What’s new with Windows 8.1, and a guide to getting it

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When downloading the update files, you will see something like this…

That’s right, Windows 8.1 has finally been released to the general public. It’s free for current Windows 8 users, and for Windows 7 users, it will cost you. It has been around for a whole day, and we’re now confident enough to give you a rough overview of what has been improved over here. We’ll also help you to get Windows 8.1 up and running on your machine.

Joy to the world, the Start button is back! Oh, oh, wait. It still brings me to the tiled Start screen. Still, the tiled Start screen has been vastly improved in Windows 8.1 RTM, and for those like me who have preferred the tiles from the get-go, it will be an added bonus.

How To Install (Short Version)

Windows 8: Launch the Windows Store from your “Metro” start screen, and you will see the humongous tile offering the free update on your left. You can’t miss it, really. If it doesn’t appear, just update your Windows 8 software through Charms bar>PC Settings>Windows Update.

Windows 7: You can buy and download Windows 8.1 using Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant. In Upgrade Assistant, you’ll have the option to install Windows 8.1 now, later, or using media with an ISO file or a USB flash drive. For more info, see Upgrade to Windows 8.1 from Windows 7, on Microsoft’s website.

How To Install (Detailed Version)

Windows 8: Downloading this update is not as straightforward as it seems. For one, if you access Software Updates via the Charms bar, you will find nothing (unless you have a Windows 8 update pending). You will actually have to find the Windows 8.1 update via the App Store instead, where it will be prominently displayed on the home screen. However, there is one quirk – the update will not appear unless you have updated your Windows 8 version to the latest release.

Windows 7: The update is also available to those who are coming for Windows 7, but it will not be a free upgrade for them. It will cost the standard $120 that can be found in stores when buying boxed sets of the OS, or when purchasing a license for the ISO file (which can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website). You can also get the Pro version for $200 if you want, which gives you many more features. If you’re coming over from Windows 7, you can download Windows 8.1 using the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant.

In Upgrade Assistant, you’ll have the option to install Windows 8.1 now, later, or using media with an ISO file or a USB flash drive. For more info, see Upgrade to Windows 8.1 from Windows 7, on Microsoft’s website.

If your mind is set on getting Windows 8.1, go through this very short checklist below. It may be the difference between a fast, old OS, and a slow but new OS.

However, if you are already on Windows 8, go ahead and upgrade your computer. There will be no problems with 8.1.

If you are on Windows 7 or Vista (WHY?), though, here is what you should do before upgrading (if you are on Windows XP, really, stay far away from Windows 8.1 – your hardware will not be capable of running 8.1 smoothly).

Check with your manufacturer’s website on whether they actually offer driver updates for Windows 8.1. If there is no driver update for Windows 8.1, please refrain from upgrading. You will run into problems if your drivers are not updated, with issues such as brightness getting locked at the two extremes, and volume not playing. Do also remember to get Intel/AMD and Nvidia/AMD updates for your Integrated and specialised Graphic Cards respectively.

Recall how old your hardware is. Chances are if you are running a Core 2 Duo or a first generation i3 processor, Windows 8.1 might slow down your computer to a crawl. Unless it’s an absolute must (and your wish to have the latest OS does not count here), try and stick to your current OS.

All boxes checked? Ready to go?

Well, just in case anything goes wrong, it is always good to back up your files, but in today’s day and age, it’s not necessary. Also, as said above, update your drivers to the ones for Windows 8.1, EVEN if you are upgrading from Windows 8, or face the various issues that come with older drivers.

Also good news is that all applications, programs and games work flawlessly on Windows 8.1 (assuming they used to work on Windows 8). The glitches that plagued many games (such as Football Manager 2013 and Flight Simulator X) in the Preview have all been fixed.

If you are scratching your heads over if Windows 8.1 is any good, though, have a look at a short overview of the new features of Windows 8.1. A full review will be coming in due course.

New Features

I will just briefly cover the new features, which are basically small, nifty and useful improvements throughout the OS, rather than a really big new feature.

You can now have large and small tiles, which makes the start screen more personalized, and in my opinion, allows you to get more from your live tiles than before.

Swiping up on the Start Screen brings up the All Apps view, and the All Apps view can be made the default view when you trigger the Start Screen, so this helps bridge the gap between Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 more, as it is more user-friendly.

Snap Views are improved now, and with a higher resolution display, you can have up to 4 apps snapped side by side. The old Surface RT, with its rather pathetic display, can still only snap 2 apps side by side, which is sad, but at least now you can snap them equally (half the screen for each app, as opposed to a small, rather useless area and a too big area), so frankly, it’s a lot more useful. Seriously Microsoft, I have no idea why you made it exclusively 30:70 from the start, it’s pretty ridiculous and pretty much kills one of the unique features of Windows 8.

Then there’s the Start Button, which is seen immediately, with no mousing over gestures, in Desktop Mode, where the old Start Button used to be. It lacks the features of the old one though, and just brings you to the Start Screen on a left click, and on a right click brings up a list of options.

