Two weeks' use of Windows 8.1 - impressions and observations

The day Windows 8.1 Preview was released, I installed it on my Surface RT. I did not put it on my laptop or my high-powered desktop, so this writing is coming from the point of view of a tablet user.

First, things I like:

The Start Screen, as advertised and reported, has gotten a lot better. The new icon sizes and the ability to choose your own color scheme and use the desktop background offer a lot more customization options and allow me to tweak the appearance of my Start screen to an ever finer degree, and the sheer variety of options available makes it so that the Start Screen never gets old.

Including almost all relevant settings in the PC settings app makes tweaking my system a lot easier without having to go into the Control Panel. Before, that was the only way to change some settings and as I'm sure you know, it's difficult to navigate the mouse-friendly interface on the Desktop with fat fingers. The way the settings and hierarchies are organized, however, makes it confusing to navigate at first - although I'm sure with a little time I'll get used to it. It's just a little different.

Generally, my Surface is faster, by a very noticeable amount. I find myself waiting a lot less, and I'm hardly ever annoyed by strange crashes or slowdowns. For being a prerelease OS, I'm very impressed with its speed and stability.

The new applications, for the most part, have impressed me:

  • The Music app has improved a thousand fold from its predecessor. Not only does it put your music first before what it's trying to sell you, I find it to be a lot more reliable than the old one. It's also a lot easier to navigate, and has a more open, inviting feel to it, instead of the dark, unfinished and sometimes oppressive look of its predecessor.
  • I enjoy the Store's new look. I didn't dislike the old look, but the new one is a little more functional for discovery. It requires another swipe or two to access all the categories, but it's better than swiping for miles and miles to the right. That said, I have noticed that sometimes application updates will not show up in the top right corner when the store's tile says there are some (I have set my apps not to auto-update as I like to review changes before they're applied). Perhaps I am missing something, but it still shows download status in the same place.
  • The Alarms app is sleek, minimal and exactly what is needed. I am selling my iPod Touch now that I can use my Surface reliably as my alarm. The alarms themselves are reliable. I haven't been left sleeping yet because it didn't go off. I do wish that Microsoft had included a few more options for alarm sounds or let me pick from my music. Being a preview, I wouldn't be surprised if some or all of those features were later included. Also, it bears mentioning that an alarm app update has repeatedly failed to download from the store.
  • The health, new travel, and food apps I have not really used, but they look pretty enough, and maybe if I cooked more I would appreciate the hands-free gestures.

I like the fact that the Start button is back. Even if I didn't really miss it and used my Surface's Windows button anyway, it feels familiar and in some way makes the Desktop feel a little more complete.

Removable media can now be added to libraries. This is a major improvement to my Surface, as its limited internal memory was running out and I was sick of using mklinks and directory mounting as workarounds for my SD card, as they would sometimes break if I took it out to put more stuff on it.

I really like some aspects of the new Search. The results page, while it could use a little more work, is elegant and displays information first. The fact that it will open relevant apps if you have them keeps the experience consistent and feels more polished, because it doesn't take you into Internet Explorer. Being able to quickly search the Web without leaving your current application is very useful, and its integration into the desktop is a real improvement as well. I don't like how they removed the searchable apps list from the view (I know this has been discussed elsewhere on this forum), though, or how the default search isn't to search the current app. That brings me to the next part:

Things I don't really like:

You no longer tap on the text selection handles to copy/paste in some situations. I liked this in 8 and I miss it here.

One of Windows 8.1's biggest issues, and one I can see becoming the largest problem (because it isn't a buggy app so much as it is a design flaw), is its growing inconsistency. The tap-and-hold gesture to select tiles and rearrange the Start screen is inconsistent with the whole rest of the platform when it comes to item selection, and much less intuitive than it was before. I haven't used my Start Screen with a mouse, so I don't know if you'd have to click and hold, or if a right-click still selects the tile. I see Search boxes everywhere now in Microsoft's own applications, and coupled with the fact that the current app is no longer the default Search charm view, I see these new boxes taking up unnecessary space that could easily be filled by the Search charm, and the charm itself being increasingly relegated to a vehicle solely for Bing, which isn't always a good thing. I also see a lot more chrome creeping into 8.1's application design (most notably in the Store) and while it isn't distracting, it seems to run contrary to Microsoft's professed philosophy of simplicity and function over form in visual design. While I don't necessarily dislike some of the new application designs, I'd rather see them be consistent. They've proven themselves adept at designing some top-notch applications in the past, at least visually, and to see them stray from that path introduces fears of platform and/or design fragmentation that could be extremely confusing for a new user.

By far, though, where 8.1 falls shortest is with IE 11. It's a little bit faster to load, and includes a few new features, but all its improvements are overshadowed by its buggy, unreliable performance. It might just be an issue with my Surface's hardware, but I have found it so slow, and to crash so often, that I have been pushed frequently to the desktop version of IE, which is my LEAST favorite browser. Very often, when trying to go back on a web page, I see the previous page with a darkened overlay and the browser just sits there, doing nothing, with an unresponsive web site staring me in the face until I exit the browser and restart it. Fully exit it, that is, by pulling it down and holding - an "improved" gesture to close that will confuse almost everyone who transitions to 8.1. Also, I've found IE 11 very susceptible to crashes, and I liked the tab placement up top, where it was in IE 10. Placing it on the bottom, while eliminating one gesture a user would need to learn, has created instances where I've wanted to access my tabs only to have the address bar come up instead. The methods of using the two different UI items are just to similar; I liked them when they were separate.

To conclude, then, I think 8.1 is headed in the right direction. Microsoft has proven that they do listen to the feedback and opinions from their users. At this point, I am chalking the IE 11 troubles I'm having mainly up to Preview bugs that will be fixed by release, and if Microsoft fixes their inconsistency issues, I think they will have a really stellar OS on their hands.