I'm now using the final shipping version of Windows 8.1 exclusively on all of my PCs. And despite worries that Microsoft would need to fix issues between this product's release to manufacturing (RTM) and general availability (GA) in October, I can report that the firm has delivered a solid, meaningful update to Windows 8. It won't answer all of the complaints, but Windows 8.1 is a big improvement for both desktop PC and mobile device users.

Note: No leaked builds, Chinese or otherwise, were harmed in the writing of this review.

This article is of course only part of my ongoing coverage of Windows 8.1. Please refer to my series, Hands-on with Windows 8.1, which will be updated for the final shipping version of Windows 8.1 and with new articles going forward. I will also be expanding my lineup of Windows 8.1 Tips going forward. Also, Rafael Rivera and I are of course writing a new eBook, currently under the name Windows 8.1 Book. The first updates for that book will begin appearing soon.

So what is it?

Windows 8.1 is an update for both Windows 8 and Windows RT. It is also sometimes referred to as if it were a new version of Windows, where Windows 8.1 is a newer version of Windows 8 and Windows RT 8.1 is a newer version of Windows RT. I think both definitions are OK and correct.

Either way, Windows 8.1 represents a more refined, or evolved, version of the vision that Microsoft has with regards to moving Windows into a new generation of personal computing that is defined by mobile devices instead of traditional PCs and mobile apps backed by cloud services instead of heavy desktop applications back by locally stored data. As a transitionary product, Windows 8.x provides both a traditional PC environment, called the desktop, as a well as a new touch-first mobile environment that was originally called Metro. (Microsoft cannot legally use the Metro name to describe this environment, and it has confusingly not settled on a new term that was as globally applicable as Metro. The firms sometimes describes this environment as Modern, and the apps that run within it as immersive apps or Windows Store apps.)

This design was of course the source of much frustration and complaining, though Microsoft positions it as a best of both worlds-type solution. In the original version of Windows 8, the transitions between Metro and desktop were often jarring and unwelcome, and impossible to configure. But Microsoft has made improvements in Windows 8.1 that lessen the impact of these transitions and provide more user control. For example, those with traditional PCs that wish to stay in the desktop environment can mostly do so, certainly more easily than with Windows 8. And those with tablets or other modern devices can more easily stick within the Metro environment.

If that doesn't sound profound to you, the year-long drama around Windows 8 must have happened while you were off-planet. Put simply, Windows 8 disappointed virtually everyone: Those who were ready to forge ahead with modern tablets and other devices complained that it didn't go far enough and didn't offer an option to discard the desktop. And the bigger audience of traditional PC users complained—loudly—that Windows 8 was a huge compromise, with Microsoft jamming a mobile environment they did not want down their throats.

I understood both of these complaints; still do. But I never had any serious issues using Windows 8 with either device type. So I was curious to see how Microsoft would respond to the critics while retaining a firm grip on the future direction it still very much believes in. Windows 8.1 is that response.

What's new

As an evolutionary update, Windows 8.1 adds numerous subtle changes to Windows 8, as well as a few major changes. So let's step through the list.

Lock screen

Starting with the lock screen, which is the first thing you see when you turn on your new PC or device, Microsoft has made a personal experience even more personal. So where you could previously customize this screen with a single photo, you can now configure a slide show consisting of photos on your PC/device or in SkyDrive. You can also access the PC/device camera, and a new "slide to shut down" feature (on modern devices only) directly from the lock screen. Yep. It works just like the lock screen on your phone.

Take a look at Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Lock Screen for more information about this feature.

Start screen

The Start screen has been overhauled fairly dramatically. There are now more tile sizes, including new Large and Small sizes (in addition to Wide and Medium), giving you more options for configuring the look and feel of this critical interface.

Tile customization is now more error-proof, with the Start screen supporting a new Customize mode so you don't inadvertently move, delete or resize a tile with an errant swipe or mouse movement.

You have more choices for background patterns, called tattoos, including some nifty animated options. And instead of a limited step of accent and background color options, you can choose from a basically infinite selection of both.

You can also choose to use the same background photo or image as your desktop, which dramatically eases the transition between that interface and the Start screen. Find out how to make this work in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Use Desktop Wallpaper on the Start Screen.

