Windows 8.1 Update 1 Review

Windows 8.1 Update 1 Review

A step forward

It's fair to say that much of the surprise behind Windows 8.1 Update 1 was ruined by leaks, including the final version of the code, which has indeed been floating around out there for several weeks. But no matter: Update 1 matters, and is the clearest indication yet that Microsoft remains committed to listening to feedback and righting the wrongs of the original release of Windows 8.

How we got here

Well, it's been a wild ride. After alienating much of the 1+ billion strong Windows user base with Windows 8, Microsoft has worked steadily, even quickly, to fix things. That started, of course, with the expulsion of controversial Windows lead Steven Sinofsky, who (rightly) spearheaded the move to make Windows more mobile friendly but (wrongly) did it by awkwardly comingling a new mobile environment once called Metro with the familiar Windows desktop. In the wake of Sinofsky's exit, virtually every one of his top lieutenants has either left Microsoft or been pushed as far away from Windows as possible. Once again, Microsoft is hitting the reset button.

And just as the much-maligned Windows Vista provided the solid foundation on which the much more lauded and appreciated Windows 7 sat, so too does Windows 8 provide the foundation on which its successors are based. The first of these successors, Windows 8.1, arrived just a year after the release of Windows 8, and it achieved something respectable assuming you accept that the Metro/desktop comingling is here to stay. That is, it removed most (but not all) Metro elements from the desktop, so that users of traditional, non-touch PCs could mostly stay within the familiar confines of the Windows they wanted. And for those few with multi-touch Windows tablets and devices, Windows 8.1 mostly eliminated the need to fall back to the desktop to accomplish certain tasks.

Microsoft is fond of saying that Windows 8.1 represents what that team is capable of accomplishing in one year, the comparison being to the typical 3-year gestation period for preceding Windows versions. As such, it contains roughly one third as many changes, or updates, or improvements, or whatever. But in the context of "the new normal," in which Windows, like every other major Microsoft product is increasingly delivered as, and updated like, an online service, even one year between updates is too long. And so now we have Windows 8.1 Update 1.

Which is annoyingly really called Windows 8.1 Update. I'm going to keep calling it Update 1, just like I keep using the Metro name, not to be pesky but because that's its real name. My suspicion is that Microsoft is understandably trying to set expectations here. That is, if they went with Update 1 publicly, users would naturally begin wondering when Update 2 will happen. I do believe an Update 2 will happen, but I understand their reticence. There's no point in promising something that is not necessarily going to happen.

Compared to Windows 8.1, Update 1 represents what Microsoft can do in four months. So this is about one third the number of changes, or updates, or improvements, or whatever, as we received in Windows 8.1. I have often described Update 1 as "a major update," which it is in the sense that Microsoft is revving the core OS here, and that's something that, again, used to only happen once every three years. But in the scope of Windows 8.1, Update 1 is a minor update. And in the scope of something as big as Windows 8, it barely registers.

There have been many attempts to define Update 1, too, to place it in a comfortable place where we can say, hey, it's just like a service pack. Or a feature pack. Or something. Something that is not as weird and obtuse as the error-prone and non-standard way in which Microsoft for some reason distributed Windows 8.1 through the Windows Store. Well, everyone's a winner, folks: Update 1 is both a service pack and a feature pack in that it contains both fixes and new features. That it will be distributed normally through Microsoft Update should have system administrators, IT pros, and end users breathing a collective sigh of relief. There's nothing weird happening this time.

 So Update 1 is sort of a major update and sort of a minor update. It's sort of a service pack and it's sort of a feature pack. It's something that many people will install silently through Windows Update and then never even notice that it happened. And that's because there's no "big bang" new feature we can point to in this release. There's just a ton of mostly subtle, user-driven feedback-based changes that collectively make Windows better. And that is especially true if you are using Windows on a traditional, non-touch PC. Because, after all, the single biggest area of complaint about the original Windows 8 was that awkward shoehorning of Metro. Update 1 doesn't "remove" Metro. But it makes it easier to live with.

As you'll see, Update 1 also includes some internal changes that make Windows a better fit for lower-end PC hardware, an important consideration in this era of inexpensive mini-tablets and Chromebooks. And it also includes a compatibility update for enterprises that should help ease the transition from Windows XP.

So let's dive in. Here's what's new in Windows 8.1 Update 1.

Start screen: Power button

On some but not all PCs, you will now see an obvious Power button in the upper-right of the Start screen, between the User tile and a new Search button. This Power button provides the same menu of power management choices as you'll see with the Power button in the Settings pane and the Quick Access (WINKEY + X) menu, but it's more obvious and is a response to user complaints.

There was some confusion during the beta about why certain PCs have this button and some do not. But here's the answer: Its appearance is keyed to an internal setting called the Power Platform Role that PC and device makers must set accurately in order to obtain the Windows logo. If this setting is configured as "Slate," the button will not appear, because it would be too easy to tap accidentally and tablet users are comfortable with the edge-based UIs. If it is set to "mobile device," as a laptop or Ultrabook would be, the button will appear.

