29th October 2013
Microsoft has rolled out Windows 8.1, the first update to the Windows 8 operating system since it was launched in October 2012. The update is free for Windows 8 users and represents a move towards rolling upgrades for Windows, more in line with how Apple and Google update their software offerings. The new version brings increased personalisation options, improved applications and content rich search results.
Microsoft has introduced new tile sizes for its Start screen meaning that they can show more information at a glance. It has also introduced new ways of laying out tiles to help users makes the most out of the space they have – whether they be using a small tablet or a large desktop monitor. The Start screen is now far more customisable in terms of colour schemes and users can use their desktop background as their Star screen background.
For those who were never happy with the introduction of the Start screen in the first place, a new ‘boot to desktop’ option bypasses it. Microsoft has even reintroduced the hallowed Start button. If you were looking forward to being reaquainted with the Start menu though, don’t get your hopes up – it leads straight back to the tiled Start screen.
A variety of new applications and updates to existing applications have been rolled out with Windows 8.1, including Alarms, Calculator, Sound Recorder and Reading List, which allows users to save content for reading later. But it is the updates to existing apps that are most encouraging. Mail, People and Photos have all been overhauled to provide more user friendly and functional experiences.
Mail in particular has benefited from new functionality. Users can now compose emails in a non-maximised window. A secondary window allows users to view emails side by side and attachments can now be previewed within the Mail app itself.
The Search pane is now less intrusive, sliding out from the right-hand side of the screen. Result from ‘everywhere’ show apps, files and settings together and are easily navigable. Perhaps best of all is the new Bing integration, providing rich content results from the Web.
Windows 8.1 was never going to anything other than an iteration of Windows 8 and these changes are all improvements for sure. Importantly, Microsoft has responded quickly in areas that needed improvement and has listened to feedback from its users. Windows 8 was a wholesale departure from previous offerings and some bumps along the road were to be expected.
The split of interfaces optimised for both touch and desktop interaction reflects the evolution of devices and changes in the way that people interact with their devices. However, in its haste to adopt a more touch-friendly approach, the touch and desktop interfaces do not necessarily sit well together. For desktop users, the tiled start screen still feels too simplistic and the manner in which it co-exists with the traditional desktop feels clunky. The option to boot straight to desktop only serves to reinforce this when the reinstated Start button pulls up the Start screen instead of a menu.
It is right that Microsoft is catering for mobile users, but an interface designed for touch is no better for desktop users than a traditional interface for touch users. Given Microsoft’s ubiquity on desktop computers and particularly in the workplace, this is surely something that it will address. Windows 8.1 is a great touch platform and full of promise for Microsoft’s future touch and mobile offerings, but a little more work may be required for meeting the needs of touch and desktop users simultaneously.
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