Here's what's on the table

First Look: Windows 8.1

win81Today is the day; Windows 8.1 is officially available to the world. We’ve covered the leaks and the Milestone Preview in an earlier First Look and now we get to see the final build that everyone will be using until Windows 8.2 comes out. Given that Microsoft is on a rapid-release schedule now, what we covered earlier for Windows 8.1 Preview is pretty much the same. Still, there are a few notable changes that we’ll go into detail here on this First Look for Windows 8.1 RTM.

Article continues after the break.

Metro1As mentioned before, Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade to existing Windows 8 users and is being distributed through the Windows Store rather than the more traditional Windows Update. Of course, Microsoft is still continuing to sell Windows 8.1 in retail form and unlike Windows 8, comes in “Full” installation media so you don’t have to worry about having an existing copy of Windows installed before you can install the new version. The pricing for new users is the same as it is for Windows 8: $119 for the Core version and $199 for the Pro version. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself so let’s take a look at what’s new in Windows 8.1 to see if we can justify that steep pricing.

Metro2When you first start clicking on the various app tiles, these tutorial notifications will pop up showing you how to get around in Immersive UI, something that was sorely missing in Windows 8. Unfortunately, they’re rather annoying notifications that have a habit of never showing up when you want them and always getting in your way when you don’t need them. When they do work, they give a better idea of how to navigate Immersive than the simple demo video that played only once during a new install of Windows 8.

HelpPlusTipsAnother plus is that one of the Windows Phone features, Help+Tips is now a part of every Windows 8.1 install and is even pinned right on the Start screen on a new install. Like its Windows Phone counterpart, it offers basic help and tips for getting around and managing the system and links off to the web for things it doesn’t have downloaded. I will admit that this feature was actually in the Windows 8.1 Preview, I just completely ignored it when I wrote the Windows 8.1 Preview First Look article.

Even the Start Screen gets a few welcome changes in the form of new backgrounds. The betta fish as seen in the Milestone Preview is gone but in its place are several new backgrounds, some of which are even animated. Other than that, the Start Screen hasn’t changed at all since the Milestone Preview.

MailWin81The default Mail client has been vastly improved since Windows 8. The Mail client is actually more of a real email client now than it was before and it works rather well and has a much nicer colour scheme than the old Windows 95 teal it was before. However, there’s one issue: Outlook. In Windows RT, the only mail client you had was the old, lackluster version of Mail. In Windows RT 8.1, Microsoft Outlook ships as part of Office RT which is preloaded on every single Windows RT tablet out there. So do yourself a favor: Use Microsoft Outlook to get your mail on RT, not the silly Metro-style app. They may have vastly improved Mail in Windows 8.1 but it’s nowhere near as nice as Outlook is.

NewCalendarIn addition to the Mail app, the calendar app has also been updated quite a bit. It now allows for at-a-glance views as well as a day view, work week, week and month view. These two new apps, as well as several other “core” apps that came pre-installed, bring the Windows 8.1 experience up to a fine polished level like it should have been in Windows 8.

These new things give a nice refresh to the whole Windows 8 experience and fixes a few things that were lacking in Windows 8. Although I’ve been happily using Windows 8.1 ever since the Beta Milestone Preview was available, there’s one very big annoyance I, and many other people, will have with Windows 8.1. I like using local accounts. It’s nothing against being part of the cloud or against Microsoft, I just like simple local accounts. Microsoft, on the other hand, does not. Every single time you try to log into any app that uses your Microsoft Account, you will be greeted with this screen:

In fact, they don’t even let you create a local account during Setup anymore. If you have an active Internet connection, you have no choice but to link your PC with a Microsoft Account. Now, you can get around this by either disconnecting from the Internet during Setup or by creating a local account after the fact but please, I don’t want this and I don’t want to be constantly pestered about it.

All that aside, Windows 8.1 is an update that’s well worth it – it’s what Windows 8 should have been in the first place. This is much more stable than Windows 8 (although I do catch a Metro app crashing every now and then), has much more functional ways of configuring your PC from within Metro and overall is much better than Windows 8. The desktop has once again been largely ignored in this release of Windows but that’s no surprise.

But the big question is, would I recommend this? Yes, I would. Bugs from Windows 8 and bugs from the Milestone Preview have been smoothed out as best as Redmond could provide, making this a very nice upgrade. And yet, I can’t bring myself to say that this is worth the $119 or $199 that Microsoft is asking for a new license. It’s good, sure, but not $200-good. It is an upgrade at its heart and should be priced accordingly. Whether Microsoft adopts yet another Apple-like strategy and only charges $20 for it or if they charge slightly higher OEM pricing, they need to reduce the cost of a new license. Granted, most people will be getting it through existing Windows 8 installs or just buying a whole new OEM PC with Windows 8.1 pre-installed, but for the enthusiasts who build their own equipment, $120+ for what is essentially an upgrade is a bit steep.

  • Michael Kaefer

    You left out a huge portion about the new desktop features, and Windows 8.1 revolves a bit more around the desktop. You can now boot to the desktop, as well as use the start button by right clicking on it to shut down.

    • Sean Ellis

      These were briefly covered in the Windows 8.1 Preview First Look.