In an attempt to bridge the gap more for users of Windows 7, Microsoft has also added in the option to boot up into Desktop Mode, skipping the Start Screen. Here’s how:

First, boot up Windows 8.1, then click the Desktop tile to go to Desktop Mode. Then right-click any open area in the taskbar, and click Properties. Next, you will want to click the Navigation tab, and check the box next to the words Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in. After rebooting, Windows should boot up straight into Desktop Mode, and the world may just make sense once more.

There are also new customisation options for the Start screen, with new wallpapers, including several live ones (the “Dragon” one is amazing). Microsoft also added more customisability with new colour tones for users to choose from, and allowing the option to use the desktop wallpaper as the background of the Start Screen, once again bridging the gap between desktop and “metro” mode and providing a layered effect reminiscent of iOS7.

There are new apps designed for the Modern UI, such as the Calculator (remember the old-style Calculator that sucked so bad and launched in Desktop Mode? Urgh, horrible.) which even has a scientific calculator mode, and a converter, which I find to be pretty nifty because all your number work can be done in one app.

Then there’s Alarm, which has a pretty cool, really quite beautiful, interface too. This is one app where the new Windows design aesthetic really shines. 

The colours look good and are well selected.
The colours look good and are well selected.

You can set an alarm, time something using the Stopwatch feature, or countdown to something using the Countdown Timer. All additions that make Windows 8 much better.

Also, there is Sound Recorder, which basically…records sound. It looks better than the old app. There’s really nothing much to say about this other than the redesign.

You might have noticed that the Bing Search app is now gone. This is because Search is now fully integrated into the OS, the one new amazing feature that makes things so much easier to find. While once it was specifically tailored to an app, and you would click on the app icon to search within it, now it just searches everything. And looks good while doing it too. It searches within your documents, your media, the web, YouTube, Wikipedia, songs by the artist (if you search for an artist) or movies an actor starred in, and last but not least, SkyDrive.

And speaking of SkyDrive, it’s now integrated with Windows, and syncs your files natively. It uses placeholder files so that you don’t need to have all your stuff downloaded to your computer, and can download whatever you need, whenever you need. You can also save documents, such as those from Word, PowerPoint and Excel, among others, straight into SkyDrive. Here’s a video by Microsoft advertising it.

Last, but not least, IE 11. Internet Explorer has come a long way from being the joke it used to be.

IE 11 has improved considerably from the old, laggy, crash-prone Internet Explorer of yore, with a reading view much like Apple’s Reader mode for Safari on iDevices and their computers, the ability to open unlimited tabs, and WebGL support for browser-based games, not to mention being much, much faster. Tabs are now at the bottom for the Modern UI version of IE 11, which makes them easier to use on a tablet. These changes are mostly only for the Modern version of IE, and while the Desktop Mode version has improved too, Microsoft seems to be focussing mostly on the Modern version.

Should You Upgrade?

If you are on Windows 8, upgrade now. You have nothing to lose, because it’s free and there are only improvements in this release. For those of you on Windows 7 (or Vista, however unlikely that is) and have been holding off on Windows 8 because you don’t like the Modern UI, it’s unlikely that Windows 8.1 would change your mind, because it’s basically Windows 8 on steroids, and if anything, is a step further away from the old Desktop mode UI, and a step closer to the Modern UI.

Verdict

There are hardly any new features, but mostly improvements to Windows 8, which are not unwelcome. It doesn’t solve all of the problems of Windows 8, such as the terrible disparity between the Desktop and Modern modes, which really don’t go together well, the lack of Modern UI support for Office, and using the Snap Views feature with individual windows in Desktop Mode, and most importantly, the troublesomeness of using the Modern UI on a non-touchscreen computer. If you noticed in the SkyDrive for Windows 8.1 ad above, there was not a computer without a touchscreen. Windows 8/8.1 is built for the touchscreen, and works much better with a touchscreen. I hope that in 2014, Windows 9 (or whatever it is called then) will solve the more pressing issues with Windows. I personally enjoy the Modern UI, and think it looks good, but it seems to lack a lot of the functionality of the Desktop Mode. It would be good if Microsoft found a way to make the two modes work seamlessly with each other.

That’s all for now folks. Tell us what you think about Windows 8.1 in the comments below. Do you like it? Or are you desperately waiting for October 22, hoping that OS X Mavericks will be released soon (wink)?

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2 thoughts on “What’s new with Windows 8.1, and a guide to getting it

  1. Pity your article doesn’t seem to touch on what might be the biggest yet most underrated feature of Windows 8.1 – the ability to have your Start Screen & Desktop share the same background, bridging the gap between the two modes and making the Windows experience more consistent for everyone.

    1. “allowing the option to use the desktop wallpaper as the background of the Start Screen, once again bridging the gap between desktop and “metro” mode and providing a layered effect reminiscent of iOS7”
      I apologize, but we did actually say something to that effect. We didn’t really expand on it, but it’s there. Cheers, and thanks for reading our site!

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