In other words, it has nothing to do with the availability of features like multi-touch or Connected Standby.

Start screen: Search button

Another new button, Search, now appears on the Start screen as well. This makes this crucial functionality more obvious to everyone, though the old methods (keyboard shortcuts and the Search charm) still work too.

Start screen: Tiles customization

In Windows 8 and 8.1, if you tried to customize the Start screen tiles with a mouse, it would be behave as it did with touch: An app bar would appear, providing contextual options via command buttons. In Update 1, these customizations now trigger more familiar pop-up menus like the ones a user would see when they right-click in the desktop environment. The theory here is that this new approach is more consistent with the user experiences traditional PC users know and trust.

If you're using multi-touch, nothing has changed: Start screen tile customization works like it did before. You'll only see this pop-up menu when you interact with a mouse.

To say that I have mixed feelings about this change is perhaps an understatement. In making Start screen tile customization with the mouse consistent with the right-click behavior we see on the desktop, Microsoft has also managed to make this behavior completely inconsistent with every single other Metro experience in Windows 8.x. For example, when you right-click in any Metro app, one or more app bars appear; there's no context menu. Likewise, you can right-click on search results from the Start screen and what appears is a Metro-style menu, not a desktop-style context menu.

Put simply, all Metro experiences used to work consistently. And now Start screen tile customization—and only Start screen tile customization—is inconsistent. This was poorly conceived, in my opinion.

That said, I do like that you can now simply drag and drop tiles with the mouse without having to first enter a weird Customize mode as you must still do with touch. It's not all bad.

App install notification

Speaking of poorly conceived, the way that Windows handles new app installs continues to be problematic with Update 1. In the original shipping version of Windows 8, Microsoft treated the Start screen as it did the Start menu in older Windows versions: Every time you installed a desktop application, you'd get an often overwhelming number of tiles (icons) pinned to the end of the Start screen. (Metro apps are only allowed to have one default Start screen tile, so this wasn't an issue.)

As it does so often, Microsoft's reaction to the negative feedback it got for this was to go in the completely opposite direction for the next release. And so in Windows 8.1, when you installed an app (or desktop application), no tiles were pinned to the Start screen. The onus was on the user to find the hidden Apps screen and then pin the app's tile if desired.

Not good.

In Update 1, Microsoft retains the no app pinning policy, but it's added a well-intentioned new feature: You will see a new app notification at the bottom of the Start screen.

When you tap (or click) this notification, you are delivered to the Apps screen so you can then go find the app. Newly installed apps are even highlighted so you can more easily find them.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, problem solved. Sadly, that's not the case. First of all, it's often hard to find a new app on the Apps screen, and that's especially true if you have a lot of apps or if the color scheme you've chosen makes the highlight too subtle. For example, the stock Apps screen from the same PC shown above looks like so. You can't see any new apps here at all.

On my desktop PC, I found a more absurd example. A single new desktop application icon hidden in a sea of choices. Where's Waldo?

More problematically, in order to remove an app from that new apps installed notification, you actually have to launch it ... from Apps. If you launch it from the desktop, it will not be removed from the notification. Microsoft tells me there's a timeout, and that the notification disappears after a period of time. But it must take several days. And when an app you've been using keeps turning up as a new app, that makes the notification less than useful.

Speaking of which, you know what would also be very useful? An update app notification. With Metro apps silently updating all over the place, it would be nice to know when one changed. That might cause people to actually launch that app and see what's new. Microsoft tells me they're looking into this.

App suggestions in search results

If you're familiar with the Smart Search feature that debuted in Windows 8.1, you know that Microsoft is now commingling results from the web with searches of the files on your PC. With Update 1, Smart Search is getting a new feature that debuted previously in Windows Phone: It will suggest Metro apps to you based on the search query. This feature required a back-end switch to be enabled, so I've not had a chance to try it out yet. But it will suggest both relevant apps that are already installed on your PC as well as those that are not.

Mo' apps in Apps

Responding to complaints that the Apps screen isn't particularly dense—it's clearly designed for touch—Microsoft has added an option to display more app tiles onscreen at once in this view. Not a huge deal, of course, but a little nicety for desktop users or those with huge screens.

Start screen: PC Settings tile

This one isn't exactly huge, but Microsoft now pins the PC Settings tile to the Start screen by default. (You could have done this manually yourself previously.) This makes PC Settings both more discoverable and more easily accessible: The normal way to access it was via a text link in the Settings pane, which you reached through the Settings charm. Obvious is good.

