Windows 8.1: The Best Operating System Yet

A User-Friendly Upgrade

Windows 8.1 introduces a new and improved user interface, blending the sleek ‘Modern’ tile-based design with enhancements to the familiar Windows 7-style desktop. With both Standard and Professional editions available, Microsoft has truly outdone themselves.

In the four years since the release of Windows 7, Microsoft has been hard at work to deliver a next-generation user experience. Now, they offer the final result at special introductory pricing, making it more accessible than ever before.

The standard version of Windows 8.1, also known as “Windows 8.1 Core,” offers great value for money. It includes numerous enhancements and features that surpasses the capabilities of Windows 7 Home Premium. While the revolutionary touchscreen-oriented ‘Modern UI’ steals the show, there are also significant improvements and exciting new features that cater to conventional PC users who prefer the traditional Windows interface.

The Professional version of Windows 8.1 provides additional features primarily tailored to business and enthusiast users. These features include BitLocker® drive encryption, remote PC control via Remote Desktop, and support for corporate network domain environments.

Both the Standard and Professional editions of Windows 8.1 offer numerous new features and improvements, which we outline below.

User-Friendly Login

Windows 8.1 introduces a new lock screen that displays the date, time, and app notifications. Two new login methods optimized for touchscreens are also available: a four-digit PIN and a “picture password.” With the picture password option, users can perform specific gestures on a chosen picture to log in. These gestures take into account shape, starting and ending points, and directionality. By limiting the gestures to tapping, tracing a line, or drawing a circle, Microsoft has significantly improved the login speed, with sign-ins happening three times faster compared to freeform methods. A wrong gesture will always deny login, and after five unsuccessful attempts, the PC will lock until a text password is provided.

Microsoft Account Integration

Users can link their user accounts with Microsoft accounts to unlock additional functionality, such as data synchronization and integration with various Microsoft services like Xbox Live and SkyDrive.

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Enhanced Multi-Monitor Support

Windows 8.1 provides improved support for multi-monitor setups. Now, each display can have its own dedicated taskbar, and wallpapers can be spanned or customized for individual displays.

Upgraded File Explorer

Windows Explorer, now called File Explorer, comes with a ribbon toolbar for easy access to commonly used commands. The “Up” button, which lets users navigate one level up in the folder hierarchy, has also been restored. Additionally, File Explorer features a redesigned preview pane, taking advantage of widescreen layouts. It also includes a built-in function for mounting ISO, IMG, and VHD files as virtual drives.

File operation progress windows have been redesigned, allowing multiple operations to be shown simultaneously. A graph displays transfer speeds, and users can pause and resume file transfers. A new interface has also been introduced for managing file name collisions, making it easy to control which conflicting files are copied.

Internet Explorer

Windows 8.1 comes with Internet Explorer 11, which offers both a desktop program mode, similar to Internet Explorer 9, and an app mode with a full-screen interface optimized for touchscreens. Internet Explorer 11 also includes an integrated version of Flash Player, available in full on the desktop and in a limited form within the Modern UI app.

Revamped Task Manager

Windows 8.1 presents an overhauled version of Task Manager, where only applications are shown by default, hiding the tabs. The Processes tab now uses a heat map to show resource utilization, with darker shades of yellow indicating heavier use. The Performance tab is divided into CPU, memory, disk, Ethernet, and wireless network sections, each with its own graph. Clicking on a resource leads to its detailed view. The CPU tab now displays simple percentages on heat-mapping tiles to reflect utilization for systems with many logical processors. Startup applications and their impact on boot time are listed in the new Startup tab. The Processes tab provides detailed CPU, memory, hard disk, and network resource usage data for each application. The older Task Manager’s process information can be found in the new Details tab.

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Family Safety

Windows 8.1 incorporates Family Safety, allowing administrators to monitor and limit user activity through web filtering, application restriction, and computer usage time limits.

