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Windows 8.1 is a version of Windows NT family of operating systems and an upgrade for Windows 8. First unveiled and released as a public beta in June 2013, it was released to manufacturing on August 27, 2013, and reached general availability on October 17, 2013, almost a year after the retail release of its predecessor. Windows 8.1 is available free of charge for retail copies of Windows 8 and Windows RT users via Windows Store. Users who obtained 8 outside of retail copies or pre-loaded installations (i.e., volume licensing) must obtain 8.1 through new installation media from their respective subscription or enterprise channel. According to Microsoft's software lifecycle policies, installation of Windows 8.1 is required to maintain access to Windows 8's mainstream support after January 12, 2016.[1]

Released as part of a shift by Microsoft towards regular, yearly upgrades for its platforms and services, Windows 8.1 was primarily intended to address the complaints of Windows 8 users and reviewers on launch. Visible enhancements include an upgraded Start screen, additional snap views, additional bundled apps, tighter SkyDrive integration, Internet Explorer 11, a Bing-powered unified search system, restoration of a visible Start button on the taskbar, and the ability to restore the previous behavior of opening the user's desktop on login instead of the Start screen. Windows 8.1 also added support for such emerging technologies as high resolution displays, 3D printing, Wi-Fi Direct, and Miracast streaming.

Windows 8.1 received relatively positive reception, with critics praising the expanded functionality available to apps in comparison to 8, its SkyDrive integration, along with its user interface tweaks and the addition of expanded tutorials for operating the Windows 8 interface. Despite these improvements, 8.1 was still panned for not addressing all of the digressions of 8 (such as a poor level of integration between Metro-style apps and the desktop interface), and the potential privacy implications of 8.1's expanded use of online services.

History Edit

File:Moscone Center, San Francisco (2013).JPG

In February 2013, ZDNet writer Mary Jo Foley disclosed potential rumors about "Blue", the codename for a wave of planned updates across several Microsoft products and services, including Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Outlook.com, and SkyDrive. In particular, the report detailed that Microsoft was planning to shift to a more "continuous" development model, which would see upgrades for its major platforms released on a consistent yearly cycle to keep up with market demands. Lending credibility to the reports, Foley noted that a Microsoft staff member had listed experience with "Windows Blue" on his LinkedIn profile, and listed it as a separate operating system from 8.[2][3]

A post-RTM build of Windows 8, build 9364, leaked in March 2013. The build, which was believed to be of "Windows Blue", revealed a number of enhancements across Windows 8's interface, including additional size options for tiles, expanded color options on the Start screen, the expansion of PC Settings to include more options that were previously exclusive to the desktop Control Panel, the ability for apps to snap to half of the screen, the ability to take screenshots from the Share charm, additional stock apps, increased SkyDrive integration (such as automatic device backups) and Internet Explorer 11.[4][5] Shortly afterward on March 26, 2013, corporate vice president of corporate communications Frank X. Shaw officially acknowledged the "Blue" project, stating that continuous development would be "the new normal" at Microsoft, and that "our product groups are also taking a unified planning approach so people get what they want—all of their devices, apps and services working together wherever they are and for whatever they are doing."[6]

In early May, press reports announcing the upcoming version in Financial Times and The Economist negatively compared Windows 8 to New Coke.[7][8] The theme was then echoed and debated in the computer press.[9][10][11] Shaw rejected this criticism as "extreme",[12] adding that he saw a comparison with Diet Coke as more appropriate.[13]

On May 14, Microsoft officially announced that "Blue" would be named Windows 8.1. Following a keynote presentation focusing on this version, the public beta of Windows 8.1 was released on June 26, 2013 during Build.[14][15][16] Build 9600 of Windows 8.1 was released to OEM hardware partners on August 27, 2013, and became generally available on October 17, 2013.[17][18] Unlike past releases of Windows and its service packs, volume license customers and subscribers to MSDN Plus and TechNet Plus were unable to obtain the RTM version upon its release; a spokesperson stated that the change in policy was to allow Microsoft to work with OEMs "to ensure a quality experience at general availability."[19][20] However, after criticism, Microsoft reversed its decision and released the RTM build on MSDN and TechNet on September 9, 2013.[21] Prior to the release of 8.1, Microsoft premiered a new television commercial in late-September 2013 that focused on its changes as part of the "Windows Everywhere" campaign.[22]

