It was tempting to excuse the poor nature of the applications by saying they were really just meant for tablets, but Microsoft always maintained that Windows 8—Metro and all—was to be usable on both touchscreens and desktops. With the Mail, Skype, Calendar, and People apps on Windows 8.1, the company has finally come closer to that vision.
There are some dramatic changes. For instance, Microsoft killed off the Messaging app that was initially the default IM tool in Windows 8, leaving Skype as the top option in Windows 8.1. But it's really the small changes that, taken together, add up to a significant upgrade—especially in Mail. User interface upgrades enabled by Windows 8.1 make multitasking easier. In particular, a new ability to have multiple windows of the same app open at once, along with smarter use of multiple windows for multiple apps, makes the computing experience smoother and less disjointed.
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We'll cover the basics of Mail, Skype, People, and Calendar in this review. But we'll spend the most time discussing Mail because it's possibly the most important of these apps and the hardest to implement correctly. Mail was also particularly problematic in its earlier versions.
Hey... this actually isn’t badThe Mail application's basic look hasn't changed much since it was first introduced in the preview releases of Windows 8. But its functionality has expanded, its user interface refined, and obvious bugs have been squashed.
Multitasking in particular is better now. As we noted in our review last year, "you can’t compose an e-mail and view other messages simultaneously, because typing a new e-mail brings up a new screen that covers the entire display." That's no surprise on a small tablet display. After all, that's how the iPad works. But on a desktop, that limitation can be really annoying.
Microsoft has listened to complaints. The act of composing a new e-mail no longer takes over the entire display—instead, the new e-mail is visible in a panel on the right side of the screen while a list of your messages is on the left.
That happens within a single window, but multitasking also benefits from Windows 8.1's ability to show multiple windows of the same app. There's a "New window" option in Mail's app bar (which is invoked by swiping at the top or bottom of the screen or right-clicking a mouse). This lets you view two e-mails side by side or look at your list of e-mails on the left while composing one on the right. As far as we can tell, though, the secondary window can only be used for viewing a single e-mail or composing an e-mail. You can't view a list of e-mails in one account on the right side of the screen while viewing e-mail from another account on the left side.
Mail in Windows 8.1 feels more integrated with other applications than it did in Windows 8. Clicking on a picture attachment opens the image in your computer's picture library, but Mail remains visible on the left-hand side in a "snapped" view. Likewise, clicking a document attachment gives you a preview of the document without forcing you out of the Mail app.
In Windows 8 (not 8.1), opening those pictures and documents from within an e-mail takes you entirely out of the Mail app. Similarly, clicking "View Calendar" from within an e-mailed invitation on Windows 8 takes you out of the Mail app and puts Calendar into full-screen. In Windows 8.1, you get a split-screen view of Mail and Calendar by default.
These changes make using Mail in Windows 8.1 substantially less jarring, particularly on a desktop where one is used to working with multiple windows. While this improved multitasking may provide only basic desktop-like functionality, it's actually a significant feature on tablets. On an iPad, you can't view an e-mail inbox on one side of the screen and any random app on the other or look at your e-mail and calendar at once. On a Windows 8.1 or Windows RT tablet, you can.
Filling gaps and fixing bugsSome bizarre omissions have been rectified. The ability to flag messages was added in a pre-windows 8.1 update, as was an option to mark messages as junk. Perhaps most gallingly to mouse users, Windows 8 Mail did not allow dragging and dropping of messages. Windows 8.1 introduces the ability to drag messages to a different folder with a mouse. That's such a basic feature that it's hard to praise Microsoft for its addition, but it does make the application more useful on desktops.
Bugs have also been fixed. With Windows 8.1, autocompletion of mail addresses in the compose window works more reliably, as does accepting calendar invitations in Mail. We complained last year that accepting invitations from within the Mail app caused events to show up as "tentative" on other devices, but that problem seems to have disappeared.
