The soon-to-be-released Windows 8.1 Update brings minor improvements that favor those using a mouse — in other words, most Win8 users.
Anyone currently on Windows 8.1 will want the update; those who still haven't made the Modern plunge won't be impressed.
Microsoft gives Windows 8 another "tweak"
I know it's hard to believe, but Microsoft released Windows 8.1 just this past October. At the time, that version seemed like a desperate attempt to placate traditional mouse users — essentially every Windows user without a touch screen — who balked at the full-screen–centric, tile-based, "Modern" UI. (For more on Win8.1's key features, see the Sept. 19, 2013, Top Story, "Touring through the final Windows 8.1.")
Some of the folks in Redmond genuinely felt that Version 8.1 would compel the hordes of recalcitrant Windows 7 users to download the new OS — and live happily ever after in the new Windows paradigm. That mass migration to Windows 8 never happened; customers had something to say about the update — and, for the most part, the words weren't kind.
How, you might ask, could Microsoft expect to pull the flaming Windows 8 experience out of the fire just five months after releasing its best attempt at mouse mollification? The answer's quite simple: it doesn't. I think Windows 8.1 Update is a stopgap measure designed to help slow the unprecedented decline in PC sales. While the 'Softies might be hopeful, they aren't naive. They're banking on something better in Windows 9 — and so should we.
An important — and quite trivial — change
There's only one — just one — really valuable change in Windows 8.1 Update. Install it on top of a fresh Windows 8.1 machine that doesn't have a touch screen, and Win8.1 Update sets Windows to boot to the classic Desktop automatically. (New Windows 8 PCs that ship without touchscreens should boot straight to the Desktop, too.)
It might sound cynical, but that one change alone should save Microsoft millions of dollars on tech support calls. I know it'll save me from repeating endlessly that you can set Windows 8.1 to boot to the Desktop in just a few seconds. (For those of you who didn't get the memo: right-click the Desktop taskbar, click Properties, select the Navigation tab, and then check the box marked "When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start.")
With Win 8.1 Update, the system installer scans for a touch-sensitive screen. If it doesn't find one, it checks that box. Very simple; quite worthwhile.
A few mouse-friendly changes to the Start screen
The Windows 8.1 Update puts two new icons on the Start screen that should come in handy for mouse-bound Windows users. As shown in Figure 1, a power off icon appears to the right of the username. It lets you turn off the machine, switch the user, sign out, or go straight to Sleep mode.
The magnifying glass icon does almost nothing. Clicking it pops up the Search pane that lives in the Charms bar. (For more on using Win8.1 Search, see the companion story, "Bing: Searching the Microsoft way," in the paid section of this issue.)
Of course, experienced Windows 8 users know you don't have to click anything to start a search from the Windows 8 Modern (still commonly called Metro) UI — you just start typing the search text, and the Search pane automatically pops up. I'm convinced that Microsoft put the spyglass up there because so many people asked how to perform a search. Give them something to click, and they'll go away.
The other mouse-friendly changes to the Start screen are useful only if you like to customize those cute little (or big and ugly) Start screen tiles. Right-click a tile, and you get a classic context menu that lets you change the size of the tile, unpin the tile from Start, pin the program to the taskbar, and so on.
For touch-enabled users, those options pop up at the bottom of the screen — just as they do in Windows 8.1. (In its marketing material, Microsoft seems to think that change is a really big deal.)
Slightly blurring the Modern/Desktop divide
Two changes are supposed to help mouse users work with Metro 8 apps. I've played with them a bit and I'm still skeptical. Here's what you get; you can decide.
Every full-screen, Win8 window now gets a title bar. The bar appears when you hover your mouse near the top of the screen — and disappears when you move the mouse away.
The new bar looks like a stunted version of the classic Windows title bar. It has minimize and "X" (exit) icons on the upper right. It also has a drop-down list that appears when you click an icon on the upper left. That list, shown in Figure 2, lets you split the screen (in the Metro fashion), minimize the app, or close it. That's hardly rocket science — there are key combinations that help you split Win8 screens — but the ability to point and click could be modestly useful.
With Windows 8.1 Update installed, the Desktop taskbar — the one Win7 users know and love — will show icons for each running Metro app. You can even pin Metro apps to the Desktop taskbar. For experienced Windows users, that might be one more nail in the Start screen's coffin.
I've actually used that feature a few times. (Hey, I occasionally use native Win8 apps.) The benefit of having Metro-app icons in the Desktop taskbar and a title bar at the top of those apps is one of continuity. If you're working on the Desktop, it's easy to bring up a Metro app; it's then easy to return to the Desktop by clicking the "X" in the app's title bar.
I wouldn't say that this combination has increased my productivity measurably, but it beats a poke in the eye with a Metro stick — which is how it usually feels, switching between the Desktop and Metro worlds.
The Desktop taskbar also appears at the bottom of any Metro app's screen — if you hover your mouse down there long enough. It's hard to imagine how that might be useful, but if by chance you have a Metro app that you use frequently, being able to flip over to a taskbar-pinned Desktop or another Metro app could be handy.
Other small modifications to the Win8 experience
The rest of the changes, in my opinion, rate as minor — or perhaps mildly amusing.
In the minor category: after applying Windows 8.1 Update, you'll have Internet Explorer 11. By default, the Metro version will open with the navigation bar and tabs visible at the bottom of the screen. Never mind the fact that the major benefit of Metro IE was supposed to be its ability to fade away and bring websites fully to the forefront. Meh!
Win8.1 Update also changes your default Desktop programs. Before, if you had the temerity to click an MP3 file, Windows flipped over to the Metro side and brought up that wicked spawn of an advertising gimmick called Metro Xbox Music. After the Update, MP3s play in the Desktop version of Windows Media Player. That change applies to some other Jekyll-and-Hyde, Metro/Desktop apps as well.
On the Metro side, there's a new Disk Space Tracker in PC Settings/PC and devices. It shows you how much disk space is devoted to Pictures, Videos, Music, Documents, and Downloads. You might find that tool mildly interesting if you suddenly need to delete files from that brand-new — but relatively puny — solid-state drive.
From there, the new "benefits" get even more minuscule.
Bottom line: Windows 8.1 Update will be offered via Windows Update on April 8, the next Patch Tuesday (and, ironically, the day official support for Windows XP ends). If you have a mouse and you use Windows 8, yeah, sure, install Windows 8.1 Update — when you're ready. (See more about that in the Patch Watch special update in this issue.) If you're living Microsoft's vision of a tap-and-swipe computing experience, Windows 8.1 Update doesn't have much for you — but it wouldn't hurt.
On the other hand, as noted at the top, there's nothing in Update that will make XP, Vista, or Windows 7 users suddenly have good feelings about Windows 8.
Given the backpedaling on the Metro/Modern UI, it'll be very interesting to see what Microsoft does with Windows 9.