Yesterday Microsoft released Windows 8.1 as a free update for Windows 8. I dutifully updated but found it barely worth the effort. Endlessly hyped as the fixed version of Windows 8, the one that would finally realize the original vision and convince desktop users of its brilliance, Windows 8.1 is in fact nothing of the kind. Microsoft still tries to fight its declining consumer market share on the back of its loyal customers, with a total disregard for their actual needs and expectations. Windows 8.1 hasn’t changed this, it just tries to cover it up a little. The new version mostly focuses on bringing Metro features out of their miserable alpha state, so the only people who are going to be fully satisfied are those who actually used Windows 8 on a touch screen. For everyone else there’s very little improvement indeed.
The installation went very smoothly. My applications and settings made the transition with no problems. I had forgotten to update my beloved Classic Shell before starting the installation, but Windows 8.1 correctly recognized the old version as incompatible and did not start it. I then upgraded to the latest version, Classic Shell 4, which supports Windows 8.1 perfectly.
There’s one massive annoyance during installation: Windows 8.1 pretends to require a Microsoft account for login. In fact you can still use a local account, but at least when updating from Windows 8 there’s no obvious option for this. You must first select “Create a new account,” then “Continue with existing account” – and that’s your Windows 8 offline account, assuming you had been using one.
Trivial but also annoying: The new default desktop background and all optional backgrounds are positively blinding. Their garish colors and stark contrasts seem intended for tiny phone screens, much like the whole Metro experience. I had to revert to a solid blue background just so I could work without constant irritation. Where are the beautiful soothing images from previous Windows versions – the ones that made sense for a background?
Metro on the desktop is still a terrible experience. Non-touch navigation requires hidden mouse gestures or keyboard shortcuts. They are documented by new help screens and animations, but why are essential functions hidden in the first place on my huge 27″ screen? There’s now a proper Start button on the desktop, but it just calls up the Start Screen. At least you can right-click for more options, although this is once again not obvious.
New “Taskbar & Navigation” settings allow booting straight to the desktop and disabling “hot corners” for unwanted Metro functionality, but Classic Shell already did that. The Start Screen itself might be slightly improved, but you still can’t have a dense text list and any nested Start Menu folders are still flattened out. In other words, Classic Shell is still mandatory. Given the hype surrounding these minor UI tweaks prior to release, they are massively underwhelming. If you’re happy with Windows 7 you should stay there, and possibly evaluate Mac OS-X or Linux alternatives.
Changed DPI Scaling
As mentioned previously, Windows 8.1 supports per-monitor DPI scaling. Since I’m using a single monitor I didn’t see any effects from toggling this option. If you do have multiple monitors, note that Windows 8.1 forces blurry DPI virtualization (= bitmap scaling) on all legacy applications that are dragged between monitors with different DPI settings. To avoid this you can disable per-monitor DPI scaling globally, using the new option “Let me choose one scaling level for all my displays.”
There is one important change I missed until a comment pointed it out: if you do use the new per-monitor scaling, DPI virtualization is used at all scaling levels – including 125% (120 DPI) which would otherwise use XP style scaling, as noted below. I’m guessing this change was necessary to simplify moving windows between monitors with different scaling levels. (added 2015-10-23)
There’s also the expected new radio button for the old 200% setting. Otherwise DPI scaling for existing programs appears unchanged, with one very significant exception: Windows 8.1 removes the option to force XP style scaling. The old default – XP style scaling forced only at 125% – is now permanent and mandatory. Every application that doesn’t declare itself DPI-aware will use blurry DPI virtualization at 150% and higher, unless you opt it out explicitly. Here are some examples of affected programs:
- Apple iTunes, champion record holder of broken Windows UIs. Ugly but necessary.
- Steam and the Asus Xonar DGX control panel. These custom-drawn windows aren’t technically broken but don’t bother scaling at all, so this too was necessary.
- Surprise entries: Adobe Acrobat X and Google Chrome both run fine at high DPI but neglect to identify themselves as such. Until they are patched you’ll need to configure them manually, as described below.
- Embarrassing: even some Windows utilities lack the DPI-aware flag, e.g. Device Manager and Resource Monitor.