(And be sure to check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Start Screen for a further discussion of this important new interface.)

The Apps view is the yin to the Start screen's yang: Where the latter is a highly customized jumping off point for your computing activities, the former is a dumping ground for all of the apps (and desktop applications that are installed on your PC/device. This interface looks and works much as it did in Windows 8, except that it's now more discoverable—a little down arrow appears if you move the mouse around, indicating that something is there—and you can sort the display by name, date installed, most frequently used or category.

Read Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Apps View for more information.

New UI and capabilities

Aside from concerns about Microsoft combining the Windows desktop with a new mobile environment in Windows 8, one of the big complaints about the initial release of that OS was that the mobile environment, Metro, was so functionally immature. So it shouldn't be surprising that Microsoft worked to fix these issues, and you can see improvements throughout the system.

The biggest change, in many ways, is a simple enough addition: The Metro-based PC Settings interface is now far more complete, and includes most of the commonly needed settings, whereas you had to fall back on the desktop-based Control Panel previously. On the downside, the newly hierarchical structure of PC Settings is often tough to navigate, and it's sometimes not clear where you're supposed to go. For example, you add new devices through PC & Devices, Devices. Unless they're Bluetooth devices: Those are added in PC & Devices, Bluetooth.

Possibly the silliest feature in Windows 8, Snap has been improved enough to be actually useful, a welcome change. Now, instead of forcing a strange 320 pixel ghetto on the side of the screen, Snap can be used in more granular increments, including a nice 50-50 split that is often automatically invoked; for example, when you open an attachment from Mail. But if you have enough onscreen real estate, you're not even limited to two side-by-side apps. You could have three or more.

And speaking of silly, Windows 8.1 actually includes honest-to-goodness help in the form of pop-up tips—comically large and impossible to miss—and a new Help & Tips app that has some nice visual walkthroughs. Very much needed, and something Windows 8 should have had a year ago. Find out more in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Help + Tips.

Windows 8.1 also addresses another strange omission in Windows 8: It is configured, by default, to automatically update apps in the background, so everything is always up to date. This applies only to Metro apps, of course, but it's a welcome improvement.

As I noted in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Touch Keyboard, Windows 8.1 also nicely improves the touch keyboard, which works on the desktop too, for the first time. And I spelled out some other nice changes in other articles: Full support for portrait mode (Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Portrait Mode), micro-SD, SD, and other portable storage devices (Hands-On with Windows 8.1: SD Support), and a nice new set of utility-like Metro apps (Hands-On with Windows 8.1: New Utility Apps) that furthers the maturity of that environment.

There are also new inconsistencies. Some apps continue to use partially or completely hidden app bar UIs, so you need to know to swipe from the top or bottom edge of the screen (or right-click, or type WINKEY + Z) to find and access them. Some apps provide a thin strip of an app bar as a hint that more commands are available. And some apps now just leave up the app bar, visible all the time. I realize that different apps have different needs. But I find this disparity confusing, and I suspect other users will too.

Smart Search

The new Bing-infused Smart Search functionality in Windows 8.1 is arguably this system's biggest feature. But part of the reason that it's such a big deal is that it steps away from the central functionality in Search for Windows 8. Confused? Don't be: Microsoft made the same mistakes previously in Windows Phone 8 a fact the Windows team simply ignored. So here we are.

To recap, Search in Windows 8 was a system-wide feature where you could filter a search query between apps, settings, and files. But you could also recast a search to any compatible app, which was most of them. So you could search for a term like Paris and Windows would look for an app named Paris. You could change the target of the search to other choices, including settings and files, but also individual apps. Filter to Xbox Music and it would look for music that matched that term. Filter to Photos and it would find your personal photos from Paris.

This type of centralized search functionality is an example of what I call demo-ware. That is, it looks great up on stage in a public demo. But it falls apart in real life, especially the searching within apps bit. Turns out most users don't think that way or wish to use search like that. If they want to find a song called Paris, they will load the Music first. And when they're looking for their photos, they open Photos first.

As noted previously, Microsoft made this same mistake in Windows Phone years earlier and then fixed it, again years earlier, in a subsequent release of that OS. So I was amused to see Microsoft make the same mistake in Windows 8. And now that they're fixing it in Windows 8.1, I'm not surprised. Just stupefied they ever did it in the first place.