UpdatesEdit

Following leaks in January and February 2014, Microsoft vice president Joe Belfiore officially announced at Mobile World Congress on February 23, 2014, that a major update for Windows 8.1 was in development. The update was detailed in full at Microsoft's Build conference on April 2 and given a release date of April 8.[23] The update is intended to thin the segregation between the traditional and Metro-style apps, and improve navigation with mouse and keyboard. On a device that lacks a touchscreen, traditional context menus are used (as opposed to hidden toolbars), an auto-hiding title bar with traditional Minimize and Close buttons is displayed inside apps near the top of the screen, and the desktop is shown upon login instead of the Start screen. The taskbar can display and pin Metro-style apps, and can be accessed from any app without first switching to Desktop app. Windows Photo Viewer and Windows Media Player would become the default image viewer and media player instead of Photos and Xbox Music apps. Finally, visible search and power buttons would also be added to the Start screen. Belfiore also noted that the update would lower the minimum system requirements for Windows, so it can be installed on devices with as little as 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage.[24][25]

At the 2014 edition of Build during the following April, Microsoft's Terry Myerson unveiled further user interface changes for Windows 8.1, including the ability to run Metro-style apps inside desktop windows, and a revised Start menu, which creates a compromise between the Start menu design used by Windows 7 and the Start screen by combining the application listing in the first column with a second that can be used to display app tiles. Myerson stated that these changes would occur in a future update, but did not elaborate further. Microsoft also unveiled a concept known as "Universal Windows apps", in which a Windows Runtime app can be ported to Windows Phone 8.1 and Xbox One whilst sharing a common codebase. While it does not entirely unify Windows' app ecosystem with that of Windows Phone, it will allow developers to synchronize data between versions of their app on each platform, and bundle access to Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox One versions of an app in a single purchase.[26][27][28][29]

Distribution Edit

Microsoft does not refer to 8.1 as an upgrade for Windows 8, branding it as a point release and marketing it as an "update" for the operating system.[30] Microsoft's support lifecycle policy treats Windows 8.1 similar to previous service packs of Windows: It is part of Windows 8's support lifecycle, and upgrading to 8.1 is required to maintain access to mainstream support and Windows updates after January 12, 2016.[31][1]

Retail and OEM copies of Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT can be upgraded through Windows Store free of charge. However, volume license customers, TechNet or MSDN subscribers and users of Windows 8 Enterprise must acquire a standalone installation media for 8.1 and install through the traditional Windows setup process, either as an in-place upgrade or clean install. This requires an 8.1-specific product key.[32][33][34][35]

Another caveat of upgrade is that using Windows Store, each machine must download an upgrade package as big as 2–3.6 GB. Unlike the traditional Windows service packs, downloading a standalone installer, which could be downloaded once and installed as many times as needed, requires an 8.1-specific product key. Paul Thurrott of Windows Supersite introduced a workaround to circumvent the pre-download key check sequence with a Windows 8 key. However, he noted that still not much can be done with this download as it requires an 8.1-specific product key.[36]

New retail installation medias of Windows 8.1 were released alongside the online upgrade. Unlike Windows 8, which only supported upgrade installations, all retail installation media of Windows 8.1 can be installed on any computer, even if it does not have an existing operating system. Microsoft stated that the change was in response to customer feedback, and to allow more flexibility for users. Pricing for the retail copies of 8.1 remained the same.[37]

New and changed features Edit

Many of the changes on Windows 8.1, particularly to the user interface, were made in response to criticisms from early adopters and other critics after the release of Windows 8.[38][39]

User interface and desktopEdit

The Start screen received several enhancements on 8.1, including an extended "All Apps" view with sort modes (accessed by clicking a new down arrow button or swiping upward), small and extra-large sizes for tiles, and colored tiles for desktop program shortcuts. Additional customization options were also added, such as expanded color options, new backgrounds (some of which incorporating animated elements), and the ability for the Start screen to use the desktop background instead. Applications are no longer added to the Start screen automatically when installed, and all applications now have colored tiles (desktop programs were previously shown in a single color). The app snapping system has also been extended; up to 4 apps can be snapped onto a single display depending on screen size, apps can be snapped to fill half the screen, and can also be used on any display in a multi-monitor configuration. Apps can also launch other apps in a snapped view to display content; for example, the Mail app can open a photo attachment in a picture viewer snapped to another half of the screen. Improved support is also provided by apps for using devices in a portrait (vertical) orientation. The lock screen offers the ability to use a photo slideshow as its backdrop, and a shortcut to the Camera app by swiping up. The on-screen keyboard has an improved autocomplete mechanism which displays multiple word suggestions, and allows users to select from them by sliding on the spacebar. The autocomplete dictionary is also automatically updated using data from Bing, allowing it to recognize and suggest words relating to current trends and events.[40][41] Similarly to Windows Phone, certain apps now display a narrow bar with three dots on it to indicate the presence of a pop-up menu accessible by swiping, clicking on the dots, or right-clicking.[42]

