Windows 8.1: a new start

Microsoft has made significant changes to Windows 8, making life for desktop users more like it used to be on Windows 7 – while aiming to keep tablet users happy.Last year Microsoft reimagined Windows. Windows 8 was released in October 2012, complete with a new touch-friendly personality intended to make the operating system work well on tablets as well as with keyboard and mouse.
It was a bold but controversial experiment. Users have not found it easy to adjust to the Windows 8 Start screen, which replaced the Start menu in Windows 7, and the Windows 8 app market is weak compared to that for Apple or Android apps. “I installed Windows 8 two months ago. I have yet to use a Metro app for anything,” said developer Robert Smallshire on Twitter, where “Metro” refers to the new tablet apps which Microsoft officially calls “Modern” apps or Windows Store apps.
Most Windows users still live in the traditional desktop environment, which is why many Windows 8 tablets are “hybrids”, with keyboards and trackpads as well as touch screens.
On Wednesday at its Build developer conference in San Francisco, Microsoft unveiled the preview of Windows 8.1, an update which refines the operating system without changing its character. I’ve been running the preview on the Surface Pro tablet given to all Build attendees.
Microsoft is not backtracking on concepts such as the Start screen or the “immersive UI” which presents Modern apps without the clutter of visible menus and toolbars. Yes, there is a Start button on the desktop – but it takes you to the Start screen rather than restoring the menu in Windows 7. The Start button will be a point of familiarity for new users, but its main benefit is the enhanced administrative menu (known as Win-X because of its keyboard shortcut) which pops up if you right-click, including an option to shut down.
Users who want to avoid Modern apps have other new options, offered if you right-click the taskbar and choose properties. Here you will find “boot to desktop”, the ability to list desktop apps first in the Start screen when sorted by category, and an option to default to the “All apps” view in Start. Unlike the mainly cosmetic Start button, these are significant changes. Engage them all, and when you tap Start you get a list of desktop apps grouped almost like the old menu, though it is not hierarchical. You can also show the desktop background in Start, making the transition to the Modern UI less jarring.
The Start screen no longer shows all apps in the default tiled view, but only apps you select. It is also easier to customise Start groups. A swipe down takes you to the All apps view, unless you chose this as the default.
Most of the changes in Windows 8.1 relate to Modern apps. In Windows 8.0, you can have up to two apps on view, with one snapped to the side. This snapped view has gone (a Microsoft engineer admitted to me that few people used it). If two apps are on view, you can now size them as you like by dragging a vertical bar, and if you have a large screen you can have up to four apps on view, though my Surface only accommodates two. Apps can also be written for two displays, with different data on each, so for example you could have a controller view and a presentation view. All good stuff.
The way Search works has changed. Previously, if you invoked search by pressing Win-S or selecting it from the right-hand Charms menu, you would be taken automatically to the Start screen. Now, search opens in a panel, and by default searches “Everywhere” rather than just Apps as before. One effect is that you can now easily open a new desktop app without ever leaving the desktop environment, using search as an app launcher. On the other hand, if you are searching more generally, you get results in a new Bing app that combines local and web search in a rich view. A search for “guardian”, for example, shows Word documents with that word in the title as well as matching websites. Search for a celebrity and you get photos, biography, and for a musician, options to play songs in Xbox Music, the native music app on Windows 8.
Each search creates a kind of custom app, Microsoft explained, and this feature is fun to use. The prize for Microsoft is greater Bing adoption if the approach proves popular.
Windows 8.1 comes with version 11 of Internet Explorer (IE), which will also be available for Windows 7. The big new feature is WebGL (Web Graphics Library) support, a standard for showing 3D accelerated graphics in the browser without a plug-in, and ideal for browser-based games. Previously Microsoft had resisted WebGL because of security concerns, which it says are now resolved thanks to improvements both in the standard and in IE itself. There is also better touch support and faster performance, though I have not noticed much difference in day to day browsing so far.
The presence of two versions of IE in Windows 8 – one on the Start screen, one on the desktop – remains confusing.

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