The replacement for centralized search, by the way, is app-based search. That is, the built-in Metro apps now include their own search functionality—again, just like what happened earlier in Windows Phone—and unlike the Search charm, these UIs are generally visible and discoverable.

With that bit of order restored, the system-wide Search charm could have continued on as a way for users to find apps, settings and files, and I don't think many people would have complained. But give Microsoft some credit: It turns out they had a grander vision for this functionality. And in Windows 8.1, the firm has integrated Bing search directly into Search, providing users with a single UI for searching both their local system and the web.

Now, this functionality may eventually prove to be as useless as centralized search, and if you don't like it, heads-up, you can disable it. But the results are often very nice. Consider the Paris example from above. When I search for this term on my own PCs, I see the following.

What you see here are results that contain my own documents, music and photos. A weather report, which links to the Weather app. A way to visit Paris in Maps. A way to find out more about Paris in the Travel app. And then beautifully presented web results, including photos, useful web results, and Windows Store apps.

If you don't want or need this kind of presentation, you can filter the search up front to display only settings, files, web images or web photos. But I'm curious to see whether people like the new search.

In the meantime, check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Smart Search for a closer look at this interesting new feature.

Desktop

Desktop users have not been forgotten.

First, and most prominently, the Start button is back where it belongs on the left side of the taskbar. Check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Start Button for more info.

Those with less than positive thoughts about Metro can also optionally fully or partially disable some Metro features such as the Switcher, Charms, and even the Start screen: Instead of navigating to the Start screen, you can go to the more Start menu-like Apps view when you click the Start button. Yes, it's still a full-screen experience. But you can configure it to display desktop applications first. It's not horrible.

Best of all, you can even boot directly into the desktop now. Check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Boot to Desktop for the details.

Microsoft claims to have solved the problem with using the Windows desktop on very high DPI screens: It supports the ability to scale the display automatically and to handle different screens differently; that is, you can configure the tiny screen on a Surface Pro to 125 or 150 percent scaling, but configure a larger attached screen to 100 percent scaling. I wrote about this capability in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Desktop Display Scaling, but the truth is that this is one area where I'm not seeing the results I expect. Clearly, it's supposed to work properly, so I will keep trying.

File Explorer has been upgraded in ways both useful and troubling. In the useful department, File Explorer now presents a simpler new default view, called This PC, in place of the older Computer and My Computer views. (See Hands-On with Windows 8.1: This PC for more information.) And you can see the beginnings of a drive letter-free future here, too: Certain device types, like phones and other digital devices are no longer displayed with drive letters.

But there are some troubling changes happening, too. The libraries system from previous Windows version is being deemphasized, and no longer appears by default in File Explorer; indeed, you really have to hunt to find these virtual locations. But libraries are curiously used by many Metro apps to populate the content they display; for example, the Photos app uses your Photos library almost exclusively.

Finally, there have even been small and useful changes to what I call the Power user menu, which is available from both the desktop and Metro: See Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Power User Menu for what's new.

SkyDrive

SkyDrive is now more deeply integrated into the operating system, for example, and where Windows 8 provided a certain measure of settings sync between PCs and devices and required you to find and install a desktop application to sync SkyDrive-based documents between the cloud and your PCs and devices, Windows 8.1 goes further: There are far more settings that can sync—including, optionally, Start screen layouts and tiles—and document sync is built right-in.

As I wrote in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: SkyDrive Integration, this functionality is one of the biggest changes in Windows 8.1. It's worth knowing about.

There is also a separate SkyDrive mobile app, as before, but with two key differences. You can use this app to navigate both your local PC/device—called This PC—and SkyDrive, so it's sort of a file explorer app too. And because document sync is built right-in now, you can use this app to mark folders or files for offline use. (You can do this from File Explorer in the desktop too.)

In Hands-On with Windows 8.1: SkyDrive App, I take a closer look at this newly updated app.

New and improved apps

And they really are better.