To improve the usability of the desktop interface, a visible Start button was restored to the taskbar for opening the Start screen, and the Quick Links menu (accessed by right-clicking the Start button or pressing Template:Key press) now contains shutdown and sign-out options. Users can also modify certain user interface behaviors, such as disabling the upper hot corners for using the charms and recent apps list, going to the desktop instead of the Start screen on login or after closing all apps on a screen, automatically opening the "All Apps" view on the Start screen when opened, and prioritizing desktop programs on the "Category" sort mode on "All Apps". To assist users in learning the Windows 8 user interface, an interactive tutorial is also offered, along with a new Help + Tips app for additional information.[39][43] In contrast, Windows RT 8.1 downplays the desktop interface further by not displaying the Desktop tile on its default Start screen at all (however, it can still be manually added to the Start screen).[44]

Windows manager Chaitanya Sareen stated that the restoration of the visible Start button was intended to be a "warm blanket" for users who had become confused by the removal of the button on 8; the Start button was originally removed to reflect Windows 8's treatment of the desktop as an "app" rather than the main interface.[45]<

Apps Edit

The suite of pre-loaded apps bundled with Windows 8 were changed in 8.1; PC Settings was expanded to include options that were previously exclusive to the desktop Control Panel, Windows Store was updated with an improved interface for browsing apps and automatic updates, the Mail app includes an updated interface and additional features, the Camera app integrates Photosynth for creating panoramas, and additional editing tools were added to the Photos app (while integration with Flickr and Facebook was completely removed). A number of additional stock apps were also added, including Calculator, Food and Drink, Health and Fitness, Sound Recorder, Reading List (which can be used to collect and sync content from apps through SkyDrive), Scan, and Help + Tips.[46][39] For Windows RT users, 8.1 also adds a version of Microsoft Outlook to the included Office 2013 RT suite. However, it does not support data loss protection, Group Policy, Lync integration, or creating emails with information rights management.[47] Windows Store is enabled by default within Windows To Go environments.[48]

Online services and functionality Edit

Windows 8.1 adds tighter integration with several Microsoft-owned services. SkyDrive is integrated at the system level to sync user settings and files. Files are automatically downloaded in the background when they are accessed from the user's SkyDrive folder, unless they are marked to be available offline. By default, only file metadata and thumbnails are stored locally, and Reparse points are used to give the appearance of a normal directory structure to provide backwards compatibility. The SkyDrive app was also updated to include a local file manager. SkyDrive use on 8.1 requires that a user's Windows account be linked to a Microsoft account; the previous SkyDrive desktop client (which did not have this requirement) is no longer supported on 8.1, and in any case, no longer supports "Local" accounts that are not linked to a Microsoft account.[49][50][51]

A Bing-based unified search system was also added; it can analyze a user's search habits to return results featuring relevant local and online content. Full-screen "hero" displays aggregate news articles, Wikipedia entries, multimedia, and other content related to a search query; for instance, searching for a music performer would return photos of the performer, a biography, and their available songs and albums on Xbox Music.[39][40] The messaging app from Windows 8 has been replaced by Skype, which also allows users to accept calls directly from the lock screen.[40] Windows 8.1 also includes Internet Explorer 11, which adds support for SPDY and WebGL, and expanded developer tools. The Metro-style version of IE 11 also adds tab syncing, the ability to open an unlimited number of tabs, and Reading List integration.[52][53]

Security and hardware compatibility Edit

On compatible hardware, Windows 8.1 also features a transparent "device encryption" system based on BitLocker. Encryption begins as soon as a user begins using the system; the recovery key is stored to either the user's Microsoft account or an Active Directory login, allowing it to be retrieved from any computer. While device encryption is offered on all versions of 8.1 unlike BitLocker (which is exclusive to the Pro and Enterprise editions), device encryption requires that the device meet the Connected Standby specification and have a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0 chip.[54][55] 8.1 also introduces improved fingerprint recognition APIs, which allows user login, User Account Control, Windows Store and Windows Store apps to use enrolled fingerprints as an authentication method. A new kiosk mode known as "Assigned Access" was also added, allowing a device to be configured to use a single app in a restricted environment. Additionally, Windows Defender includes an intrusion detection system which can scan network activity for signs of malware. 8.1 also allows third-party VPN clients to automatically trigger connections.[56]

For enterprise device management, Windows 8.1 adds support for the Workplace Join feature of Windows Server 2012 R2, which allows users to enroll their own device into corporate networks with finer control over access to resources and security requirements. 8.1 also supports the OMA Device Management specifications. Remote Data Control can be used to remotely wipe specific "corporate" data from Windows 8.1 devices.[48]

