It’s clear that Microsoft are still trying to make the Windows 8 operating system as adaptable as it can be for use on both tablets and the traditional PC. Having trialled the 8.1 pre-release at Mirus HQ for a few weeks now we have found that some helpful changes have been made to the user interface; the search function has been enhanced, improvements have been made to the way users navigate between the desktop and Start screen views and the customisation of the Start screen for business use is more refined. There is a new control panel called ‘PCs and Devices’, new apps have been added and of course, the infamous Start button has been restored.
Here is a quick overview of what’s new.
The Return of the Start Button
While you might have thought that the return of the Start button would also mean the return of the traditional menu from Windows 7 and XP, this isn’t the case. The button instead takes you to the tiled Start screen from Windows 8 (much like pressing the Start key on your keyboard).
Right click on it and you can shut down without using the Charms.
You can now choose to boot directly to the desktop instead of the Start screen. This is good news for businesses as for most, the desktop is where the enterprise applications reside and is the first port of call for its users. We have also noticed that machines boot up noticeably faster with 8.1.
Changes to the Tiled Start Screen
New tile sizes have been added; large to show more information and small to make the screen more efficient. There is also medium and wide size options to choose from. The Start screen can now be configured to show a list of installed applications in place of the ‘modern UI (user interface) Apps’ from the first version; an update that makes more sense for corporate users. Another welcomed improvement is the ability to view the desktop and Start screen at the same time when using a dual monitor display.
The Apps screen (reached by clicking an arrow button in the bottom left of the screen) displays an entire list of your apps and allows you to sort them by name, date installed, most used or by category. This is the closest you get to the classic Start menu from Windows 7.
You can name and group your apps as well as use personalisation options to change the wallpaper or background and accent colours on the Start page. ‘Motion accents’ have also been added to make the screen look more dynamic, most noticeably when swiping on a touch-enabled device.
An improvement that I think will be beneficial for everyone is the option to put the desktop wallpaper behind the tiled Start page, one that aims to make the transition between the two screens slightly smoother and less disjointed. With one now superimposed over the other, the two layer effect that many desktop users in particular have found rather jarring and annoying will hopefully seem more logical and integrated.
Apps list – desktop overlay
Now, when typing a search term from the Start screen (reached by clicking the Start button or hitting the Start key), Windows searches everywhere rather than a specific category. Users can launch apps like Lync and Adobe Acrobat, or directly play music and bring back web results in seconds making it the quickest and most efficient search we’ve seen. The ability to see everything you want to do on the PC in one pane is a great feature for improving productivity.
Microsoft describe their new search feature for the web (powered by Bing) as a ‘curated app-like experience’ whereby typing in a query ‘brings everything on the PC and the web in one place’. As you can see from the screenshot below, the results contain information, images and links to other queries together on one page and is presented in a clean graphic view.
It brings back web results that show you exactly what the web page is going to look like before you open it.
The image search includes tools that let you choose exactly what colour or size image you want to bring back or will filter only those depicting faces.
Fully integrated with the computer operating system and with fewer clicks or actions needed than opening up a web browser and navigating to Google, it’s clear Microsoft are trying to make it as easy and as natural as possible for Windows 8 users to pick up new habits.
Multitasking in Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 has made it easier to multitask, allowing you to view and use multiple apps that run in the same screen at the same time and improving the way they snap to the screen.
For example, in the Mail app you can click on a photo and view it in the Photos app side by side automatically.
You can choose the size of the apps – have one large and the other thin as with Windows 8, or now with 8.1, run same sized windows next to each other. You can also have up to three apps on each screen if you have multiple displays connected and run three or four app windows side by side on higher-resolution devices.
PCs and Devices Charm
A more convenient and characteristically 'Windows 8 style' control panel called 'PCs and devices' has been added to the Charms, which brings together the most commonly used settings, such as display resolution, power saving, domains, updates and system information. The traditional Control Panel is still available if you need it. (To access the Charms move your mouse or swipe your finger to the top or bottom right-hand corner of the screen).
Improvements have also been made to file explorer that make navigation between locations easier.
Microsoft have added seven new apps with the release of 8.1.
Users can customise Internet Explorer and add a Reading List where you can save articles and stories across apps and devices.
There’s also a new Help and Sound Recorder app.
The Windows Store app has also had a makeover and will now include more details and reviews.
Overall, at Mirus we are pleased with the improvements 8.1 delivers over the previous version, particularly the more refined user interface. The ability to control the layout of the Start screen and apply it to all Windows 8.1 machines on a company network for easy corporate standardisation is an important and necessary feature.
It is also worth noting that for those considering or already running Windows Server 2012, Windows 8 and 8.1 are both designed to work with this software in a corporate environment, so customers that adopt both will experience a more seamless experience when using local or shared network storage.
Installing the Update
On its official release, the team at Mirus will be installing the 8.1 update for customers with Windows 8 on a case by case basis to ensure users are warned and prepared for the change. In the meantime, if you have any questions please speak to your Account Manager who will be able to advise.
If, however, you'd prefer to do this yourself, any current Windows 8 user can upgrade to 8.1 for free through the Windows Store on the Start Screen. When you install 8.1 you are prompted to enter your Microsoft ID – if you don’t have one you can create one. However, while it appears you cannot proceed with the install unless you enter a valid Microsoft ID, making this step error three times gives you the option to setup the Microsoft ID later.
Windows 8.1 is expected to be released in October.