Mail

The Mail app has been significantly updated with this release and can now be considered a full-featured email solution, and not the toy we saw in the initial Windows 8 release. This new version support drag-and-drop, finally, and if you use an Outlook.com-based email account (including Hotmail and MSN), you will see some nice integration bits such as Sweep and junk email, special views for Favorite contacts and flagged messages, and special virtual inboxes for newsletters and social updates. You can also arbitrarily "pin" folders you use frequently—such as the Archive folder I've created—so you can more easily triage email.

This one is a major update. Look to Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Mail for more information.

Calendar and People

While the Calendar app has received a very strange new front-end, a "What's next" view that unfortunately looks exactly like the old Photos app and makes no sense whatsoever, once you dig a little deeper, you find that most of it hasn't changed a bit. Which is fine: This app worked well from the get-go. I wish you could just turn off "What's next," but it's not fatal.

People has changed even less, and this app's hidden functionality—it's a nifty interface for connected social networks like Facebook and Twitter—remains as hidden as ever. It's received minor changes only, including a new app bar that looks similar to the new apps bars in some other Windows 8.1 apps. Nothing major.

Check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: People for the full feature rundown.

Skype

Where the original shipping version of Windows 8 included a Messaging app that let you connect with Messenger and Facebook friends, Windows 8.1 now ships with the more useful Skype app. This app also lets you connect to Messenger and Facebook, though you'll have to first establish those connections outside of the app—or just sign-in with your Messenger/Microsoft account. But Skype is obviously much more full-featured, with IM, audio and video chat capabilities. And it uses a pretty nice new notification type that lets you choose how to respond to incoming calls.

Internet Explorer 11

Windows 8.1 ships with a major new version of Microsoft's flagship web browser, and it is full of new features in addition to updated internals. Some of the changes will seem subtle at first, but they make for a more cohesive browsing experience, across devices, too. So you can do things like open new tabs, of course. But also open tabs that are open on your other devices. (In the desktop version of IE, this interface is on the New Tab view.)

Microsoft has also reorganized the UI of the Metro version of the browser so that all of the elements you need to interact with are together at the bottom of the screen. Previously, this app features different app bars at the top and bottom of the screen for some reason.

There's actually a lot going in IE 11. Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Internet Explorer 11 has some more info, but I'll need to write more about this platform in the future to cover it all.

Bing apps

The Bing apps were one of the few highlights for Metro apps in Windows 8, which featured beautiful presentations for what were essentially vertical searches: Weather, Finances, News and Sports. (A separate Bing app, for general search, is gone in Windows 8.1 because of Bing integration into Smart Search as described previously.) This time around, we get two new Bing apps—Health & Fitness and Food & Drink—and the presentation is just as nice as before, though the topics aren't quite as generally useful. What's next? Bing Celebrities? (Probably.) Whatever, they're still beautiful to look at and as useful as ever.

I take a very quick look at the new apps in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: New Bing Apps.

Bing also supplies a nice looking Maps app which gets the standard Windows 8.1-style app bar treatment seen elsewhere but works similarly to before.

Windows Store and Games

One of my major complaints about the initial version of Windows 8 was that the Windows Store app was too flat to accommodate the ever-growing app selection, making it impossible to find nice new apps. In Windows 8.1, the presentation is completely different, though still hardly ideal for a large app store. But instead of endless scrolling through every single category of apps from the main display, the app now offers some promoted and personal picks, popular and new releases, and top paid and top free sections instead. The entire category selection is available via that now-familiar new type of app bar we see all over the place in Windows 8.1.

You can find out more in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Windows Store.

Curiously, Windows 8.1 still ships with a separate (Xbox) Games app, which provides a redundant second way to find games (which are just a kind of app and also found in Windows Store) and manage your Xbox Live persona. It's not been updated since Windows 8, though I suspect it will be before general availability. But this app is a weak spot in the system, and doesn't work as a central hub for your installed games as it does in Windows Phone. Worse, when you select a game you don't yet own from this app, it gives you a Play option. Which then loads the landing page for that game in Windows Store. Stupid.

Xbox Music and Video

Xbox Music and Xbox Video have both been updated for Windows 8.1, the former in major ways. (Xbox Video is the same app as before, just with a black background.)

I really like (and use) Xbox Music (both this app and the services it fronts). The new version is better looking and more manageable, and for the most part you'll never need to keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling horizontally as you did before: It's a single-screen experience.

