New version, system update, service pack – call it what you will, Windows 8.1 is a lot more than just a collection of security and bug fixes for Microsoft’s touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system. It also addresses shortcomings and adds new features which didn’t quite make it into the original release, to deliver a much improved platform which should quieten some critics. On the downside, however, it doesn’t address the major Windows 8 issue – trying to cope with desktops and tablets with just one hybrid OS.

New Release, New Options

As well as the Windows RT version, three editions of Windows 8.1 are available, with registered users of Standard and Pro editions able to download free 8.1 updates direct from the Windows Store. That, however, could cause problems for larger companies (think of the bandwidth, not to mention the time involved!) so those with volume license agreements can download an ISO image and apply this across their networks instead.

Businesses with a Software Assurance agreement can also opt for the Enterprise edition we evaluated which, like the Pro edition, supports two processor sockets and up to 512GB of RAM. It also adds support for a number of premium features designed to “meet the mobility, productivity, security, manageability and virtualisation needs of today’s large businesses” (compare Windows 8.1 Editions here).

Start Screens & Buttons

As with Windows 8.0, all editions of 8.1 attempt to address the needs of both conventional desktop users and those with touch-enabled devices. The former get a standard Windows desktop on which to run Office and the other applications they know and love, whereas those with touch screens get a finger-driven Start screen plus custom “apps”, just like on Android and Apple iOS devices.

Unfortunately the two environments are quite different and one of the big complaints with Windows 8.0 was being forced to the tiled Start screen when booting rather than being able to bypass it. Windows 8.1 addresses that by enabling users to login and go straight to the Windows desktop. A welcome change, plus there’s a new control to enable administrators to customise and lock the layout of the tiled Start screen to suit the needs of specific user groups.

The tile-happy Start screen can also share the same wallpaper as the desktop in Windows 8.1 which is good on that it makes them look the same, but could be confusing for users switching between the two. Then there’s the dropping of the Windows Start button in Windows 8.

A part of the desktop landscape since Windows 95, this makes a welcome return in 8.1 albeit not quite like its old self. Left click and you’re simply toggled between desktop and new-style Start screen whereas a right click displays the Power User menu already available elsewhere in Windows 8.

On the plus side you do get access to a few more options on this menu including the Control Panel and Command prompt plus a re-instated shutdown/log-off button, but no shortcuts to other applications. This last omission isn’t an issue on the tiled Start screen as swipe up and you can display a customisable list of both desktop applications and apps. In 8.1 the Apps screen can also be accessed by hitting the Windows key, but on the desktop you’ll need to create shortcuts of your own or use a third-party utility to organise and deliver applications.

Touch First

Some of the more significant changes in 8.1 are reserved solely for users with touch-enabled displays which is clearly where Microsoft thinks the future lies – whether you agree or not. As well as sharing the desktop wallpaper, for example, the new Start screen can display more, smaller tiles or, if preferred, larger tiles able to display twice as much live information as before. Tiles can also be moved around and put into named groups.

Every single app gets a makeover and the Apps view can also be made the default whenever you open the Start screen. Plus there’s better support for multi-tasking in this update, one of the limitations of the first release being stuck with just two apps on screen at any time with a disturbing 80:20 split when it came to screen area.

With Windows 8.1, you can now drag the divider to even up the display and on larger screens run up to four apps at once. It’s not quite the freedom or flexibility desktop users expect, but it is a step in the right direction which owners of Microsoft Surface and other Windows 8 tablets will welcome with open fingers.

The built-in search tool has also been enhanced. Before this update it took over the whole display and insisted that you choose between looking for files, apps, Web pages and Windows settings. With Windows 8.1 it becomes a lot less intrusive and queries everything at once so, unless otherwise instructed, you’ll get results from your hard drive together with a list of installed apps plus results from the Web and organised by type of content where possible.

Towards The Cloud

Another, more subtle, change is a move away from reliance on local storage to greater integration with Microsoft’s SkyDrive in Windows 8.1. The technology to do this is now built into throughout the OS and its bundled apps. Moreover, the SkyDrive cloud is assumed as the default location when you want to store both settings and files.

This makes life a whole lot simpler when using multiple Windows devices plus with enhanced synchronisation you can still opt for local copies of important documents and files for offline access as needed.

The latest release of Internet Explorer is another of the new features, delivering performance enhancements and improvements to the user interface. However it’s not the same in both camps, with slightly different implementations on the desktop and on the Start screen which can be jarring.

The mail app is also much enhanced but still nowhere near as functional as Outlook on the desktop. Very much aimed at consumers, business users are unlikely to be tempted and IT departments unlikely to approve. They might, however, be interested in the new Workplace Join option and Work Folders, particularly when it comes to BYOD management.

Allied to Windows Server 2012 R2, Workplace Join gives users of Windows 8 devices access to specific network resources without having to join those devices to a domain. Work Folders, similarly, allow users to sync their documents with a corporate Windows file server, and for IT administrators to remotely erase the content of those folders should, for example, a device be lost or stolen.

Other enhancements worth mentioning include support for Wi-Fi Direct and NFC printing plus new network behaviour monitoring in Windows Defender; built-in device encryption; support for a wider range of VPN clients as standard plus the ability to configure apps to automatically trigger a VPN connection when started.

Worth The Bother?

Whether or not the various improvements and enhancements in Windows 8.1 will encourage more organisations to migrate to the new platform remains to be seen. The changes are all welcome, but don’t really address the elephant in the room – trying to make one operating system work for both desktop and touchscreen users.

It may be great on a hybrid device, such as the Panasonic Toughbook CF-C2 we reviewed earlier this month, and users of Microsoft Surface and other Windows tablets will certainly benefit from what Windows 8.1 has to offer. In its haste to embrace the touchscreen, however, Microsoft appears to have neglected the needs of conventional desktop users and shows little intention of putting that right, at least not in this update. [3/5]