Microsoft’s Windows 8 has always been a mixed bag for me. On one hand, the operating system was forward thinking. On the other it clearly suffered from a lack of development time. In my opinion the two conditions left a sour taste in the mouths of many users. After a few weeks of real world use, I believe Windows 8.1 will address almost all of them.
For starters, Microsoft has finally started to bridge the gap between the multitasking capabilities of the Desktop interface and Metro-style applications. In Windows 8.1 Snap has been extended to allow users to resize more than one application for use at a time. Previously, applications were locked to a ratio of 25% and 75%, if they could use Snap at all. Unfortunately, this still requires that specific application to support Snap, and as it’s not a requirement for apps to be admitted into the Windows Store. It’s still sort of a mixed bag.
In the run up to the Windows 8.1 Preview, Microsoft was laser-focused on pushing the idea that Windows 8.1 was more customizable than its immediate predecessor. I’m happy to say that Microsoft was right to push the point. Whereas Windows 8 felt almost sterile, Windows 8.1 finally makes you feel like the operating system is “yours.” Resizable Live Tiles and the ability to add your own backgrounds have had a profound impact on how I — and I suspect many others — feel about the operating systems.
The large platform changes have garnered the most headlines, but there are a few things flying just below the radar that also indicate Microsoft is listening to some of the loudest user complaints. Though the Windows 8.1 Preview doesn’t have the full line-up of updated applications that will ship to users this fall, I’ve noticed Microsoft has updated many of its own applications to have visual cues to trigger the Windows Charms.
For example, most applications now have a Search button in the application that triggers the system’s universal app searching. I suspect Windows 8 users had a horrific time trying to grasp the concept of Charms. So bad was the public’s understanding of charms that the Netflix application received a barrage of 1 star reviews for not having a search option — even though it was there.
It’s possible that I’m giving Microsoft too much credit. They have built-in Bing to the Search Charm and might have needed to make the change anyway. Still, I’ll take what I can get.
In Windows 8.1, Microsoft has completely eliminated the need for the SkyDrive desktop application by simply building the cloud backup and syncing solution in. Since installing Windows 8.1 on both my laptop and a Surface RT tablet, I’ve found that SkyDrive is both genius and downright creepy. Over the last two weeks I’ve repeatedly had moments when I remarked how strange it was to take a picture with my Windows Phone and have it show up in a lock screen slideshow on all of my Windows 8 devices.
The effect is bolstered by the sheer amount of things SkyDrive integration syncs between devices. In Windows 8.1 apps, Live Tile positions and sizes, desktop backgrounds, Wi-Fi settings and files are all synced between devices. Again, it’s surreal.
Chances are that these upgrades won’t do much to abate the bile spewing from users who simply aren’t ready or willing to embrace the new Windows interface and design methodology. Still, it’s nice to see them continuing to push for a better Windows.