Windows 8.1 vs. Windows 7

As Windows 9 draws nearer and Microsoft distances itself from older OS, we look at the best option for your PC

Support for Windows XP came to an end in April 2014, and Microsoft has set a date of January 2015 for the withdrawal of mainstream Windows 7 support. This doesn’t mean Windows 8’s predecessor is out of the game, however, and remains a popular option for consumers and business users alike.

What, then, is the best option for your PC? Following XP’s demise, the upgrade candidates were Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, and we have broken down the key features to help you decide which the better choice is (fast forward to our verdict).

1. Boot time

Windows 8 machines take just 10-15 seconds to boot up, with some switching on even more quickly depending on the SSD. Gone are the days when you have to distract yourself by going to make a cup of tea while your system wakes up.

How has this happened? Microsoft engineers combined the hibernation and shutdown modes into one for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 uses a hybrid boot mode to allow your PC to start up in mere seconds. The kernel lets it hibernate instead of shutting down completely, with the use of all cores making start-up as fast as possible.

Winner: Windows 8 – The faster the machine starts, the more time you can spend doing more productive things. Over the multiple year lifespan of a machine, of course, this can add up to hours of reclaimed time.
2. Enterprise features

Windows 8.1 offers more enterprise features than 7, with Windows to Go featured on the Enterprise edition of the OS that allows users to boot a personalised version of Windows from a USB on any other Windows 7/8 machine.

IT admins can run Windows virtually without any third-party software. Add in the optional Hyper-V support for your copy of 8.1 and you can connect to a server.

Windows 8.1 also includes better support for managing mobile devices, with tap-to-print support via NFC and enhanced biometrics, malware resistance and encryption also included.

Despite all of this, IT departments the world over have given Windows 8.1 the cold shoulder in favour of its older brother. In fact, HP told IT Pro that Windows 7 is the most popular enterprise choice for companies upgrading from XP.

“[Businesses] are ignoring Windows 8,” said HP project manager Jeff Wood.

What enterprises prize over everything is stability, and Windows 7 has time, familiarity, extensive testing and total peripheral compatibility on its side.

Those upgrading from Windows 8 to 8.1 have also run into problems, with users complaining the update actually broke some simple things such as the ability to print.

Winner: Draw – Although Windows 8 has more enterprise features as a default, Windows 7 has the benefit of being tried and tested. Then again, further updates for 8.1 have fixed many of the biggest problems inherent to previous iterations of the OS.
3. Performance

Windows 8 was used as a guise for Microsoft to revamp the engine, and the result is a faster system that consumes far fewer resources than Windows 7. This makes it a good choice for low-end PCs.

The redesign sports simple colours and few visual effects, which also contributes to the increased speed due to the resources saved compared to Windows 7’s Aero Glass effect.

Overall, Windows 8.1 performs better than 7 for everyday use and benchmarks, and extensive testing has revealed improvements such as PCMark Vantage and Sunspider, but the differences are minimal.

Winner: Windows 8 – It’s faster and less resource intensive.
4. Interface

The front-facing user interface that characterises Windows 8 has been a huge talking point, and for good reason. The radical redesign has always felt for some like two operating systems meshed together, and is maybe the most discussed aspect of Windows 8.

When turning on the computer, you’re greeted by the now-familiar Start screen, a page of apps and live tiles. This Metro interface includes everything on the app, even the desktop mode that has proven to be the preferred view for so many users. Apps like IE 11 are great for touch screen web browsing – but not much else.

But even the desktop looks different on Windows 8, though 8.1 did feature the long-awaited return of the start button. It doesn’t, however, come with the return of the Start menu (all but confirmed for Windows 9), and simply switches users between screens.

To say the revised interface has been polarising is an understatement, and there is no shortage of people who have complained about Metro since it was released. Among their arguments – an interface designed for touch shouldn’t be used on a desktop computer.

With 8.1, however, you can choose to boot directly to desktop, avoiding Metro entirely. Spend a little setting up the OS, and you can get a comparable, if not better experience.

There are real UI improvements with 8.1. You can add Start bars to dual monitors, with separate wallpapers on each. There’s also fast universal search on the Start screen and just hit the Windows key to start typing to search local files, OneDrive files, apps, setting and the internet. You can even browse OneDrive files through File Explorer (a.k.a. Windows Explorer).

Winner: Windows 7 – The familiar desktop remains popular for a reason, and wins the day. Windows 8 simply tries to do too much and, even though the 8.1 update allows users to boot straight to the desktop, Metro still has a nasty habit of popping up.
5. Security

Security is a massive issue for both individuals and businesses and, as the most popular desktop operating system, Windows is the primary target for malware and viruses.

Windows 7 and 8.1 share security features, both using BitLocker Drive encryption, but 8.1 enables them automatically. You can always download Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows 7 for free, but its younger brother has it already built into the system.

Secure booting on UEFI systems is also included with 8.1, making it harder for rogue malware to infect the bootloader. PCs running Windows 8.1 can also automatically connect to VPNs.

Winner: Windows 8 – It has more security features set as default.