Xbox Music is a pretty big deal. So check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Xbox Music App; I'll be updating Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music with information about this app soon.

Xbox Video works fine as an app, helping you easily find and play your own videos, both on device and previously purchased, and find movies to rent or buy or TV shows to buy. The problem is that the service it sits on top of is terrible and should be avoided at all costs. Xbox Video (the service) offers the worst rental terms in the business and God help you if you ever buy something from Microsoft, as it may simply disappear over time or never be available for download (and thus offline use). Until this changes, I advise staying away from Xbox Video.

There's not much to say, really, but Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Xbox Video App has a bit more info.

Camera and Photos

Given its tablet aspirations, Windows 8.1 includes a Camera app and it works much as before except for a few small and appreciated changes which are mostly UI related. But Camera now includes an integrated panorama functionality that is based on Photosynth and lets you create immersive, almost 3D images of areas. It's a cool feature, though possibly of more limited usefulness on a PC device. (And it's not available on all devices, in my experience.)

You can find out more about this app in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Camera + Movie Moments.

The Photos app lets you acquire photos from cameras and memory cards as before (and poorly, as before, with no ability to rename photos on import by event name or whatever). And it lets you view photos on your own PC (and then, only in the Photos library) and via SkyDrive, as before. But there are two major changes.

First, Photos now supports some nice editing features. This includes basic rotation and cropping plus a whole stable of automatic and basic fixes and manual controls for light, color and effects, each with previews. This bit is very well done, and while the weird radial controls in here work better with touch, they are usable with a mouse too.

Second, and less happily, Photos has lost the ability to view photos on other services like Facebook and Flickr, and it can't see photos on other PCs on your home network or elsewhere, as it could before.

Basically, Photos has a new mission in Windows 8.1, and Microsoft is relying on separate third party apps to fill the gaps. But Photos will pop-up in many places as an accessory utility of sorts. If someone sends you an email with a photo attachment, that picture will open, snapped, in Photos. Likewise, if you select a photo from the SkyDrive app, it will open in Photos.

Please read Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Photos App for more information about this solution.

Final thoughts

Well, there you have it.

Conventional wisdom is that had Microsoft just shipped Windows 8.1 a year ago—or perhaps just held off on Windows 8 until 2013—that everything would have been fine: Users would have embraced the new system, PC sales never would have tanked to the extent they did over the past year, and Microsoft's position in this new mobile world of computing would have been less tenuous. That's not really true, of course, but I do think that Windows 8 would have benefitted from another year in the hopper. More to the point, Microsoft could have avoided some unnecessary hurt feelings with users if it had simply listened and then shipped instead of vice versa.

We can't reverse history, and the extent of the effects of Microsoft's mistakes with Windows 8 won't be truly known for years to come. But if you view Windows 8.1 as an apology, as I do, then let's at least give the company some credit. They did listen, if belatedly. And while the leadership teams at Microsoft still believe firmly that the future is mobile devices not computers and online services not local data, it is meeting the realities of today's customer base in the middle. So we get the Start button but not the Start menu. We get a better desktop with reduced Metro meddling but not the full split some wanted. We get a system that is still very much a compromise, though Microsoft will of course market it as the best of both worlds.

To the cynical, Windows 8.1 is a better version of something that is still less than ideal. And while I can be as cynical as anyone, I actually use this thing every single day, and do so largely on traditional (non-touch) portable and desktop computers. And you know what? Windows 8.1 is an improvement. It's better. Period, with no caveats. It's better than its predecessor, and that's true whether you've embraced the future or are stuck in the past.

If you use Windows 8—or Windows RT, of course—Windows 8.1 is a no-brainer, a free upgrade that will make the entire system better than before. So upgrading to Windows 8.1 isn't a question of why or how. It's just a question of when. And the answer is: As soon as you can.

If you are using an older version of Windows, it's fair to say that Windows 8.1 doesn't change the overall value proposition. This new OS is still a weird hybrid of mobile and traditional PC computing. But the lines are starting to blur, and certainly the cross-environment transitions are less jarring—and less frequently needed—than before.

Windows 8.1 is a much-appreciated improvement. Highly recommended.