To hear many Microsoft watchers tell it, the Windows 8.1 update is chock full of features and changes that could “save” Windows 8 from the same reputation that defined Windows Vista. They laud its added customization options, and trumpet Microsoft’s newfound ability to ship an absolute boat-load of feature additions in just a year. I’m not sure that they are wrong, either.
After spending almost two months running the update I’m inclined to agree that many of the feature changes that they’ve made make Windows 8.1 the best operating system the company has shipped yet.
On the other hand, there’s a lot here that just doesn’t fix some of the fundamental issues introduced in Windows 8.
Microsoft’s new app model in Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 allows users to open apps almost effortlessly with their fingers or a mouse and keyboard. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly make it obvious to users that they can actually close these apps.
To be fair, it’s by design, Microsoft made sure that open Windows 8-style applications don’t hog system memory or resources. However, that’s of no consequence, since most users have no way of knowing that and have become accustomed to closing applications they aren’t using. Microsoft has made no effort to address this issue in the Windows 8.1 update.
Notifications Are a Mess
I’ll admit that this issue never occurred to me until I sat down to write this very piece. Windows 8 introduced a feature that the company borrowed from its Windows Phone operating system called toast notifications. The concept is easy to understand. When users are sent an email, message or breaking news, the operating system pops up a small little notification on the right of the screen with whatever they need to be informed of.
The bad news, is that in doing so Microsoft also may have created one of the same issues that Windows Phone has on Windows 8.1. Should a user miss seeing that notification, or what Microsoft calls toast, they have no way of knowing what the notification was about.
Instead they either need to have the app pinned to their Start Screen, or open every app they’ve got installed until they figure out what the toast was. As there’s no centralized way to view notifications outside of things that are pinned to the Start Screen in Windows 8.1, the problem is still there, and it will still continue to confuse casual users.
Gestures are still all over the place
When Microsoft first announced Windows 8, it said that it would help users with laptops and desktops bridge the usage gap between devices without touch input by enabling track pad gestures. These track pad gestures are meant to complement and mirror the gestures of touch-equipped devices.
As it turns out, neither are necessarily good things. For starters, most Windows 8 — and I suspect 8.1 machines — will come with these gestures turned on. That means users will find themselves accidentally triggering these new gestures all the time. The second thing is that, no matter how many How-To apps Microsoft embeds in Windows, none of these swipe gestures are exactly obvious.
For example, outside of the tutorial and the Help + Tips app, there is still no way for users to even know that the multitasking bar can only be triggered by swiping right on the touch pad or touch screen of a Windows 8.1 device. Just to reiterate, there’s absolutely on-screen cue that would let a user know that they can swipe down from the top of an application to close it. In short, even in Windows 8.1, Microsoft seems to be betting that users rely on these not so obvious gestures to complete everyday tasks.
There’s no doubt that Microsoft is making an honest effort to address the issues of the past, but in my experience with Windows 8.1, I don’t see much here that essentially changes some of the hardcore issues with Windows 8.
Really, the only thing we can do is hope that Microsoft addresses these core concerns before the operating system goes out for free to users on October 17th.