Windows 8.1 will add cosmetic and functional features aimed at elevating the experience for both regular and power users. Videep Vijay Kumar has the details

Microsoft’s strategy to unify Windows 8 across desktop and portable devices was a logical step forward. Platform-specific features would remain taking into account limitations of portable and non-portables, but the strong emphasis on “touch” would carry through as a philosophy across devices. This meant that users required touch-enabled devices to get the most out of Windows 8’s “Modern” UI — at least, this was the perception created inadvertently by the product’s marketing which talked extensively about redefining the operating system experience as we know it (in reality, Windows 8 is completely serviceable as an OS without touch input).

Windows 8 was seen by Microsoft as an operating system which was accessible and intuitive, but it ended up being a product that was appreciated by (a select few) power users. There are several reasons for this — dependence on keyboard shortcuts, limited aesthetic customisation options, needlessly complex gesture controls and all-too-rudimentary functionality of the “Modern” UI and apps to name a few. The sacrilegious omission of the “Start” button might have been the clincher, but the sheer volume of un-learning (of basic functions, no less) required by the vast majority was simply unacceptable to them. This is reflected in the instal base of Windows 8, which is so low, that only recently did it overtake Windows Vista, a six-year-old operating system, widely considered to be Microsoft’s worst product. With Windows 8.1, a forthcoming free update for Windows 8 owners, Microsoft is getting into damage control mode — something the company has become more than familiar with over the past couple of months. However, it must also be pointed out that reclaiming lost goodwill isn’t the only purpose to be served by the update, because Windows 8.1 will add cosmetic and functional features aimed at elevating user experience for both regular and power users. It will not dramatically alter the way the UI functions, but will add some much needed features that at first glance seem logical and intuitive.

Old friends

The return of the Start button might put several million minds at ease, but it doesn’t do what you expect it to. In its default setting, clicking on it takes you back to everyone’s hated “Start” screen with Windows’ Modern UI. With a little tweaking, you can get it to take you to more familiar ground — listing your more frequently used apps. It’s not the overhaul everyone was expecting, but its presence is a definite positive. Moreover, Windows 8.1 will give you the option of booting to the desktop directly, bypassing the Modern UI altogether.

The update also heralds the return of another old friend: the ability to close windows (in the modern UI) with a top-down vertical swipe or gesture; fantastic if you’re not a fan of keyboard shortcuts (you can currently close Modern apps with ALT-F4).

Facelift

Start and Lock screens are now extensively customisable with colours, patterns and images. Windows 8.1 will also allow you to share the same wallpaper across desktop and Start screens. Tiles are now scalable in size — they can now be made both smaller and larger than currently possible. On top of this, Tiles can logically be grouped under various categories for quick access and better search results. Visual customisation options required a base-level facelift and it’s good to see they’ve got it — Microsoft previously underestimated the value of playing UI dress-up to users.

Bing it!

The Windows internet experience appears to have undergone a significant number of changes, both in terms of access and delivery. To begin with, Bing, Microsoft’s search engine is now deeply integrated into the operating system. In addition to the all-new Bing apps, such as Food & Drink, and Health & Fitness (which sport Live tiles), any search performed using the search charm will now take you to a full-screen search app that brings you Internet search results in addition to download suggestions from Bing. Results are presented in native format after Bing parses information from the web and breaks down information in addition to indexing. However, the integration still feels incomplete, because Bing still doesn’t use information from your calendar or mail apps to give you more relevant search results (the way Google Now does, for example).

Internet Explorer 11 is a more flexible browser than previously, with no limitation on the maximum number of tabs open and easier access to open tabs — the concept of Live tiles now carries forward to bookmarked pages, which can now be pinned to the Start screen, refreshing based on changes to a bookmarked URL.

The bigger challenge

The free incremental upgrades on offer are a great start, and the fact that the benefits will be available to owners of multiple devices is unheard of for an OS upgrade. But one can’t help but feel for desktop users here, who are still left with what appears to be two disparate sets of user experiences clumsily merged into one. Users are still forced to choose between the traditional desktop experience or the Modern experience, but never both. Granted, some apps and features are able to coexist, but when a certain limitation is exposed, it is rather glaring. Let’s hope that in subsequent updates, Microsoft is able to bring these experiences closer together.

Wire-free

Windows 8.1 adds native support for several wireless devices: NFC-enabled devices, wireless printers, wireless projectors and wireless displays (Miracast-compatible), in addition to native support for 3D printers. The operating system update will also allow you to turn your laptop or desktop into a wireless Internet hotspot to which you can connect up to 10 devices.

Cloud control

The cloud has grown even more important in Windows 8.1. In addition to better SkyDrive support and the newly added Reading List app, which lets you store links to read later, the update will allow you to sync your Windows settings, tile size and position on your Start screen — all in the cloud.

Wire-free

Windows 8.1 adds native support for several wireless devices: NFC-enabled devices, wireless printers, wireless projectors and wireless displays (Miracast-compatible), in addition to native support for 3D printers. The operating system update will also allow you to turn your laptop or desktop into a wireless Internet hotspot to which you can connect up to 10 devices.

Cloud control

The cloud has grown even more important in Windows 8.1. In addition to better SkyDrive support and the newly added Reading List app, which lets you store links to read later, the update will allow you to sync your Windows settings, tile size and position on your Start screen — all in the cloud.

Keywords: Windows 8.1