A year ago, Microsoft "reimagined" the look and feel of Windows, and placed a risky bet on the future of computing. Touch is everything, it said, and nearly everything about Windows 8 was designed to be used in a world without laptops and desktop PCs. But most people still use laptops and desktops, so Microsoft hedged its bets and built a desktop mode as well. Millions of people installed Windows 8, but Microsoft’s two worlds, each with different applications, created a steep learning curve with Windows 8 that wasn’t familiar for traditional Windows users.
With Windows 8.1, a free update designed to address some of its users’ concerns and enable a faster pace of Windows releases, Microsoft tries to bridge the gap between old and new, between mouse and touchscreen. The new OS looks and feels mostly the same, but its many small tweaks make for a significant update — and hint at the future of Microsoft's vision for its own computing platform. Microsoft is completely invested in Windows 8, and it’s been busy over the last twelve months, but making Windows 8.1 into something easier and more familiar is no small task. Microsoft’s chance to usher in the touch-friendly, tablet-filled future it imagines — take two.
When you first switch on a Windows 8.1 PC you won't notice many differences from Windows 8. The boot process is still quick, Live Tiles still greet you after you sign in. However, as you start to navigate around, subtle improvements become apparent. First-time users will see tips for navigating between apps or around the OS after the initial demo during setup, in a similar way to how Windows 95 greeted new users. They're useful as initial hints, and a new dedicated Help + Tips application serves as the central point for anyone left confused by the new user interface.
On the new 8.1 Start Screen, Microsoft again borrows from Windows Phone 8 by introducing new large and small Live Tiles. The Weather tile can now expand to show three different cities and three days of forecasts at the same time, and Calendar will display all of your events for the day. The Windows Store tile is also animated now, providing constant app recommendations. While most of the Start Screen improvements are focused on the new Windows 8-style apps, Microsoft is also now allowing traditional desktop apps to use colorful tiles instead of just app icons, which should make everyone’s Start Screen look a little nicer.
A swipe up on the Start Screen brings up the All Apps view, which includes a sortable list of all installed applications on your device. You can also set it as the default view when you trigger the Start Screen, one of several changes that are designed to make Windows 8.1 more approachable — everyone knows how to use an app drawer. These alterations appear to be mainly designed for desktop users; tweaking the settings to suppress the Start Screen requires digging into the desktop mode.
Start button and Snap Views
The first time you launch the desktop in 8.1, you’ll see the return of the ultra-familiar Start Button. It acts as a portal to switch between the desktop and Start Screen worlds, and it will only show on the Start Screen if you use a mouse to navigate to the lower left-hand corner. It replaces Microsoft's odd looking square tip from Windows 8, and for many will act as a familiar reminder of how to navigate Windows. But it’s just a button: Microsoft is not bringing back the traditional Windows Start Menu here.
Windows 8.1 allows for a lot more personalization across the board. You can now pick from built-in backgrounds that move and animate as you swipe, but there's also the ability to change the color scheme with a color picker that's a lot more flexible than Windows 8 ever was. But the real star of the show is the ability to set the desktop wallpaper as the backdrop for the Start Screen. It sounds simple, but it's an effective way to bridge the otherwise jarring switch from desktop to Start Screen.
Side-by-side apps are a lot more useful
One of my favorite changes to Windows 8.1, at least visually anyway, is the ability to organize Windows 8-style apps in snapped views. By default, if you click a link from an app, you'll now be thrown into a 50 / 50 view with your current app and the one you’re opening — say, Internet Explorer next to Mail. If you open a picture from an email or elsewhere, the view gives slightly more space to the photo application. Any app can have multiple windows, and can extend across multiple monitors. If you’ve already got apps snapped and you attempt to open a new application, Windows 8.1 prompts you with a floating app tile so you can select a location to snap the app. The floating tile even rocks from side to side to hint at where you can place it — it’s a nice touch.
These new views, which let Windows 8.1 users select how much of an app takes up a snapped part of the entire view, include a change to let more applications snap alongside each other. Small tablets only get a 50 / 50 split, but a 27-inch monitor will support up to four apps side by side. You can even use Miracast-compatible displays to snap and drag apps between monitors. The Windows 8-style applications become a lot more usable in this mode, especially when you mix them with traditional desktop apps. If you’re a heavy desktop user, this makes the Windows 8-style apps more useful to snap alongside other apps.
Perhaps the single biggest change in Windows 8.1 is Microsoft's approach to search. Where it used to be specific and tailored, it’s now universal. If you search for "Store" in Windows 8.1 it will still show you the app, but now it also reaches out to Bing's web engine to find results. Search is now a separate app gathering documents and data stored locally or in SkyDrive, system settings, and even web results all in a single interface.
Bing is deeply integrated into 8.1
Bing’s Smart Search really impresses when you search for an entity, namely a person or a place. If you search for Rihanna you’re presented with a full-screen interface with images, video, and audio content all about or by the singer. It’s done in a useful but stylish way, and Bing will even retrieve data from applications. If you want to play audio from a particular artist then it jumps straight into Xbox Music, or it will find YouTube videos from the web that are relevant.
News is also presented in search, alongside key information from Wikipedia. Images can be expanded and viewed separately, and there’s even the option to filter them by color to find the exact image you need. Speaking of images, if you search for a location the new Search experience can even find pictures you may have taken there, surfacing them alongside web results. While search within apps is now a little harder, most built-in apps have opted for a visual search box to ease the transition. It’s clear Microsoft has put a lot of thought and effort into this new search interface, and it has paid off.