To opt applications such as Google Chrome out of DPI virtualization, right-click on the executable in Windows Explorer, select the “Properties” dialog, switch to the “Compatibility” tab, and check the option “Disable display scaling on high DPI settings.” Windows 8.1 finally provides this option for both 64-bit and 32-bit applications, so at least you no longer need a registry hack. See High DPI Settings in Windows for more details on these issues.
As expected, Windows 8.1 does respect the DPI-aware flags set by Java Swing and JavaFX applications. This means that they are unaffected by forced DPI virtualization, but also that the known problems with JavaFX DPI scaling (prior to Java SE 8u60) remain unsolved.
All told, the surprising and disruptive way this change was implemented is symptomatic for Microsoft’s recent attitude. If the established DPI scaling behavior was going to change, the proper solution would have been to make DPI virtualization opt-in (for the user) rather than opt-out, as it should have been from the start. Instead, Microsoft once again took the route of least effort, punishing its customers for the neglect of third-party developers.
Internet Explorer 11
Internet Explorer 11 seems to have changed its font rendering. Some fonts remain strangely blurry, even after tinkering with the Control Panel’s ClearType tuner. Bizarrely given the new emphasis on DPI scaling, IE11 also no longer defaults its zoom level to the Windows DPI scale. I had to select 150% manually and uncheck the advanced option “Reset zoom level for new windows & tabs” to keep it. IE11 also defaults to enabling “Enhanced Protected Mode” which has the effect of disabling various incompatible add-ins, hilariously including Microsoft’s own Silverlight as required by some current Microsoft web pages. Good job there, guys.
Removing Metro Apps
Windows 8.1 gives you the option to quickly uninstall most default Metro apps. On the Start Screen, simply right-click on any unwanted apps, then select Uninstall in the bottom panel. To see how much space will be freed, start the “immersive” control panel (“PC settings”), select “Search and apps” and then “App sizes.” To reinstall any of these apps, start the Store, right-click at the top of the screen (!), and select “Your apps.” Here you can see all default apps, including those not currently installed.
Emboldened by this success, Classic Shell users might try to delete the Start Menu links to the remaining Metro apps, such as Store and PC Settings itself. Do not do this! Those Start Menu links aren’t duplicates from the Start Screen – they are the only shortcuts to the respective apps in the entire system! Once you delete these shortcuts you won’t see any reference to their apps anywhere – not on the Start Screen, not even using the Search charm.
If you did delete these shortcuts, how can you get your apps back? Simply running the executables, e.g. Store in
%windir%\WinStore\WinStore.htm, or creating new shortcuts will not work. Metro app links evidently store a great deal of special metadata that’s required for successful execution. Fortunately, the original shortcuts are kept in the global Windows system file cache,
C:\Windows\WinSXS, so you can easily get them back with the Windows Resource Checker (née System File Checker). Run
sfc /scannow from an administrator command prompt, and the original app links should be restored to their proper places.
2013-11-05: Classic Shell has now added the option “Hide App Shortcuts” to its “Main Menu” settings page. This very useful option hides Metro app links from the regular “Programs” folder in the Start menu, so they only show up in their dedicated “Apps” folder. You’ll no longer feel tempted to delete those links!
David Pogue’s Reconciling 2 Worlds With Windows 8.1 is a fine review of the new version and why it still doesn’t work. For those who want to (or must) use it anyway, Ed Bott’s free e-book Introducing Windows 8.1 for IT Professionals is a good in-depth discussion of Windows 8 and 8.1, even for regular users. He also provided a quick feature overview and a guide to avoid Metro features for Windows 8.1 specifically. And Microsoft’s Joao Botto has compiled tips for the new Start Screen and Start Button.
Some notable missing pieces compared to Windows 8 include the Windows Experience Index (good riddance), the Messaging app (replaced by Skype), and Windows Backup. Ed Andersen claims that Windows 7 file recovery was removed as well. Apparently Microsoft really wants everyone to sync with SkyDrive so that the NSA gets to see all your data – and you get to see brilliant new error messages. Finally, Microsoft has compiled lists of new features, from the perspective of both users and developers.