new. More than anything, when it comes to the Windows Store, Microsoft is playing catch-up.

Windows 8.1

The Windows Store now includes lists of apps related to the one you're currently viewing.

Click to view larger image.

There is also more comprehensive support for portrait mode, such as in the News app. Unfortunately, not all apps are capable of portrait mode yet. Why should you care about this? Today, you likely don't. But a generation of Windows 8 and Windows RT mini tablets is on the way, and portrait mode is well suited for those devices.

File Explorer (called Windows Explorer in previous Windows versions) has been given some minor tweaks as well. The Computer view is now called This PC. And if you're looking for your file libraries, you won't find them. Instead, you'll see folders for Documents, Music, Pictures and so on, as well as a SkyDrive folder. This is just the latest iteration of Microsoft's long, winding, and confusing road of default organization for your files, which seems to change every several years.

Windows 8.1

File Explorer's Computer view is now called This PC.

Click to view larger image.

The bottom line

Some reviewers tell you that this version of Windows 8 is the one that Microsoft should have shipped in the first place. They're only partially right.

It's true that the new features -- such as the ability to log in straight to the desktop and easier access to desktop apps -- should have been baked into Windows 8 right from the beginning. And overall, the new features have improved Windows 8.1 considerably, especially for die-hard desktop users and those who don't have touch screens.

But this still isn't the Windows 8 that should have been shipped. The ideal Windows 8 would have been a coherent operating system, with a single, unified interface and way of working, rather than a touch-oriented tablet operating system bolted uncomfortably onto a desktop operating system, and forced to do double-duty for two very different categories of hardware.

With Windows 8.1, you don't see the bolts quite so much. But they're still there, and so are two separate operating systems, coexisting a bit less uneasily than before. Still, this is a good enough upgrade that once it ships, all Windows 8 users should use it. They'll find that it makes Windows much better.

You can get the Windows 8.1 preview right now. But keep in mind that if you install it, you won't be able to upgrade directly to the final version of Windows 8.1 when it ships. Instead, you'll have to go through a reinstallation procedure, and when you do that, you'll have to reinstall all of your desktop apps.

For more information about installing the Windows 8.1 preview, check out Woody Leonhard's excellent blog post.

This article, Windows 8.1 deep-dive review: Well, it's a start, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012). See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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