On Wednesday, Microsoft released the preview version of Windows 8.1. Since then, I’ve been using it on my main desktop PC with two monitors (neither of them touchscreens), and I can safely say that Windows 8.1 drastically improves the experience for mouse-and-keyboard users, and users who do most of their work on the Desktop.
SkyDrive integration is awesome, the Start button – despite the lack of Start menu – is surprisingly functional, and improved split-screening means Desktop users can now actually use Metro apps without being forced into full-screen mode.
Even so, there’s no getting around the fact that mouse, keyboard, and Desktop are still second-class citizens in the latest iteration of Microsoft’s touch-oriented operating system.
The Start button and menu
The biggest change for Desktop users in Windows 8.1 is the semi-return of the Start button and menu. The Start button is enabled by default, and takes the shape of a flat Windows flag in the bottom left corner (or elsewhere, if you move the taskbar). By default, clicking this button takes you to the Metro Start screen – which is still pretty useless for Desktop users. All is not lost, however: A new tab in the taskbar properties window (pictured above) lets you configure the Start button to pop up the Metro Apps view instead.
The new Metro Apps view is probably the best addition to Windows 8.1 for mouse and keyboard users. By default this view shows you every app (Desktop and Metro) in an alphabetical list, but sorting it by “most used” makes it much more usable.
If you begin typing on the Apps view (or the Start screen), the magic really starts to occur: It’s basically a full-screen version of the Windows 7 Start menu. Rather than sorting by Apps, Files, and Settings, Windows 8.1 defaults to “Everything,” so that you can easily bring up anything – apps, files, settings – just by typing.
With Windows 8, if you wanted to add/remove programs, you had to manually click “Settings” every time, or perform a convoluted tabbing manoeuvre – now it’s a lot easier. The below image (which you can click to zoom in) shows what searching in the new Windows 8.1 Apps view looks like.
Booting to Desktop
The taskbar properties window also lets you “Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in.” By enabling this, you see the Desktop immediately after you log in – or, if you remove your password and disable the Lock screen, you can boot straight to the Desktop after powering up. It really is that simple, and it boggles the mind that it took this long for Microsoft to implement such a change.
Rounding out that beautiful taskbar properties window, you can now disable the hot corners (very useful if you regularly use full-screen Desktop apps and games), and you have the option of displaying your Desktop wallpaper as your Metro Start screen and Apps list background. The latter sounds like a small change, but it goes a long way towards making the Apps list feel like part of the Desktop. It’s not quite the same as having the Windows 7-era pop-up Start menu, but it’s nowhere near as jarring as Windows 8′s OMG-FULL-SCREEN-TILES-IN-YOUR-FACE Start screen.
Depending on your point of view, Windows 8.1′s extensive SkyDrive integration is either a massive boon to the user, or a monopolistic power play by Microsoft to dominate the much-contested cloud storage market. With Windows 8.1 you have the option of enabling SkyDrive sync – and if you do, all of your documents and settings, whether they originate from Metro or Desktop, will be automatically backed up to the cloud. Moreover, installed Metro apps and app data are now backed up, too. For documents, SkyDrive is seamlessly integrated into Explorer; it’s another Library, just like Downloads, Photos, and Documents, that’s directly accessible from every Explorer window.
For Desktop users, this feature is useful if you make regular use of cloud storage to access your files on the move. SkyDrive apps exist for Windows Phone, Android, and iOS. If you’ve been resisting cloud storage due to the pain of installing and managing third-party apps on your PC, now’s your opportunity to dive in. I haven’t tested it, but in theory you might be able to use this new version of SkyDrive to restore a new install of Windows to a usable state, too.
For Desktop users, that’s about it when it comes to noticeable changes and feature additions in Windows 8.1. Some Metro-oriented features, such as improved app split-screening, could be useful for Desktop users, but only if you intend to actually make use of Metro apps – and, if you use a mouse and keyboard, Metro apps are still rather painful. The above image shows what Windows 8.1 looks like on multiple monitors with split-screening (click the image to zoom in).
Likewise, you might enjoy the new Metro-style Control Panel (PC Settings), but you’ll probably still opt to use the Desktop version.
The big question, of course, is whether these changes make Windows 8.1 better than Windows 7 in terms of productivity and gaming. Windows 8 has always been faster, securer, and more power and memory efficient than Windows 7. If you assess the Desktop side of Windows 8 purely on its own merits, it’s the best PC operating system/interface out there, far outstripping Windows 7 and OS X. When it gets right down to it, everyone wants to upgrade to the latest and greatest x86 operating system; everyone wants to enjoy the latest speed-ups and productivity boosting features – but, so far, Desktop users are sticking firmly with Windows 7.
Does Windows 8.1 do enough to relieve you of the persistent, intrusive annoyance that is the Metro interface? Does Windows 8.1 make Windows 8 fully usable with a mouse and keyboard? Does Windows 8.1 make the Metro interface slightly less abhorrent to Desktop users?
Yes, but only just. Good job, Microsoft – you’re a year late, and you’ve garnered a massive amount of ill will, but you got there eventually.
For more on Windows 8.1, see our hands-on preview and article entitled Windows RT 8.1: Still sluggish, and a meaningless update.