On Tuesday, Microsoft released the latest update to Windows 8 – the second major revision to the operating system that everyone seems to love to hate. It’s all part of Microsoft’s course correction, tweaking Windows 8 into something that’s not quite so different than the Windows 7 everyone already knew and loved.
Full disclosure: As I’ve said before, I worked at Microsoft during the early development of Windows 8. And even then, I was unimpressed. I understood what the company was trying to achieve – it felt the need to radically reimagine what Windows was (kind of how Apple fundamentally redesigned its operating system with OS X), and especially poise the company for the mobile, tablet, and post-PC universe, where it was merely a bit player. I had serious reservations about it even then, and most people hated the touch-centric UI, the lack of the traditional Start Menu, and split personality of the design. Well, Microsoft vowed to fix those missteps, and they’re well on their way.
Unfortunately, one of the things that Microsoft remains really, really bad at is naming its products. And, like in Phil Hartman’s classic Robot Repair sketch on SNL, the name of this new update must be regarded as almost intentionally deceptive. Here’s what I mean: Last October, Microsoft released a major change to Windows 8 called Windows 8.1. Most folks refer to it as “the Windows 8.1 update,” and it restored the Start button (but not the Start Menu), added the ability to configure Windows to boot to the Desktop, improved search, and included a slew of other improvements. This week we got the Windows 8.1 Update. The difference, I guess, is now the word “update” is capitalized. Awesome.
Naming afflictions notwithstanding, there’s a lot to like in this update. First and foremost: Windows 8 will now detect if you have a touchscreen. If you do, it boots to the modern Start screen, If not – and this is the case for most folks – it automatically boots to the desktop. Just like most people were asking for all along.
The Windows 8.1 Update is the first step to better integration between the desktop and modern experiences. Eventually, for example, modern apps will run right on the desktop. For now, modern apps can be pinned to the taskbar, which means you can easy access them from the desktop. The Windows Store app, for example, comes pre-pinned to the desktop’s taskbar.
Modern apps are also more mouse-friendly. If you have a mouse and keyboard installed, Windows adds a control bar to the top of modern apps, so you can close, minimize, and split apps without using the new modern gestures which were designed for touch and many users found clumsy (or undiscoverable) with a mouse. And the Start screen also has its own highly exposed power button, which means you can shut your computer down with a single click.
This update is just the start of a major shift in the direction of Windows 8. IN a future update, for example, the classic desktop Start Menu will be back. And the task bar – a standard part of the desktop for 20 years – will make an appearance in the modern interface, so Windows will be more consistent and you can easily see what apps are running without using the poorly conceived app list on the left side of the screen.
One other thing to consider: You really should install this update. Microsoft considers it mandatory, so if you don’t install it, you won’t get future updates, fixes, and patches. But really, you should anyway. It finally makes Windows 8 enjoyable to use. And combined with the coming-soon updates I mentioned, Windows 8 could finally be better than Windows 7.
While Windows 8.1 was pushed to users via the Windows Store service, Windows 8.1 Update is available in the Control Panel’s Windows Update.
Image credit: Microsoft