SkyDrive sync and Internet Explorer 11
Microsoft ties together its visual changes and features with a new set of built-in app improvements, centered more than ever around SkyDrive. Microsoft's cloud-based storage system really powers Windows 8.1 this time around. The sync engine is built directly in, and Microsoft has made some smart improvements to the way that files sync to Windows 8.1 PCs. Instead of pulling down the entire SkyDrive storage to a local PC, it loads icons, and just enough information required to identify the file. When you open the file, it downloads it on the spot. You can set folders and files to download fully so they're available offline, or just set an entire SkyDrive instance to remain offline on the PC.
The end result is that all your settings, files, and apps are stored in SkyDrive. This makes it incredibly easy to log in to any other Windows 8.1 PC and start loading apps and documents as if it was your own machine. Like so many things about Windows 8.1, sync seems like a logical update, but it’s one of the most significant improvements to Windows 8.1.
Microsoft is also making use of its cloud-sync technology to improve Internet Explorer with version 11. IE supports unlimited tabs and it switches their placement to the bottom to make them easier to use on a smaller Windows 8.1 tablet. It’s much faster and more intuitive, and you can also sync tabs between Windows 8.1 machines alongside favorites and history. In a future Windows Phone update this will extend to syncing across to phones, but for now it's just PCs and tablets.
Microsoft has also enabled WebGL support with IE11, allowing developers to target the browser with powerful web-based games. A Reading View option improves the readability of sites and lets you save them to read later, and IE11's ability to detect phone numbers lets you use apps like Skype to quickly dial from web pages. Many of these changes are great for the touch-friendly IE11, but Microsoft is neglecting its desktop version while competitors like Google continue to push extensions, apps, and even a full OS within the browser.
Apps and the Windows Store
The built-in apps for Windows 8 felt rushed and lacking in features, but Microsoft has really improved every single one with Windows 8.1 — and there are even a few new ones to speak of. Each app has been visually refreshed, and some even have a Windows Phone-like app bar to improve navigation. The Mail app has been completely redesigned, improved for both touch or keyboard and mouse use. You can drag and drop messages into folders, easily select multiple messages with checkboxes, and generally filter out and manage email a lot more easily. Performance has also greatly improved, with draft emails simply appearing on the right-hand side rather than taking up the full screen.
Outlook.com users naturally get the best experience — Microsoft has added in support for favorites, a flagged emails section, and separate filters for newsletters and social emails. Microsoft has also added in the new window option for Mail in 8.1, allowing you to snap messages side by side. Coupled with the new Calendar app, which comes with a redesign and new "what's next" view, improvements to the People app, and some keyboard improvements for quick number entry, the built-in Mail experience is light-years ahead of what was available in Windows 8.
Microsoft is also using Skype as part of its communications overhaul for Windows 8.1, scrapping its limited Messenger app in favor of a built-in version of Skype. Although it's still a separate app that works just like it does on Windows 8, Microsoft has also extended Skype’s functionality to the lock screen; you can now accept calls without having to unlock the PC. The messaging experience on Skype still needs some serious improvements, but the integration works across the People and Mail apps so you can simply tap on friends to call them.
Every single built-in app has been improved
Microsoft has also improved the built-in photos app with new options to use tools like crop, rotate, and additional editing features. Unfortunately Flickr and Facebook photo integration have been dropped in the process in favor of separate apps, but SkyDrive is still built in. Coupled with a Photo Loop feature on new hardware that instantly take pictures from the moment the camera is loaded, taking photos on Windows 8.1 is a pretty good experience — as long as you’re using properly sized hardware.
A refreshed Windows Store ties these all together. It's the portal for new apps and even new versions of Windows, and now it automatically updates everything in the background. The Store’s new design makes it a lot easier to find the apps you're looking for, but its app selection is still lackluster: there are too many fake Facebook, YouTube, and other unofficial apps, and too few great third-party options. It's a similar situation to Windows Phone in many ways, but at least Facebook now has its own app and others are starting to show interest in the platform. It's a key part of Microsoft's success or failure with Windows 8 and Windows RT on tablets (and a much bigger problem for RT, since legacy apps still work on Windows 8.1), and the company needs developers to build out the Store.
Lots of improvements, but hopefully there's still more to come
Windows 8 introduced a new touch-centric vision for Microsoft's future, but it wasn't enough by itself to really push the idea of Windows tablets. The mobile-first OS didn’t jibe with what users wanted, or the hybrid PC / tablet designs manufacturers designed for Windows 8. Windows 8.1 is an admission from Microsoft that it had more to do, and a mostly successful attempt to make the platform more usable for tablets and PCs alike. The return of the Start button is the most obvious admission that Microsoft went a little too far with its broad plans for Windows 8, but it's also an easy fix to make things feel a little more familiar to Windows users. It works, too.
Microsoft has achieved a lot within 12 months, even if a lot of the additions feel like they should have been there from the very start with Windows 8. The intelligent SkyDrive integration alongside a beautiful and powerful built-in search are the best examples of Microsoft's quick work to improve Windows 8 with this 8.1 update. They also best demonstrate the company's promise of a collaborative Microsoft that's working together to improve Windows and other products.
Still, there’s more to do. While Microsoft has attempted to ease the jarring worlds of desktop and "Metro," these new style applications still don't offer the flexibly and power that their desktop equivalents do. A true "no compromises" operating system is clearly the end goal, but Windows 8 is still a work in progress. Hopefully a future update will allow you to pull out Windows 8-style apps into a window that runs across both the desktop and "Metro" world, the way Windows apps have functioned for years. The flexible desktop is still the most appealing way to use Windows 8.1, and that’s not good; the Windows 8-style apps need to keep improving.
Windows 8 users will certainly welcome the changes with 8.1, and they should help clear up some confusion in some areas. If Microsoft is able to keep this pace up and integrate its products and services into Windows 8 even more in future, then there should be a lot to look forward to.