File History

File History, similar to Mac OS X’s Time Machine, replaces the “Previous Versions” and Backup and Restore features. It automatically creates incremental backups of files in Libraries and user-specified folders, storing them on an external storage device. Users can easily track and restore specific file revisions using the “History” functions in File Explorer. Unlike Shadow Copy, which performs block level tracking, File History utilizes the USN Journal to track changes and copies previous versions of files to the backup location.

USB 3.0 Support

Windows 8.1 introduces native support for USB 3.0, enabling faster data transfers and improved power management with compatible devices.

Simple Installation

Windows 8.1 offers the Upgrade Assistant, a new installer that simplifies the installation process for those upgrading. The Upgrade Assistant integrates compatibility checks, helps transfer files and settings, downloads the operating system for online purchases, generates installation media, and performs the installation. Steps have been taken to ensure the new installer completes upgrades faster than previous versions of Windows.

Streamlined Startup

By default, Windows 8.1 uses a “hybrid boot” mode, whereby the kernel is hibernated instead of completely shutting down. This leads to faster startups on subsequent boot-ups. Compatible systems can now maintain a manufacturer’s splash screen following the Power-on self-test, resulting in a seamless transition from firmware control to Windows. As booting speeds may make keyboard shortcuts for accessing advanced functions challenging, the Advanced Startup menu can also be launched from within Windows using the PC Settings app, holding down Shift while clicking the Restart button, or by using the new “-o” switch on shutdown.exe.

Hassle-Free Repair and Recovery

Windows 8.1 detects system issues that hinder proper functioning and automatically launches the Advanced Startup menu to access diagnostic and repair functions. Additionally, Refresh and Reset options allow users to re-install Windows without external installation media. Both options boot the system into the Windows Recovery Environment, with Refresh preserving user profiles, settings, and apps, while Reset reformats the system partition and performs a complete reinstallation. The reset function can also execute specialized disk wiping procedures for enhanced security. It’s important to note that both operations remove all installed desktop applications. Users can also create custom disk images for use with Refresh and Reset.

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Security at Its Best

Windows 8.1 comes with an updated version of Windows Defender, which combines virus protection capabilities with existing malware protection. Windows Defender automatically disables itself if it detects third-party security software, remaining active only when no antivirus software is installed or when an antivirus program’s subscription expires.

Windows 8.1 supports secure boot mechanisms on compatible UEFI systems. Through a public-key infrastructure process, it verifies the integrity of the Windows boot loader, protecting against malware infecting the system prior to OS loading.

Advanced Video Subsystem

Windows 8.1 incorporates WDDM 1.2 and DirectX Graphics Infrastructure (DXGI) 1.2. The Desktop Window Manager now runs constantly, even on systems with unsupported graphics cards, with software rendering support. The update includes features like pre-emptive multitasking with finer granularity, a reduced memory footprint, improved resource sharing, and faster timeout detection and recovery. The system mandates the use of 16-bit color surface formats, and Direct3D 11 Video supports various video formats with different precision levels, including paletted formats.

Enhanced Virtualization

Windows 8.1 Pro includes Hyper-V, a native hypervisor that replaces Windows Virtual PC as a hosted hypervisor. Windows 8.1 introduces .vhdx, a new VHD format supporting storage up to 16 terabytes. It offers built-in resiliency and power failure protection, preventing performance degradation on large-sector physical disks.

Streamlined Storage Spaces

Storage Spaces is a storage virtualization technology that replaces Logical Disk Manager. It allows the organization of physical disks into logical volumes, similar to Logical Volume Manager. Storage Spaces provide thin provisioning and behave like physical disks to users. These spaces are managed within storage pools, defined by a collection of physical disks of varying sizes, performance levels, or technologies (USB, SATA, SAS). Adding new disks or replacing failed or older disks is automated, although it can be controlled with PowerShell commands. Multiple storage spaces can be hosted within a storage pool. Storage Spaces offer built-in resiliency through disk mirroring or striping with parity across physical disks. Each ReFS filesystem storage pool is limited to 4 PB (4096 TB), but there are no restrictions on the total number of storage pools or storage spaces within a pool.

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