The Windows 8.1 UI is initially identical to Windows 8.0, but with the addition of a desktop icon that can be touched/chosen to be optionally or subsequently a resident resource more familiar to XP and Windows 7 users. We found it's also possible to boot directly to an Apps screen that allows apps to be easily chosen, although not with the same vendor topical drop-boxes that Win XP and Windows 7 might be used to. If there are many applications, the screen must be scrolled. Windows XP/7 users who have accumulated many dozens of applications might be scrolling frequently as long lists of applications can fill many screens.
We found more UI customization choices, and discovered we could make very busy combinations of Live Tiles. It's possible to insert RSS feeds into tiles where supported, allowing what we feel is an addicting amount of information available within just a handful of tiles, and the appeal of moving tiles combinations on tablets to suit differing use situations. Apps that use "traditional" windows are easier to manage, and users can now move multiple windows adjacent to each other (especially handy on multiple monitors) without having snap behavior crater their placement choices, as occurred in 8.0 and even Windows 7 editions.
Desktop/notebook users have now taken second seat to tablets in this upgrade, and some of the hoped for bridges to Windows 7-ish look-and-feel are missing as we found the 8.1 changes more easily demonstrated on tablets. However, mouse or touch sweeps are more customizable, although consistencies can be imposed in Group Policy. If you're looking for the familiar Start button, you'll still need to garner it from a third party app provider. Microsoft, like Apple and Google, would really prefer that you obtain Start Buttons and other third party applications from Microsoft's online store, which is far more filled with new, familiar, and diverse applications than when Windows 8.0 was released. You can still install from "unauthorized" sources if preferred or forbid that if you're draconian or simply worried about security.
Recent changes to 8.1 in terms of speed weren't dramatic, in our subjective analysis. Windows 8.1 uses Server Message Block V3/SMB3 features when connecting to Windows 2012+ network resources that allow several features, including SMB Encryption, SMB traffic aggregation for speed, and TPC "signing" for ostensibly trustable, ostensibly non-repudiating host and client relationships. We say ostensibly, as we're unsure of a comprehensive methodology to test these, and therefore, have not.
Microsoft has been very busy. Windows Server 2012 R2, while a strong operating system update, is perhaps more about Hyper-V V3 and Azure Pack, and represents a trend towards platform strengthening on Microsoft's part as platform flexibility starts to replace the operating system as the functional least common denominator for applications infrastructure. Towards these ends, Hyper-V now controls more of the network than the operating system, more of the storage connectivity and options then the operating system, and more of the application availability and administrative control nexus than ever before.
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