A closer look at Windows 8.1 and the Desktop: It’s an improvement, but not enough

Back at the start of November last year, I wrote an article on the question of how Metro (new-style) and Desktop applications would integrate and share information with each other. The short answer? “Terribly.” So, 12 months later, with Windows 8.1 now available, has the situation improved to any measurable degree?

Let’s find out, starting with one of the most egregious offenders – the Windows 8 Photos app.

The Photos app was a comically non-functional piece of software. For example, if you opened a directory of photos anywhere but in the C:\Users\UserName\Pictures\ location, it refused to allow keyboard browsing using the left/right arrow keys. Images couldn’t be dynamically resized, but all images were blown up to a seemingly arbitrary width.

And the app completely lacked an “Open With…” option to at least give the end user the option to choose something better. Most of these issues persisted until the release of Windows 8.1.

The Windows 8.1 Photos app, I’m happy to say, is a completely different animal. Gone are the obnoxious restrictions on directory browsing, the arbitrary resizing, and the complete lack of functionality. Files, including those on completely different hard drives, can now be edited. There’s even a prominent “Open With…” button.

In short, all of the major issues we had with the application are gone – save one. Photos still refuses to acknowledge that users might have previous photo directories.

Photos is one of the most improved experiences, but far from the only one. Mail now allows users to compose missives in something other than a full-screen Window, and it also allows for drag-and-drop mail moving, plus you can view attachments to a message without jumping entirely out of the application. Metro Mail, however, still can’t talk to the desktop – if you try to send an email from the Desktop without another mail client installed, Windows will tell you there’s no mail client capable of performing that action.

The People App’s interface has been overhauled, and the News App is now capable of generating email links that people without Windows 8 can read. This last point is huge; the News app was one of our favourites from Windows 8, but the only people who could read shared links were people who had Windows 8 as well. In short, a lot of the things that were broken in Windows 8 are now fixed in Windows 8.1. We’re glad to see it.

Search is still fractured

Unfortunately, the Metro and Desktop environments remain completely disconnected in some critical ways, despite the Windows 8.1 overhaul. When you start typing a search in Window 8.1, the default is “Everything.” The default lies. “Everything” appears to mean “Everything within the Windows 8.1 C:\Users\UserName\” space. As a default, this makes perfect sense – that’s where most people will keep their files.

The problem is, if you’ve ever migrated from one desktop to another (or you use a second drive), your OS almost certainly doesn’t conform to this pattern, particularly if you use a small primary SSD backed up by a larger conventional spinner. Windows 8.1 Search treats these as if they don’t exist. This kind of baked-in rigidity is fundamentally infuriating. The problem isn’t unique to Microsoft’s own applications – Adobe Photoshop Express can’t be told to find photos in other locations. Nor can any other Metro photo app, as far as I can tell.

On the positive side, searching the system now brings up Bing results by default, which can be quite handy. It’s Google’s “Searchable URL bar” taken to its logical conclusion – now you can search the web from the OS. Just hit the Windows key, start typing, and pick a result – this is very smart, and nicely implemented. That said, you can disable this behaviour if you don’t like it, and Google may cry foul at some point over the fact that you can’t change your default search engine, but the general functionality is good.

Less great is the fact that searching from the Start Screen no longer offers you the option to search in a single application. In Windows 8, you could choose to run a search for “Dogs” in Wikipedia. Now, you have to launch the Wikipedia app first.

On the whole, Search functions seem to have gotten better, but the Charm’s capability has simultaneously contracted and expanded in opposite directions.

Modern UI on the Desktop

One of the biggest problems with Windows 8 was that many apps simply didn’t function well if paired with the desktop. Programs could technically run in this fashion, but they didn’t run well, and they often didn’t resize to the Snap view in ways that made them particularly functional. It wasn’t at all uncommon to end up with unreadable text boxes, badly-scaled images, or postage-stamp video screens that ate up a top-to-bottom slice of monitor while making effective use of a fraction of the space.

Has this problem been solved? As with a lot of Windows 8.1, the answer is: Somewhat. The good news is that applications are generally better behaved and can now size to 500px or 320px. For a 1920 x 1080 monitor, that means you can stack up to three applications across the screen at once. The process of actually doing this, however, is somewhat tricky. Once you’ve dragged two apps to opposite sides of the screen, you must position the third between them, as shown below.

This takes a bit of finagling, but once the position is set, you drop the icon and get this (after a bit of additional border resizing).

So far, so good – Metro is at least able to play alongside the desktop with a great deal more grace. But the problems start cropping up instantly.

There are no saved configurations. If you Alt-tab away to an application in full-screen mode, like the Photos app, Alt-tabbing back to “Desktop” will return you to the conventional desktop. If you want your Metro apps back, you’ll have to drag them out and replace them while holding the Alt-Windows key combination.

To be fair, this is only an issue if you’re used to Alt-tabbing between windows. After 20 years, I’m extremely used to Alt-tabbing between windows. While this change does make Metro apps slightly easier to work with if you want to incorporate them into your production, it also underscores just how lame some of this “reinventing the wheel” truly is. The idea of docking a program to one side of the screen, after all, is absolutely nothing new.

Data density remains problematic, and must be evaluated app-by-app. Video players are terrible by this metric, with postage-stamp viewing windows and huge blocks of black space.

To cut a long story short, yes, you can combine Metro and Desktop apps more easily now, and yes, those apps are more flexible and fluid. But mostly, these changes serve to show just how crippled Metro Windows management actually is. The ability to separate one’s workspace into static columns with limited flexibility harks back to the most primitive GUIs.

After spending time with Windows 8.1, I have to admit, Microsoft has fixed a lot of problems that were plaguing the OS. Some of these, to be sure, were application-specific, but they add up to an improved whole. That’s all well and good.

The bigger problem here is that, while I acknowledge that Windows 8.1 is a much better product than its predecessor, the Metro/Modern applications still hang off its neck like an albatross when working on the Desktop. I often anchor a movie or TV show to one corner of the screen while I work on other projects, but giving up the entire vertical slice for a small mid-size window is just too much of a giveaway.

While we haven’t touched directly on the privacy issues surrounding SkyDrive and Windows, the NSA revelations of earlier this year make me deeply unwilling to work with any cloud service. That’s my own concern, but the way Microsoft hides the option to create a local account at setup makes it clear that the company really, really, wants you to share everything you do with it, and that’s not something an increasing number of people and businesses are comfortable doing.

The ability to customise the Start Menu is welcome, but pushing the wreck of icons into the Apps Menu just isn’t very helpful. The fundamental problem remains – the Start Screen-style layout just doesn’t work well when forced to display huge amounts of content. A native utility to change the font colour above each category would help enormously, but we haven’t seen one yet.

Yes, Metro/Modern UI is better. But despite Microsoft’s claims that this is the future of computing, it still feels like something I’m forced to slog through if I want the genuine improvements Windows 8 offers over Windows 7 in terms of boot time, Task Manager, and animation speed. Right now, in my opinion, the equation is still too lopsided to recommend Windows 8.1 over Windows 7.

But hey, this is progress, even if it’s progress of the most tepid sort. Give it another year, and check back for our coverage of Windows 8.2.

For more on Windows 8.1, you can read our full review of the updated OS, and if you do take the plunge, we have 5 tips to help you run Windows 8.1 as smoothly as possible.