For busy professionals using a Windows RT device over the past several months, the experience has been largely positive, with one glaring exception, and a whole host of smaller ones. With the Windows 8.1 release, how does that experience change? After having tested the new build on an original Surface RT for the past day, we have some quick impressions to share.
The big improvement? Outlook 2013 has arrived, addressing the key omission from RT. For those of us who live and breathe inside Outlook each day, switching to the Mail app simply was a poor substitute. For personal mail, the Mail app was fine, but as soon as you wanted to do more advanced features you were stymied. With Outlook 2013, those problems are over. In the past, the primary concern has been that Outlook running on an ARM processor would hurt the battery life as well as other apps; yet in this latest build, with Outlook running in the background, it only consumes 0-30% of the CPU for any given moment. When not actively working in Outlook, the utilization drops back down to 0-1%, which is great. From a memory footprint perspective, the current copy of Outlook I have running, with my full mailbox loaded, only consumes about 50mb of memory. By comparison, Internet Explore, with no tabs open, consumes 30mb of memory. Opening a few tabs and IE 11 spiked up to 100mb of memory and around 27% of processor when running some of the test suites for advanced performance. On my standard desktop at work, Outlook 2013 is consuming 300mb of memory, and IE is consuming 1.8GB of memory, so it’s clear Microsoft has done a good job optimizing for the less powerful ARM processor. Regardless of performance with the operating system, Outlook 2013 is snappy and responsive and has already saved me lots of time I would’ve wasted in the Mail application.
In addition to Outlook, Microsoft has made a number of changes under the covers to Windows 8.1 for the RT platform. One of the changes that will make a huge difference to those just getting used to the Modern app side of the coin and the new start menu is the ability to have your desktop wallpaper span both the traditional “desktop” and modern sides. Yes, there’s a new “start” button in the lower left-hand corner as well, but the visual seamlessness of having the same desktop background suddenly makes the Modern interface seem completely natural. It’s a huge improvement. Other changes on the Modern side are the addition of small and large Live Tiles, allowing a huge degree of customization to make every Surface RT (and other RT devices) seem unique. The unification of the design from the Windows Phone world through to Windows 8.1 and eventually into XBOX is a beautiful thing to behold.
Internet Explorer 11 has been updated to allow tabs to start at the bottom (which is more intuitive with the rest of the apps around) and to allow two tabs to be open at the same time in the modern interface for a side-by-side view. These make me much more likely to use the modern IE rather than the desktop version. Another big change has been a completely redesigned Store interface, with a focus on useful apps, rather than a generic list of every single type of application out there. Microsoft has added some first-party applications to the mix, including a new Bing Food & Drink app, which is intuitive and easy to use, and may replace a litany of other apps to more cleanly accomplish the goal of surfacing up recipes and cocktails.
For those of us with multiple machines, Microsoft has vastly improved the synchronization of the modern menu. Now instead of having to rebuild your program groups each time you logged into a new machine, Microsoft will remember your groups and automatically sync them. If you don’t have a specific program on one device (for instance, an x86 application on your desktop that you don’t have on your Surface RT) it will simply leave the Live Tile blank. This feature alone will save tons of time when new apps are downloaded and installed, as it will be easy to see which programs haven’t been installed. If you install a modern app, it will also seamlessly synchronize that app to your alternate machine, ensuring that you don’t have to “rebuild” your list of apps each time you switch machines. Yet another perfect addition for road warriors who often break hardware, return to the office and have to spend time rebuilding to get their new machines configured similarly to their old one.
On the configuration front, Microsoft has moved many of the controls that were formerly found in the desktop Control Panel into the modern “PC Settings” interface, and even cleaned up that look to be more utilitarian in nature. From accounts to SkyDrive integration to network settings, all can now be found in the modern app, which reduces the need to switch into desktop mode. One of the first changes you’ll notice if you aren’t connecting a keyboard to your surface is that the new onscreen keyboard has been vastly improved, containing hot-buttons for common alternate keys, such as number keys and foreign symbols. This reduces the need to go into the virtual numpad, which again, saves time while typing.
All told, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of Windows 8.1 and those of us with Surface RT devices are extremely happy. I’ve been solely using an RT for my road trips for the past several months, and simply suffering with the Mail app, but can now work at 100% regardless of where I am, enabling far greater productivity.