Due to changes to improve its "security effectiveness", the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 no longer supports processors which do not implement the double-width compare and exchange (CMPXCHG16B) CPU instruction (which the installer reports as a lack of support for "CompareExchange128"). A Microsoft spokesperson noted that the change primarily affects systems with older AMD 64-bit processors, and that "the number of affected processors are extremely small, since this instruction has been supported for greater than 10 years." Even if the system does have an otherwise compatible processor, the motherboard must also support the instruction—which can also cause the problem to occur on Intel processors in select cases. These changes do not affect the 32-bit version of Windows 8.1.[57][58]

Hardware functionality Edit

Windows 8.1 adds support for 3D printing,[59][60] pairing with printers using NFC tags, Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast media streaming,[61] Windows 8.1 also supports scaling display contents on high resolution displays, including a new 200% "Extra Large" mode, and the ability to set scaling settings independently between displays in multi-monitor configurations.[62] 8.1 also adds built-in support for tethering.[48]

Reception Edit

Critical reception Edit

In comparison to the original release of Windows 8, Windows 8.1 received better reviews. While Tom Warren of The Verge still considered the platform to be a "work in progress" due to the number of apps available, the impaired level of capabilities that apps have in comparison to desktop programs, and because he felt that mouse and keyboard navigation was still "awkward". He touted many of the major changes on 8.1, such as the expanded snapping functionality, increased Start screen customization, SkyDrive and Bing integration, improvements to stock apps (in particular, he considered the Mail app to be "lightyears ahead" of the original version from 8), and concluded that "Microsoft has achieved a lot within 12 months, even if a lot of the additions feel like they should have been there from the very start with Windows 8."[40]

Joel Hruska of ExtremeTech criticized continuing integration problems between the Desktop and apps on 8.1, pointing out examples such as the Photos app, which "still refuses to acknowledge that users might have previous photo directories", and that the Mail app "still can’t talk to the desktop—if you try to send an email from the Desktop without another mail client installed, Windows will tell you there’s no mail client capable of performing that action." However, improvements to other apps, such as People and News (pointing out UI improvements, and the News app using proper links when sharing stories, rather than non-standard links that can only be recognized by the app). Although praising the more flexible snapping system, he still pointed out flaws, such as an inability to maintain snap configurations in certain situations. 8.1's search functionality was met with mixed reviews; while noting the Bing integration and updated design, the system was panned for arbitrarily leaving out secondary storage devices from the "Everything" mode.[63]

Peter Bright of Ars Technica praised many of the improvements on 8.1, such its more "complete" touch interface, the "reasonable" tutorial content, the new autocomplete tools on the on-screen keyboard, software improvements, and the deep SkyDrive integration. However, he still felt that the transition between the desktop and apps "still tends to feel a bit disjointed and disconnected" (even though the option to use the desktop wallpaper on the Start screen made it feel more integrated with the desktop interface rather than dissimilar), and that the restoration of the Start button made the two interfaces feel even more inconsistent because of how different it operates between the desktop and apps.[41]

Certain aspects of 8.1 were also cause for concern because of their privacy implications. In his review of 8.1, Joel Hruska noted that Microsoft had deliberately made it harder for users to create a "Local" account that is not tied to a Microsoft account for syncing, as it "[makes] clear that the company really, really, wants you to share everything you do with it, and that’s not something an increasing number of people and businesses are comfortable doing."[63] Woody Leonhard of InfoWorld noted that by default, Windows 8.1's "Smart Search" system sends search queries and other information to Microsoft, which could be used for targeted advertising. Leonhard considered this to be ironic, given that Microsoft had criticized Google's use of similar tactics with its "Scroogled" advertising campaign.[64]

Market share Edit

Data published by Net Applications in November 2013 revealed a usage rate of 1.72% for 8.1, with the usage of stock Windows 8 falling to 7.53% from around 8% in September 2013.[65]

Issues Edit

Shortly after its release, Windows RT 8.1 was temporarily recalled by Microsoft following reports that some users had encountered a rare bug which corrupted the operating system's Boot Configuration Data during installation, resulting in an error on startup.[66][67] On October 21, 2013, Microsoft confirmed that the bug was limited to the Microsoft Surface RT tablet, and only affected 1 in 1000 installations. The company released recovery media and instructions which could be used to repair the device, and restored access to Windows RT 8.1 the next day.[68][69]

It was also found that changes to screen resolution handling on 8.1 resulted in mouse input lag in certain video games that do not use the DirectInput API's—particularly first-person shooter games, including Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Hitman: Absolution, and Metro 2033. Users also found the issues to be more pronounced when using gaming mice with high resolution and/or polling rates. Microsoft released a patch to fix the bug on certain games in November 2013, and acknowledged that it was caused by "changes to mouse-input processing for low-latency interaction scenarios".[70][71]

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