There are still some areas where the traditional desktop and Metro sides of the house feel disconnected. For example, clicking the "Send to Mail recipient" option on a file in File Explorer in the desktop environment still doesn't bring you into the Metro Mail app. "There is no email program associated to perform the requested action," Windows 8.1 will tell you. This remained true even after I went into the Default Programs section of Control Panel and set Mail to "open all file types and protocols it can open by default." Windows 8.1 Mail can handle attachments, of course—you just have to start the process of attaching a file from within the Mail application.
One new option some people might like lets you pin a particular account's inbox or any folder to the Start screen for easy access. Just like the primary Mail app shortcut, this can act as a live tile, showing you the number of unread messages and the senders of recent messages.
A few other changes are designed to help mouse and keyboard users. Checkboxes next to messages make it more obvious where one is supposed to tap or click to select e-mails for actions like move or delete. Hovering a mouse over any part of a message preview brings up clickable options to move, delete, or flag the e-mail. This is redundant in the sense that such options are also made available in the app bar, but it serves to reduce the amount of screen space a mouse has to travel.
Sensible sizingThe Mail app by default has three panes. The leftmost shows your mail accounts, folders, favorites, and so forth. The middle is the list of messages, and the right pane lets you read a single e-mail or write one.
When you snap Mail next to another app, it automatically resizes the columns to fit different sizes. At a third or half-screen you can view the sidebar and a list of e-mails or a reading or composing pane. At two-thirds, give or take, you see all three panes. These minimized views collapse the leftmost pane to leave more room for reading and writing e-mail.
The leftmost pane has been revamped a bit and now includes an automatically generated list of favorite contacts. We didn't find the auto-generation to be too smart, though. It put Eric Bangeman (definitely not my favorite editor) in my favorites list along with a couple of other infrequent contacts I happened to have recently messaged.
Another change to the sidebar is that instead of showing all your non-inbox folders in the default view as Windows 8 did, it now keeps the folders hidden and only shows them when you click a folder icon:
It's not Outlook—but it's not supposed to beWindows 8.1 Mail can handle Outlook.com, Exchange, Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, and any Exchange Activesync or IMAP account.
Outlook.com (Hotmail) users will see a couple features meant just for them. The sidebar has two extra folders that automatically bring in newsletters and social updates. The app bar also has a "Sweep" feature for Outlook.com that helps triage e-mail. For example, if you click on a message from a particular sender, you can select options like "Delete all but the latest" messages from that sender.
E-mail search is slightly improved. In Windows 8, you could only search whichever folder you happened to be viewing. In 8.1, the search bar lets you pick between searching the current folder or all folders.
There's no confusing Windows 8.1 Mail with a professional e-mail client. The few hooks between Mail and Calendar add convenience but not a full, Outlook-type experience. People accessing Exchange accounts in Mail also won't be able to create and edit filtering rules.
But there's no sense in criticizing Mail for not being Outlook. If you're an Exchange user and have a Windows computer, you're probably not going to replace Outlook with any mail application. Advanced functionality just isn't to be expected in a bundled mail app. The news here is that while Windows 8.1 Mail probably won't make you forget whichever mail application is your favorite, it's no longer a struggle to use. Given how important e-mail is for both tablets and desktops, that's a relief.
Skype shoots the MessengerSkype in the Windows 8.1 Metro environment is basically identical to Skype in Windows 8. There is a new search button visible at all times so you can find contacts without having to use the universal search button in the charm bar (invoked by swiping in from the right or pointing the mouse to the top right or bottom right corner). Otherwise, it looks the same.
Changes to Skype are more about integrating it further into the operating system, and these illustrate Skype's place as Microsoft's preferred messaging platform (if the $8.5 billion acquisition of the company wasn't enough to demonstrate that on its own).
Last year, we noted that "the presence of Skype makes the Messaging application’s limited functionality more tolerable, and Skype’s integration into People helps turn a Windows 8 tablet into something very much like a phone."
Messaging has been killed off, as we noted earlier. You would think this wouldn't be much of a loss, but it actually is. Messaging included both Microsoft's (now retired) Messenger service and Facebook chat. Skype replaces Messenger, but it doesn't include Facebook chat. Even if you've linked your Skype account to Facebook, the Metro-style Skype client won't show your Facebook contacts like other Skype clients do. You also can't log in to the Metro-style Skype directly with a Facebook account as you can with Skype on other platforms.
