Changes to the desktop UI are less obvious, but they do arguably contain the most hyped change in Windows 8.1: the return of the Start button. That said this isn’t a return to the much loved (by some) tree menu of past Windows versions, but simply a shortcut back to the start screen. In fact, it isn’t even that much of a shortcut since pressing the Windows key is faster.
Still, it provides a point of reference for new migrants and again should have been in from the start. Arguably this isn’t so much a climb down from Microsoft as a reluctant concession: you can have your Start button back, but it will still operate in the way we want.
Of more substance are the reinvigorated Snap Views. Now you can snap Modern UI apps and desktop software together in virtually limitless combinations, though screen size will make more than three fairly impractical on anything other than a large desktop monitor. This still doesn’t represent the true Modern UI multitasking many crave, but these virtual page breaks are a step in the right direction and particularly useful for users with multi-monitor setups.
The desktop is also home to arguably the best cheap trick in Windows 8.1: the option to match desktop and Modern UI backgrounds. This is done via right clicking the taskbar, going to properties, then navigation. It sounds trite, but the optical illusion it creates when jumping between desktop and Modern UI is easily the most powerful thing Microsoft has done to unite the two platforms. It isn’t a fix, but it does make things infinitely less jarring.
Taskbar properties are also where users can choose to boot straight to the desktop. You still can’t avoid the Modern UI entirely but you do get to spend more time in a desktop which remains Windows 7 v2.0.
Then again we’d argue spending time in the Modern UI is now genuinely useful rather than what once seemed something of a party trick. And the biggest reason for this is down to the overhauled search.
Start typing in the Modern UI to automatically begin searches and you will find Windows 8.1 now integrates both local and web search results. Furthermore click on a popular result and you will find a beautiful, horizontally scrolling results page that combines all results with smart, dynamic data.
For example, our search for chameleon indie rockers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows local results on the left, a biography, links to top tracks within Xbox Music, illustrated discography, video links and finally thumbnails of websites for popular related websites. We also did this for the term ‘Paris’ which brings up local files including personal photos via metadata, contacts, web images and again thumbnails of popular related websites.
For purists more interested in a list of search results this may grate, but for the majority it is a beautifully put together interface that will likely do more to convert users to Bing than all Microsoft’s previous efforts combined.
SkyDrive also gets a major overhaul and it is now the backbone for Windows 8 with real benefits for users over rivals like Dropbox and Google Drive. In Windows 8.1, SkyDrive automatically stores your ID information and user preferences (like iCloud) to sync them across your devices. Unlike its rivals SkyDrive on Windows 8.1 also won’t download every file to your computer by default. Instead it keeps thumbnails and file property information and downloads the files you need only as you need them. Critical files and folders can be set to download for offline viewing, but overall it is a clever way to save storage – especially for tablet and Ultrabook owners with less capacious SSDs.
Internet Explorer also gets some love in 8.1. Now hitting version 11 it brings readability and offline reading modes to combat the likes of Instapaper and Pocket. It can also now sync tabs across PCs, but not phones and tablets like Chrome, Firefox and Safari. WebGL support is finally brought in too for better browser-based gaming experiences.
The Modern UI edition of IE11 gets a visual refresh as well with improved handling of multiple tabs, but infuriatingly it is only available to users if they select IE as their default browser on the desktop. In our opinion, for all its improvements, IE11 still lacks the extensions and performance of its biggest rivals to make that deal a welcome trade-off. Though for Windows RT users unable to use alternative browsers there is no downside.
Microsoft’s $8.5bn 2011 deal to buy Skype is also coming together with Windows 8.1. The Modern UI Skype app is now installed by default and phone number detection in IE11 now automatically roots to it. The app itself doesn’t work flawlessly (it failed to pick up profile photos of many of my contacts, for example) but it is good enough that installing Skype’s forever ugly desktop software no longer feels a necessity. It is a glimpse of the future Microsoft will no doubt hope to further with Windows 9 in 2015.
Strategically interesting is the addition of Miracast support. The open alternative to Apple’s AirPlay allows for full HD and lossless audio streaming to devices using Miracast adaptors. Given Google adopted Miracast with the Nexus 4, used it in Chromecast then built support into Android 4.3, Microsoft’s move could well confirm the standard as the next big thing. With Apple keeping AirPlay all to itself this is much needed and we eagerly await third-party peripherals and wider manufacturer support.
Lastly, Microsoft 8.1 brings support for 3D printers. You’ll still need their third party software to access their full array of functionality, but in giving this exciting category the same basic driver support that standard printers have enjoyed for years it can only help a push into the mainstream.