I'm now using the final shipping version of.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.