After months of leaks, some by Microsoft itself, Windows 8.1 Update will finally be available next week. Microsoft plans to distribute its latest Windows 8.1 update to existing machines through Windows Update on April 8th, although MSDN and TechNet customers can download it today. The software maker has been accused of going too far with its Windows 8 vision and forgetting the huge amount of people that still use desktop PCs and laptops. Windows 8.1 Update is the latest effort to address those concerns. "I think we did a little too much too quickly, and we didn’t do enough for the mouse," admits Microsoft’s Chaitanya Sareen. Windows 8.1 Update is aimed squarely at mouse and keyboard users.
Windows 8.1 Update is largely a collection of tweaks to the interface, rather than the type of feature improvements we saw with Windows 8.1 last year. A new title bar will be displayed at the top of Windows 8-style apps with the latest update, making it possible to minimize and close these apps with a mouse and keyboard. "Now we have a title bar, people feel more comfortable dragging it," says Sareen, meaning it’s easier to snap and move apps. Microsoft has also tweaked the hot corners that typically appear for the Charms and quick app switching in the desktop, adding a delay so they don’t pop up unexpectedly when you go to close a desktop app or navigate backwards in a browser.
A taskbar in your 'Metro' apps
Similar changes and tweaks have extended to the taskbar, where Windows 8-style apps can now be pinned and accessed more easily. The Windows Store app will be pinned by default, a change designed so that desktop users will still be able to discover apps. Perhaps the biggest change here is that the taskbar can now be used fully within Windows 8-style apps. You simply move your cursor to the bottom of the screen, and then push down slightly to make the taskbar appear. It doesn’t look pretty on top of Windows 8-style apps, but it definitely makes the desktop and any desktop apps a lot more accessible.
Surprisingly, Microsoft is also planning to boot some Windows 8.1 users straight to the desktop with this latest update. It’s not totally clear exactly what machines will be switched away from the Start Screen by default, but Microsoft is working with PC makers and identifying desktop PCs and laptops that aren’t primarily touch-based. Any existing tablets will still boot to the touch-friendly Start Screen. This introduces some complexity to Windows 8.1, but Microsoft is going a step further by changing default file associations for music, videos, and pictures.
Boot-to-desktop introduces some odd changes
If your machine boots to the desktop then photos or MP3s will open within the desktop versions, instead of the new touch-friendly Windows 8 Photo and Music apps. It’s a curious change, and almost an admission that desktop users don’t like being forcibly thrown into the "Metro" world. However, it’s unclear how Microsoft plans to update these desktop equivalents. Windows Media Player doesn’t have access to Xbox Music, and the desktop picture viewer lacks any OneDrive photo integration. It seems a little messy, and a stop-gap until Microsoft can allow Windows 8-style apps to run in windows that float on the desktop. That surely has to be part of Microsoft’s vision, otherwise these odd changes feel like a regression.
Other tweaks include a new shutdown button the Start Screen, alongside a search option. "The number one feedback we got was ‘I don’t know how to shutdown my machine,’" explains Sareen. The shutdown button only appears on desktop PCs and laptops (similar to boot-to-desktop) and you won’t see it at all on a tablet device. The search option will appear on every machine. Microsoft has also tweaked the way apps are installed, with a notification on the Start Screen for each new app that’s installed from the Windows Store. A final improvement to Windows 8.1 Update sees Microsoft prepare the operating system for low-cost devices. Performance improvements now allow PC makers to create devices with just 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, and Microsoft has tweaked its Windows image to reduce it by up to 60 percent. This doesn’t mean that if you install this update you’ll save on space, as the improvements are designed for system images that PC makers roll out.
"Working on Windows is like ordering pizza for 1.5 billion people."
It’s clear most of the changes and tweaks in Windows 8.1 Update are designed to address feedback. "Working on Windows is like ordering pizza for 1.5 billion people," admits Sareen. "You better believe, we are listening intently, and we’ll act appropriately. It’s a learning process." While Microsoft says it’s satisfied with touch for Windows 8.1, the feedback on mouse and keyboard usage is not where the company wants it to be. Windows 8.1 Update improves upon that, but it still feels like a bridge ahead of much more significant improvements in future.