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Microsoft Windows 8.1 review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £75
inc VAT

Many fixes and improved features, but the return of the Start button is more a sop than a turn-around

Windows 8 released earlier this year to a mixed response from both reviewers and users. While many people appreciated its fast boot times, responsive interface and touchscreen-friendliness, others were driven to distraction by the disjointed relationship between desktop and Start screen, and poor default multimedia apps. The loss of the Start button was a particular point of contention, with many Windows 7 and even XP users citing it as the reason they wouldn’t switch to the new operating system.

Thankfully, Microsoft has responded to criticism and implemented a few changes that it hopes will persuade those who haven’t yet upgraded to do so. Yes, Microsoft has added a Start button to Windows 8 desktop screen, but that isn’t the killer feature that it may initially seem. More important is the way in which Windows 8’s default multimedia apps behave, look and feel. You can now view multiple PDFs in the Reader app, for example, and you can open as many tabs as you like in the app version of Internet Explorer.

Windows 8 can be upgraded to 8.1 without affecting your existing software and files, but it’s still worth backing up important files. The upgrade involves several reboots of your PC and took around an hour to complete on our AMD Athlon II X3 PC. More powerful computers may take a little less time to complete the update. When your PC finally restarts, you’ll be asked to if you want use default settings or your own custom settings. It’s worth checking these, as some of the default options share information with advertisers. You’ll also be prompted to log in to your Microsoft account. As with Windows 8, it’s not compulsory, but you’ll need it to use the Microsoft Store.


You’re also asked if you want to use Microsoft’s SkyDrive online storage service to back up automatically the documents and pictures you save to your PC. It’s enabled by default and, although we’re not fans of SkyDrive’s web interface, it’s always a good idea to use online storage to keep copies of your most important files. You only get 7GB of space free, so if you take a lot of pictures, you might be inclined to upgrade and pay for one of Microsoft’s SkyDrive packages. However, we still prefer more fully featured online storage services such as SugarSync.

Windows 8.1 file manager
SkyDrive syncing folders now appear in the navigation pane, while libraries have moved to This PC

SkyDrive integration is only an option if your user account is connected to your Microsoft account. Local user accounts, which you’re discouraged from using, don’t create SkyDrive folders for you. If you’ve enabled SkyDrive, you’ll find a SkyDrive shortcut in the left-hand navigation pane of the Windows file manager in roughly the same place that you’d have previously found your Windows user Libraries: Documents, Pictures, Videos and Music. These haven’t been eliminated, though, they’ve been relocated to the This PC folder.


The most widely anticipated change in Windows 8.1 is the desktop’s Start button. However, the button’s just a shortcut that takes you to the start screen, and is unlikely to satisfy those who want a Windows 7-style Start menu.

The Start screen and many of its default apps have also been updated and improved. You can now view two apps on a single screen, with each app taking up half the space, rather than one being a tiny sidebar. If you have two monitors, you can display a different app on each monitor.

Windows 8.1 split apps
You can now run two Start screen apps side-by-side

The Start screen’s search function has also been improved. There are no longer annoying divisions between apps, settings and files, you can search for anything. You can even search on the web using Bing. Searches can be restricted to specific types of content, such as files, settings, web images or web videos.

If you search everywhere then local settings, software and files are listed first and online search suggestions after. Unfortunately, Bing is the only search engine you can use for this. Sadly, you can’t use wildcards and it won’t pick up results for partial words. For instance, you can only find LibreOffice by searching for “libre”. You won’t find it if you type “office”.

Windows 8.1 Start screen search
A refined Start screen search feature makes it easier to find what you’re looking for either locally or online

Other Start screen improvements include customisable category headers for your shortcuts, an optional smaller size for tiles, the ability to set slideshows on the lock screen, and an integrated settings page that now includes options previously only found in the Control Panel.

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