Windows 8.1 on a Surface: Making a good device even better

Microsoft has just released its new Surfaces, but how does the original ARM-powered Microsoft tablet fare with Windows 8.1?
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Windows RT has never had a good press. While I've found it a useful way of carrying a lightweight device when I don't need a full-bore laptop, it's been a hard sell for Microsoft – not only in its own Surface RT, but also to OEM partners.

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New versions of the bundled Windows Store apps add a lot to the Surface experience

Personally, I've not quite understood why. For one thing, ARM's power efficiencies do give it an advantage over Atom's cut-down instruction set. Sure, there are holes in the Windows Store app ecosystem, but unlike many tablet OSes, Windows RT has a full desktop browser — so if you can't find the app you're looking for in the store, you've got good odds that it's available through the web. After all, that's what we've done on our laptops all along. Where Windows 8 on a laptop is more laptop with a little tablet thrown in, on a Windows RT device, it's a lot more tablet with a little laptop on the side.

That's why I've been using a Surface (I guess I need to drop the RT now, as Microsoft has retroactively renamed the device, in the best DC or Marvel fashion) in anger for much of the last year, as my lightweight on-the-go device. If I didn't need a full PC-grade device on a short trip, then my Surface went into my bag — along with a Type Cover. It handled my social networking, and with Word, any writing I needed to do, along with the web and a handful of casual games.

Even so, I was looking forward to running Windows 8.1 on my Surface, for many reasons. As much as I liked Windows 8, Windows 8.1 — even in preview — was just that much better, and its new WinRT APIs would provide developers with additional features that would significantly boost Windows Store apps. Then of course there's the addition of Outlook to the Windows RT release of Office, as well as improved management tooling for working with Windows networks — including Workplace Join, which brings a limited set of Active Directory management features to Windows RT. And, of course, there are the improvements in that desktop-grade browser, with the arrival of IE 11, which brings WebGL to ARM along with improved HTML 5 support.

A rare sight: the GA Windows 8.1 updates installing on a Surface running the RTM code.

So now that the update is here, I've been running the RTM code on a Microsoft-provided Surface device for several weeks now, and it's made a good device better — which is really all you can ask from an operating system update. I've also upgraded another Surface to Windows RT 8.1 from the preview release.

I've found myself very happy with the upgrade. It's more responsive, and the addition of Outlook to the bundled Office suite makes a big difference to someone like me that spends their time in Outlook, Word and OneNote. Those new Windows Server features also make a lot of sense, when you think of a Surface as a personal device that touches a corporate network for files and for key apps (either as a session-based VDI client, or for new Windows Store or web apps).

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Large tiles make the Windows 8.1 Start screen a very different experience - and now you can remove that Desktop tile.

One tip from my upgrade process, if you've got more than one Windows 8 machine, then I'd recommend taking a Windows 8 device to Windows 8.1 first. Then set up your Start screen layout and apps the way that you want, and make sure that you're syncing your Start layout to SkyDrive. Once you upgrade additional devices to 8.1, that start screen will then sync between devices, letting you quickly install your apps on new machines, or tune a Start layout for a specific approach. It's a technique that will also mean that upgrading a device from Windows 8.1 Preview to the final code is a lot less painful.

With devices already running the RTM Windows 8.1 attached to my Microsoft account, I had no worries about taking a Windows RT device running Preview to the final build — even though it would wipe all my apps. My data was safe, and as soon as I logged into my Microsoft Account as part of the set up process, a copy of my Start screen was downloaded onto my device. All I needed to do was tap on the tiles to download the apps I wanted, and delete the ones that weren't needed. That didn't take too long, and it also gave me the opportunity to reassess which applications I wanted to keep installed. And with several devices in regular use, the new 81 device limit for Windows Store apps comes in handy for keeping all my machines in sync.

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Connect a Surface running Windows 8.1 to an Active Directory domain using Workplace Join, and get access to your files.

Windows 8.1 RT adds more emphasis to the laptop side of the RT equation, with the arrival of Outlook for desktop email. But it's the underlying improvements to the WinRT side of the programming model that should make a big difference with more than 5,000 new APIs. It's going to be a while before we see apps that take full advantage of the latest version of WinRT, as well as Windows 8.1's new Snap model. Even so, some features, like the new cloud file sync, will make your life a lot easier — especially if you're using SkyDrive or Office 365. If a file is synced in SkyDrive, it's available to Surface — as long as you're online.

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Open a link in one app, and see the page in a snapped window without losing context

Even so, the latest versions of Microsoft's bundled Windows Store apps give a picture of what's possible for Windows RT devices over the next year. Take the new (much improved) Mail app, or Facebook. Click on a link and a browser window opens, resizing to 50 percent of the screen, so you can see email and web in context.

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Everest in 3D, in WebGL in IE11, on ARM

While that's a feature we're familiar with on desktop Windows, it makes the Surface's touch operations just that little more useful — keeping you in the immersive, hands-on touch environment, while still giving you the effect of working with multiple windows. Once you've finished looking at the web page, you can just slide the browser away, and carry on with reading your email. New Start screen tile options let you see more information, and with Windows 8.1 there's now the option to remove the Desktop tile from the Start screen — so you only need to see the desktop when launching Office apps.

For me, Windows 8.1 on Surface clears up a few minor niggles (especially around the modern Snap feature), improves the built-in immersive apps, and adds new features that simplify working with Microsoft's business and consumer cloud services. That combination makes the free upgrade an easy decision, and one that makes it easier to spend a lot more time with Surface.

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