Note: This is strictly my opinion and in no way should be conveyed as the opinion of anyone else.
Now that the Win 8.1 Preview is out I can give my personal opinion on it. First we should discuss some of the new features and then whether it is a mandatory upgrade or not. Note that I’m ignoring all the new features around corporate environments and Windows Store apps.
Microsoft vs. Local Account
When Win8 released you had the option of a local vs. MS account. An MS account is effectively your Windows Live account and allows Windows to hook up to all that information including your contacts, email, etc. For a home user this can be really useful compared to a local account which is specific to your machine. Since Win8 was the first release to support this it wasn’t that useful. Now that Win8.1 is coming you can start to see some of the benefits. For example my home machine is Win8 and I’m running Win8.1 in a VM. Both are hooked up to my MS account. (The preview only allows an MS account during installation but local account will be available upon release) As I was playing around with some of the Win8.1 settings I noticed they were already configured the way I wanted (because it pulled them from my main machine). Likewise I changed the background image in Win8.1 and my Win8 machine updated (eventually). Some of this is pretty nice but I still haven’t bought into the roaming settings concept because not every setting I want on every machine. I really wish this was configurable. So, for now, if you want different settings between Win8/Win8.1 machines you should use different accounts.
The first feature that is really nice is the ability to log directly into the desktop. With Win8 you always logged into the Start screen. For a tablet this is fine but for desktops the Start screen isn’t as useful. In Win8.1 you can default to the desktop at login by going to Taskbar and Navigation Properties and then the Navigation tab and selecting the option to Go to the desktop.
Honestly, now that I’ve been using Win8 for a while I don’t mind the Start screen as much because almost all my common programs are there. If MS would just allow me to pin anything to the Start screen I would happy but there are some things that cannot be pinned there (shortcuts that look like URLs but aren’t).
While you’re on the Navigation tab you might also notice a new option called Replace Command Prompt with PowerShell. This effectively makes PowerShell more accessible and is speeding up the end of the DOS prompt.
This got a lot of publicity. One of the biggest complaints about Win8 was that the Start button was removed. Win8.1 adds it back. This is sort of like a genie wish though, you need to be very careful about how you word it. People didn’t actually miss the Start button. They missed the Start Menu which appears when you click the Start button. The Start button is back in W8.1 but the Start Menu isn’t.
What MS has done is move some common functionality into the fixed menu. You still won’t have the Start Menu from Win7 and prior. What is not clear at this time is whether the button is pulling shortcuts from some location that can be manipulated such that it will be possible to add items to the menu.
The new button does provide some useful functionality though such as easy access to PowerShell, Run command and shutdown commands. One of the things that came up during the Win8 beta was no easy way to shut down the machine. MS assumed, I can only imagine, that you would never shut down your machine so they made it a 4 step process. Now you can easily shut down or restart your computer from the Start button. I still don’t think this is going to make people happy. Somebody will probably provide a hack to solve this so we’ll just have to wait.
The Start screen has a few interesting new features. The first one that will be noticeable is that you can name the column of icons you have. This may be useful to help distinguish the various columns of icons you have. Personally I have only a couple of columns so I can keep them apart but if you fill up your Start screen with lots of icons this could be useful.
Another feature is the ability to resize the icons. Depending upon the icon you can make it small, medium or large. It appears that Win Store apps can be resized to all 3 sizes but regular program icons can only be small or medium. The API documents that tiles can be 4 different sizes but only 3 show up on the screen. I personally like how the Windows Phone allows you to resize an icon just by touch, dragging the icon. This might be possible on a touch screen in Win8.1 as well.
Somewhat related is that more than one Win Store app can be on the screen at the same time. This has been mentioned in several previews and in the documentation but it isn’t intuitive on how to do it. What you do is open a Win Store app and then move your mouse to the top of the window until it turns into the hand icon. Then hold, left click and you can drag the window to either the left or right side of the screen. If you drag the window to the left (or right) of the screen then you can remove it from the split screen view. This places it effectively in the “toolbox” and allows you to move Win Store apps to and from split screen depending upon what you’re doing at the time.
In theory you can do this for each monitor so if you have 2 monitors you can have 4 apps running at once. It’s sort of funny how the single window, single focus concept of Win8 is already going away and MS is moving back toward multiple windows at the same time again.
There are still lots of issues with Win8 that Win8.1 doesn’t resolve. The management aspect is still scattered to the four winds. The Control Panel remains the best place to go to do all the system management but Win8.1 still provides links all over the place to sub pieces. For an IT person I’d recommend just sticking with Control Panel (which is one of the options on the Start button).
Homegroup still doesn’t seem to add any value to me and yet by default you’ll get auto-added to a Homegroup when you install. This adds a needless layer of removal once the OS is installed. Please MS, give me the option of joining a Homegroup when I install.
The OS continues to run software at startup that I neither asked for nor want. SkyDrive and the touch keyboard start automatically. Even worse is that I turned off the touch keyboard and it was still there the next time I logged in. I turned it off again but it is still running in the background. Please MS, stop adding more stuff to an already bloated OS. Don’t make me have to turn things off via hacks!!
At this point it is time to evaluate whether Win8.1 is a mandatory upgrade or not. The answer is, it depends. The upgrade is free for Win8 users. If you’re running Win8 then Win8.1 is a recommended upgrade if you want the newer features. Let’s face it Win8 was more akin to Vista and Win7 so Win8.1 is more like Win7. Anybody running Win8 should go ahead and apply the free update.
If you’re running Win7 then Win8.1 isn’t really a mandatory upgrade. Most people didn’t upgrade either because Win7 was doing just fine or the Win8 UI was so different. Nothing has really changed on that front so if you’re content with Win7 then stay with it. Once you are ready to upgrade though you’ll be switching to Win8.1. If you’re running anything prior to Win7 then you probably need to upgrade so Win8.1 makes the most sense. Just be ready to learn the new UI.