When it came to updating its struggling Windows 8 operating system, Microsoft took the mantra "change is bad, unless it's great." At least that's what Windows Principal Program Manager Chaitanya Sareen told me in a meeting last week.
Microsoft's launch of Windows 8.1 Update at the Build conference in San Francisco seems centred on this philosophy — there are no huge changes to the baseline features of Windows 8.1, but every difference in Update is designed to please rather than surprise the world's 1.5 billion Windows users.
Sareen noted that 40 per cent of PCs for sale now are touch-enabled, and the level of customer satisfaction among touch-capable device Windows 8.1 users was actually higher than for any previous Windows version, including Windows 7.
But that still leaves a whole lot of machines out there that still rely solely on mouse and keyboard for user interaction, and they have been less than thrilled, by most accounts.
Users of those non-touch systems have in fact voiced the loudest complaints about Microsoft's two-in-one OS. This Windows 8.1 Update is primarily intended for them and their needs. That's not to say that touch PCs are completely ignored in the Update. Sareen told me that Windows engineers have incorporated about 200 performance increases for the new touch devices, including reducing its disk footprint.
It's sometimes hard to remember that Windows 8 has only been available for a year and half, and in that short space has taken three significantly different forms—Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and now Windows 8.1 Update.
This revision is a result of the product team behind the operating system's listening to the feedback from users: Sareen made a point of emphasising that and that the primary motivation behind this Update is to address the feedback from mouse pushers and clickers, in particular.
If you run Windows 8.1 on a desktop or laptop, you'll no doubt discover more new behaviours: There's quite a bit more to the update than what's listed below. For a fuller account, see my review of Windows 8.1 Update.
In the meantime, the list and descriptions below should give you a handle on the major new developments in this release.
1.It happens automatically, and it's free
This time around, there are absolutely zero hoops to jump through to get the latest version of Windows. Starting April 8, Windows 8.1 PCs will be automatically updated through Windows Update. No going to the Windows Store or downloading and running anything.
Though this delivery method makes the new version sound like it's just a Service Pack, as you'll see from below, there are definite user features. As the lack of even a point version update indicates, however, it's really mostly improving features already in Windows 8.1.
But don't take that to mean that it's a small update: It weighs in at over half a gigabyte. Windows 8 users who never updated to 8.1 can get the update, too, but only through the Windows Store.
2.Boot to desktop
This much-requested feature was available in Windows 8.1, but Update now makes it the law of the land—for laptops and desktops, at least. The OS now detects whether it's running on a traditional PC with a mouse and keyboard, and, if so, it boots to the desktop. If you're running Windows 8 on a tablet or slate, however, the Start screen remains your initial view of Windows. This stratagem makes a lot of sense, as it will give a level of familiarity to longtime Windows users.
Of course you can change this behaviour in settings if you're on a desktop and still prefer the Start screen. Personally, however, I don't have a problem with the Start screen on my desktop. I simply view it as a full-screen Start button menu, and am quickly off and running with either desktop or modern apps after a tap.
3.Power and search buttons on start
Yes, you could always (and still can) just start typing at the Start screen to search for apps, but with Windows 8.1 Update, a clear button at top clues you in to this. Another much-missed button was the Power button. Windows 8's architects figured most people just close the lid or let their PCs sleep rather than often powering down. Users told them otherwise, and they listened.
The Start screen is now graced with the universal power button symbol for easy access to shut down. No longer is the option hidden deep in a settings menu.
4.Smart mouse tweaks
A lot of what's new in Windows 8.1 may be so subtle that you may not notice it explicitly, yet you get a sense that things just work more smoothly. A key example of this is what happens when you place the mouse in the corners of your screen. A basic tenet of the Windows 8 interface is "edges for touch screens and corners for the mouse cursor." These are the actions that get you to the basic Windows menus and window switching.
With the 8.1 Update, the mouse side of these actions gets smarter: Now you won't open the Charms menu if all you want to do is hit the X in a program's top-right corner. And on the other side, moving the mouse to the top left corner just to get to your browser's Back button doesn't annoyingly show the running apps thumbnails; you have to hesitate at the screen corner with the mouse cursor.
5.Modern apps on the taskbar
This one is potentially more controversial among the diehard, longtime Windows users, as it actually brings modern, tablet-centric Windows Store apps into the desktop fold. In fact, the Store app itself is now pinned to the taskbar by default — which makes a lot of sense with all those machines that will now boot to the desktop view.
You can also now pin any store app to the desktop taskbar. This one certainly won't make happy those curmudgeons who want the modern interface to go away, but it's a step towards integrating Windows 8.1's two modes into a more coherent whole. And users who really don't want it can disable the capability in the Taskbar properties dialogue.
A related new Taskbar feature is that that tool will now appear when a desktop or laptop user moves the cursor to the bottom of the screen—even when in a modern app.
6.Desktop clicks don't open modern apps
A lot of people were put off by Windows 8's opening photos in the (at the time) fairly useless Photos modern app. The app has since gotten a lot more photo-editing power, but it can still be jarring to be in the desktop File Explorer and double click to launch a touch-style app.
That behaviour is no longer the default: Instead, you'll see your file in the appropriate desktop app instead. On the other side of this equation, touch apps themselves get more user friendly for mouse users—now right-clicking on a Start screen tile opens a familiar context menu rather than the new-style bars at top and bottom of the screen.
7.Title bars for Store apps
Another tweak in the update also brings more harmony between modern apps and desktop users. When you start a modern app, you'll now see a title bar along the top of the window. Moving the mouse cursor to the top of the screen and this bar reappears; from it, you can use the time-honored minimise and close buttons—complete with animations that let you know what's going on.
8.Newly installed apps are more obvious
Starting with Windows 8.1, newly installed apps no longer get tiles on your ever-lengthening main Start screen, being added instead to the All Apps section below it. They still go there, but now the down arrow that takes you to the All Apps list shows a very obvious New Apps with a number indicated many new apps you've installed. The All Apps screen now features denser icons that are friendlier for mouse users.