WINDOWS 8.1…IS IT WORTH IT?
From Facebook to the full-featured Mail app and modern Outlook to a “peek” bar in the modern version of Internet Explorer 11 to the new Windows Scan app to the new Bing logo, you now get nearly all of the promised Windows 8.1 extras. We are still waiting for the touch versions of the Office apps and the web playlist tool in the Music app, but that’s the way things work in Microsoft’s new “continuous development” world. And of course you get the interface changes and SkyDrive integration we saw in the Windows 8.1 Preview.
The Start button is back, you can boot to the desktop and use the same image for your Start screen as your desktop background. SkyDrive is built in to sync files – on both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT – as well as settings and the layout for your Start screen and desktop taskbar. But Microsoft’s second bite at the convergence of PCs and tablets doesn’t back away from what we still want to call Metro; in fact there are more built in modern apps than in Windows 8, more settings you can change without jumping to the desktop and more options for how you place modern apps on screen.
The question is how well these two worlds sit together, and how much of an improvement Microsoft has been able to deliver in a year.
On one hand, 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 jive 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.
On the other hand, for many basic tasks, I had to return to the system’s traditional desktop mode, the one that resembles older versions of Windows. It felt as though I was working on two different computers at once. Windows is still far from perfect. It continues to come across as a work in progress. But Windows 8.1 shows Microsoft is listening. People who already have Windows 8 will find digital life more pleasant with the update. It still feels like two separate computers at times. Each mode has its own Internet Explorer browser. Pages I have open in one won’t automatically appear in the other. Many programs, including Microsoft’s Office, works only in desktop. I can customize the background images so both modes match, but that’s cosmetic. There’s no easy way to open apps without going to the full-page start screen. Before Windows 8, there was a Start button on the lower left corner to do that. The Start button has been restored in Windows 8.1, but not its functionality. So if I have video playing, it stops as I switch from app to app or do one of those universal searches. Although Windows 8.1 lets me adjust how much screen space each visible app takes, that slider only moves left to right. So with three or four apps open, all of the apps are vertical. That’s awkward for video and word processing. And while Windows 8.1 doubles to four the number of apps I can have side by side, it was unlimited before Windows 8. Microsoft’s tile and touch approach will still take time to get used to, even with Windows 8.1. That approach works fine on phones and tablets, but not necessarily on desktops and laptops.
I know change is inevitable. I eventually embraced Apple’s Mac OS X, introduced in 2001, after more than a decade of growing up on what became known as Classic. But it took me until 2006 to fully switch. It’s been only a year with the new Windows. I’m not ready to cede my Windows 7 and Mac computers quite yet.