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Microsoft Windows 8.1 Preview review
Posted on 1-Jul-2013 12:41 by M Freitas | Tags Filed under: Reviews

This is kind of a mix Microsoft Surface review and Windows 8.1 install comments post. Earlier this month Microsoft provided on a temporary basis some tech folks around New Zealand with their new Surface Pro just made available in the country.

The Microsoft Surface is not the first Windows 8-based tablet or hybrid I used here, but I think it’s the best looking of the Windows 8-based devices so far. Sure it won’t have that extra second battery that you get in with keyboards like the ASUS Vivo Tab or HP Envy X2 , but the Type Cover and Touch Cover options are so thin they make it easier to carry the tablet around and still have the convenience of a keyboard. Add to this USB 3 option, microSD slot and this hybrid is pretty good on the road or at home.

I was actually surprised with the Touch Cover. I thought the lack of tactile feedback would ruin the experience, but it works pretty well and it’s a breeze to type on that. I think you just have to keep your nails short.

Anyway, the Microsoft Surface was a pretty fast tablet/laptop when compared to my current HP Folio 13. Despite a smaller screen with higher resolution (which made web fonts a bit small sometimes) nothing is left behind in terms of content. All in all a pretty good mobile device. Shame there’s no option for built-in 3G on this model, but still not an impossible problem, with all those smartphones around.

The reason built-in 3G would be good though is for convenience, more than anything. With Windows 8 there’s a push towards cloud storage, mainly using Microsoft’s own Skydrive (although you could as easily use any other service).

Enter Windows 8.1 Preview, which I installed on this Surface after some workarounds (more on this soon). Windows 8.1 makes the Skydrive experience a lot better. First because Skydrive is now offered as a location to save documents and this is transparent to all programs and apps. This means you can continue using your existing programs without change and move your files to the cloud without much impact.

Also, the new Skydrive folder settings allows you to right-click a folder and select it to be available offline, in the Surface’s local storage. This is handy if you have projects you are working on and files you plan to read/edit while away, for example inside a plane or train when there’s no connection options.

Big points to Microsoft for that.

Small design ideas also matter: the power cord has a magnetic latch to keep it in place (surely something Apple people know about) and the power brick has a USB outlet so you can plug and charge your smartphone or other USB-powered devices directly from the wall even if the Microsoft Surface is not plugged in.

A big topic a lot people talked about was the missing Start button, which is making a come back to the desktop on Windows 8.1… People asked for a classic Start button and Microsoft gave it. You don’t get a classic Start menu. Click the on screen button and you are back on the home screen with the pinned tiles. You can now slide that menu up though and see all other installed apps.

It’s not that bad. Think of it as the pinned apps from the classic Start menu and the slide up action the same as clicking All Programs. It works after a while, just give it a try.

The PC Settings menu now has a lot more configuration options than its predecessor, but still a long way to go before the old Control Panel loses its place.

Internet Explorer 11 is pretty good and worked with pretty much everything I tried, including Internet banking sites, Google web-based apps, Microsoft’s web-based apps and others. It does come with Enhanced Protected Mode turned on by default now, which means some add-on programs will not work out of the box if they’re not compatible. In this case you can turn the setting off. This includes the very popular LastPass password manager add-on. Read more about Enhanced Protected Mode here.

Installing the Windows 8.1 Preview can be done from the Store, but only if your system is using EN-US as the primary language. Because the Surface I have here (which is going back to Microsoft tomorrow) was installed and used with EN-NZ I couldn’t simply go to Store and get the update. There are two ways of doing it though: install the EN-US language pack and change some registry entry or install the preview from the ISO file, booting from a USB key or running the install.exe from the explorer.

Installing from the ISO is actually the same as doing a fresh install on your PC. This means programs, user files and even device drivers are blown away. Interestingly though it kept my non-user files, such as my \temp folder, so the ISO install doesn’t format/delete the partition. You will need a product key if installing from the ISO, which is available from the download page.

Anyway, once installed from the ISO you just proceed creating a new user and keep going. You will notice that even though this is a Microsoft Surface and this is a Microsoft OS it seems Redmond decided not to play “favourites” so the default installation doesn’t have drivers for all the devices on the Surface. It installs a generic Intel video driver and a PCI device shows in Device Manager as missing drivers. You can fix this by running Windows Update or download the Microsoft Surface Pro Driver Pack. Actually my comment on Twitter that this should be in the ISO sparked some replies about Microsoft not wanting to play favourites, etc.

To install from the Store you can try the following (backup your system, do not blame me if things go wrong, etc, etc):

1. Create a restore drive using a USB key before you start just in case you need to reinstall the original Windows 8 system
2. Install EN-US as a language, click options and download pack, make your primary language but do not restart.
3. Press the Windows key + R
4. Type regedit and press enter
5. In regedit navigate to HKey_Local_Machine\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\NlS\Language
6. Scroll to the bottom and change the value of installlanguage from 0809 (EN-GB, may be different number depending on what country you are set to already) to 0409 (EN-US)
7. Restart machine
8. Go to and click on the [Get it now] button

I’ve noticed there’s no more Windows Experience Index in the System Properties dialog anymore, but this Surface Pro scored 4.9 before the install.

Another change is Microsoft Bing deeper integration into the system. If you used the Search charm before it would search local files, apps and inside apps. For example you could open the Store app, bring up Search and type something to find a new app. Microsoft has now implemented a search box inside the Store, and the Search charm no longer search inside the individual apps. Instead if defaults to Bing search. I think this is similar to what happened with Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8 – the behaviour for search button on those devices changed, getting more consistent with newer versions, where search is a global function instead of something local to the app.

Windows 8.1 Preview is still a preview. Nothing is 100% done yet, so things may change, have different settings when officially released, new features added, some existing features removed. As usual, do not install in your main PC if you are not sure that application you really need is compatible and if you do make sure you have a backup of everything before proceeding.

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