Microsoft Windows 8.1 review: Improved Windows still torn between tablet future and PC past

Boot to desktop
A minor tweak, but one keenly requested by PC enthusiasts, is the ability to boot directly to the old-style Windows desktop. Before Windows 8.1, your PC would boot to the tile interface, and then you'd have to tap on the desktop icon to get back to familiar ground. Just to make sure you don't accidentally set your PC to boot to the desktop if you don't really, really mean to, Microsoft has cleverly hidden this feature under Taskbar > Properties > Navigation.

The Snap view is now easier to use, and can accommodate more apps, if you have the resolution for it. Dan Ackerman/CNET

Snappier Snap views
One of the more useful innovations in Windows 8 was the Snap View mode, where apps could be locked into place, taking up half or one-third of the screen, and running alongside another app. For example, one might have a live TV stream running, and then a social media window next to it. Or a PowerPoint, Skype, and a photo viewer. These were all possible before, but snapping is an easy way to set up an efficient use of your workspace, and the number of apps you can run like this is limited by your screen resolution, and component horsepower.

In Windows 8.1, a 2,560x1,440-pixel display can snap four apps into place, and linking two monitors with that resolution would give you eight (if your CPU and RAM can handle it). A 1,920x1,080-pixel display can comfortably snap open three windows.

The greatly improved app store makes it easier to find decent software optimized for Windows 8. Dan Ackerman/CNET

A better (looking) app store
One of the features of Windows 8 long cited as the biggest hype with the weakest delivery is the Microsoft app store. Its layout, tiny slivers of apps, lined up row after row, made any kind of visual browsing unsatisfying. Editorial curation, the hallmark of Apple's app stores for both OS X and iOS, was virtually nonexistent, and app shoppers were left with a handful of prime-time apps, such as Netflix and Halo: Spartan Assault, and a hard-to-sort pile of shovelware, including, for example, a dozen-odd unlicensed Super Mario Bros. knockoff apps.

The biggest miss was in PC gaming. Steam, GoG, and other PC gaming download sites and apps seem to be able to offer everything from A-list modern games to casual games, but the Microsoft app store, perhaps in an attempt to make sure every app can run on nearly every machine, offers nothing more taxing than Angry Birds, Jetpack Joyride, and other phone/tablet/browser-level games. Even the highly hyped exclusive Halo game for Windows 8 is essentially an iPad-style game.

In the new store, thus far, there isn't a huge change in the style and quality of the apps offered (although Microsoft now says there are more than 100,000), but there's clearly a sharper eye on presentation and curation. A single app is highlighted with a large image, and next to it is a grid of nine recommended-for-you apps, all of which, in our case, seemed at least marginally interesting. Like the iOS and Android app stores, new, trending, and top paid apps are given a much more visual treatment, and the layout of each app page is much-improved, with the apps' description, user rating and reviews, images, and related app links all on a single page (although it's a wide page that you have to scroll horizontally to get through). On the previous version, much of that information is cut into separate tabs you have to manually click through.

The new Windows app store also allows for easy auto-updating of apps, and makes recommendations based on your previous purchases, both of which are features you can shut off in the options if you want to do everything manually.

IE11 moves the browser tabs to the bottom of the window. Dan Ackerman/CNET

Browsing with IE11
Microsoft's IE10 Web browser was so tightly intertwined with Windows 8 that I'm not surprised to see it get a Windows 8.1 upgrade. The new version doesn't look or behave much differently than IE10 in Windows 8, which had already made a radical move to a single window with hidden tabs, an address bar at the bottom of the screen, and a simplified options menu that slides out from the right side of the screen. In IE11, you can open more tabs (Microsoft claims up to 100!), and the hidden tabs now default to the bottom of the screen instead of the top.

In one full year of using Windows 8 PCs, IE10 (and now IE11) has shown that it really does perform better than the competition, loading pages faster and scrolling much more smoothly , especially in PCs with lower-end Atom CPUs. That's what happens when you are able to optimize your OS and Web browser so tightly together, and IE and several other Microsoft Windows 8 apps all benefit from this very effective optimization.

Final thoughts
Beyond the new features outlined above, Windows 8.1 will allow you to add personalized images and slideshows to the lock and start screens , improves the camera app, and the updated Bing search has precustomized results pages for notable public figures, from artists to politicians.

The Bing search now includes curated pages for public figures. Dan Ackerman/CNET

While the new features and improvements in Windows 8.1 are all positive changes, that basic disconnect between concept and reality remains. And therein lies the reason Windows 8.1 won't convert you into a fan if you're not already. It's great to have a better app store, contextual menu on the desktop, and more, but many of the underlying frustrations remain.

Is it any easier to change the default search engine in IE to something other than Bing? No, that's still a criminally complicated procedure. Can I see my battery life or even the time at a glance in the main tile interface? No, it's still hidden from view without some sort of user interaction. Is it possible to have two Web browsers, say IE10 and Chrome, both working as Windows 8 apps simultaneously? No. Web browsing for Microsoft appears to be a zero-sum game, and for someone to win, someone else must lose.

It's part of what I consider to be Microsoft's attempt to lock users into an iOS-style walled garden of apps, making it at least difficult for Windows 8 versions of other apps to replace the ones the OS ships with. Do apps such as Steam and iTunes really need to bounce back to the old-school Windows desktop before launching? Of course not. To be fair, Apple, Google, and others do the same thing, try and force you into a connected ecosystem of apps for managing your media, contacts, mail, calendar, and more.

So: Should you upgrade?
What should the average PC user do? My advice on upgrading is as follows:

If you're an existing Windows 8 user, the update is free and largely seamless, and adds some useful new tweaks and features. You should upgrade as soon as possible.

If you're a Windows 7 user thinking of upgrading your legacy hardware, I'd suggest sticking with the OS you have until it's time to buy a new PC. Your Windows 7 PC most likely doesn't have a touch screen, so many of the Windows 8/8.1 features won't do much for you.

If you've been holding off on a new PC purchase because of your dislike for the original Windows 8 release, this update isn't going to change your mind. However, it's likely that your misgivings about Windows 8 are at least slightly hyperbolic, and outside of a handful of specialty PC gaming rigs, any new PC you buy is going to have Windows 8 (now 8.1) on it, so you might as well get used to it.

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