If you really want integrated Skype and Facebook chat, the solution is to download the desktop Skype client, which does provide both. You just won't be able to use it in the pre-installed tablet-y Metro app.
Update: Today, an official Facebook app for Windows 8.1 was released, and that includes Facebook chat. That's your Metro Facebook chatting solution.
Neither the old Messaging app nor Skype integrate with Google Talk or AIM, so Microsoft is definitely creating a Microsoft-only chat experience for its tablet environment rather than a universal one. Given the lack of good apps in the Windows Store, you may be better off finding desktop alternatives if you need non-Microsoft messaging services.
Skype is increasing in usefulness, however. It benefits from the improved window management in Windows 8.1. When you click on "My account," which lets you add money for calls and manage other settings, the program launches a browser. But instead of hiding the Skype window as it did in Windows 8, the browser opens on half the screen alongside the Skype app.
Another new feature lets you answer or decline calls from the Start screen, choosing whether to respond with a video call, just audio, or by simply sending an instant message. You can even answer calls from the lock screen:
As far as video calling and messaging goes, it works just as you'd expect. One nice touch is showing video and text chat on the screen at the same time:
Have your People call my PeoplePeople, a contact manager that combines e-mail, IM, phone, and social network contacts into one spot, was one of the highlights among the built-in tools of Windows 8. Naturally, it's gotten a bit better in Windows 8.1.
The app's home screen looked like this in Windows 8:
It's a little different in Windows 8.1:
The always visible search box and the ability to pin favorites to the main screen make it easier to find your contacts. So does the new organizational scheme in which you can jump to any part of your contacts list by clicking A-Z. Previously, you'd have to keep scrolling to the right to get to later parts of the alphabet.
The individual page for each contact hasn't changed a ton, but it looks a bit sharper. Here's IT Editor Sean Gallagher in Windows 8:
And here's Sean in Windows 8.1:
People was always a good app, helping to tie together some of Windows 8's communication tools into one spot. It didn't need a major overhaul, and it didn't get one.
Calendar app... yep, that’s a calendarThe Calendar app hasn't changed much. It's still a calendar. It still works pretty well.
One of the only changes is a new "What's next" view, which is in addition to the existing day, work week, week, and month views. This is what it looks like:
One problem with Calendar, which may be a big one for many users, is that it only lets you add Outlook.com and Exchange accounts directly within the Calendar app. There is an indirect way of viewing Google events in the Windows Calendar app, which involves exporting Google calendars to Outlook.com. This workaround isn't perfect. Microsoft notes, "Once you move your events from Google to Outlook.com, to continue receiving new events sent to your Gmail account or updates to older events that other people have created, tell people to send events to your Outlook.com email address."
Built-in apps that aren’t amazing but get the job doneMicrosoft had to strike a balancing act with the pre-installed applications on Windows 8. Although they were designed with tablets in mind first, Microsoft insisted that Metro was suitable for tablet users and mouse-and-keyboard users alike. Many people who buy Windows 8 desktop machines, even if they lack touchscreens, were likely to use the built-in apps to communicate with people and manage their contacts and appointments.
There were significant problems in the first versions of these apps—for tablet users and especially for desktop users. To its credit, Microsoft didn't excuse the apps' shortcomings by saying they were "just for tablets." Microsoft worked on improving these programs for both touch and mouse-and-keyboard use cases, and that shows in Windows 8.1.
- E-mail is vastly improved, especially with mouse and keyboard
- Bugs from the Windows 8 launch are mostly gone
- Skype's integration into the OS makes video and voice calling more convenient
- Better window management improves multitasking
- Microsoft killed the Messaging app without replacing its Facebook chat capability
- Integration between desktop services (like File Explorer) and Metro apps is still lacking
- No direct support of Google Calendar
- If you want any sort of non-Skype IM in Metro, you'll have to rely on the browser or a poor selection in the Windows Store