Pin Metro apps to the taskbar

In Windows 8 and 8.1, you could pin desktop applications (and some other desktop items like Recycle Bin) to the Start screen. But you couldn't pin Metro apps to the taskbar. Since Microsoft knows that a huge percentage of people actually use the taskbar as their primary application launching interface, and have continued to do so since Windows 8 arrived, it makes sense that they would improve this functionality to include Metro apps. So this feature is configured by default when you install Update 1. (Yes, you can disable it.)

As both a demonstration and an indication of how important this app is, Microsoft even pins the Windows Store app to the taskbar by default.

These pinned Metro apps can provide some of the same features you see in desktop applications. You can mouse over them when they're running and see a pop-up preview of the app. (And if there are multiple windows, as is possible with some Metro apps, like Internet Explorer or Mail, you will see that same multi-window effect you get with similar desktop applications.) Media apps like Xbox Music can even display media transport controls in a "thumb bar" so you can control music playback from the desktop as you work. It's like they're real applications or something.

Of course, they're still Metro apps. So they run full screen, and only full screen. But there are two features, described in each of the next two sections, which can help mitigate that weirdness.

Title bar and window controls in Metro apps

If you're using Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on a PC that has a mouse, you will see a new title bar at the top of the app when the app launches, and then again if you mouse the mouse cursor to the top of the screen. It is otherwise hidden and does not appear when you're touching the screen or otherwise not using a mouse.

This is of course yet another nod to traditional PC users and unlike the misguided right-click stuff on the desktop, this is both well-intentioned and well-executed. The close window box at the far right of course closes the window. But you can also click the window control box on the left to access options related to Snap. (Sadly, they're misnamed with "Split" instead of "Snap"; not sure what that's about.)

What's missing, of course, is the ability to run Metro apps in floating windows on top of the desktop. If you think about Update 1 as a step towards a more well-finessed future Windows—a four month step forward, if you will—it's not hard to imagine that a future release will include that functionality too, and complete the picture. My sources have already told me to expect floating Metro windows in Windows 9 (codenamed Threshold), which is due in one year, in April 2015. (And you could of course use a third party utility like Stardock ModernMix to achieve this effect sooner. I suspect it will be updated for Update 1 soon.)

Display running Metro apps in the taskbar and access the taskbar from Metro apps

Separate from the ability to pin Metro apps to the taskbar, you can also choose to display Metro apps in the taskbar. If that distinction sounds subtle, think of it this way: When you pin an app, it appears in the taskbar whether it's running or not. But if you choose to display Metro apps in the taskbar, all of the Metro apps that are currently running will now appear there too.

So why would you do this? If you're going to use the desktop and its applications primarily, but would also like to run some Metro apps, you can switch between all of these things more easily through the taskbar, for starters. But there's also a hidden benefit to enabling this option: When you do so, you can then access the taskbar from within Metro apps, which is a little weird but certainly useful. However, as with the title bar discussed before, this only works with a mouse: All you need to do is move the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen and then back up a bit, and the taskbar pops up.

Personally, I'm not super interested in this functionality and I'll be disabling it. (Look for "Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar" in the Taskbar tab of the Taskbar and Navigation Properties window.) But I could see some finding this quite useful.

Boot to desktop by default on non-touch PCs

If you are using a traditional, non-touch PC with Windows 8.1 Update 1 installed, the PC will now bypass the Start screen and boot to the desktop by default. This feature can be overridden by the PC maker, and you can of course change this behavior as well: Open Taskbar and Navigation Properties, go to the Navigation pane, and uncheck the option "When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start."

The ability to boot to the desktop debuted in Windows 8.1, of course. So if you previously configured this option in whatever way and then installed Update 1, it should respect your original choice.

New or updated apps?

One of the things I'm asked fairly regularly is whether Update 1 includes any updated Metro mobile apps. The answer, for the most part, is no. (Actually, a OneDrive app replaces SkyDrive, but that's it.) And that is by design. These apps are designed to be updated regularly, on an ongoing basis, outside of the schedule for the core OS. And they are: I haven't really tracked this accurately but I'm aware of several updates to the Xbox Music app since the initial Windows 8.1, the most recent of which happened just days ago. That's how this system is supposed to work.

PC Settings tweaks

None of this is major, but there are a lot of little improvements to PC Settings. For example, there's a handy Control Panel link at the bottom of the initial PC Settings screen because, well, duh. There's an improved Disk Space interface (in PC and Devices) that lets you see how much space is used by various items and, optionally, remove unused apps that are taking up too much space. And you can now join a domain easily, assuming you can find it: It's in PC Settings, PC and Devices, PC Info. (obviousy!)

There are lot more of these kinds of things, but you get the idea: PC Settings has gotten a nice once-over in this update.

Scaling Windows for smaller, cheaper devices

8 or so years ago, Microsoft responded to the netbook threat by creating a low-cost offering called Windows XP Starter Edition. PC makers jumped all over this cheap Windows version, killing off the one chance that Linux ever really had on the PC desktop. Today, Microsoft faces a similar threat in the form of low-cost, low-end Android tablets and Chromebooks. As with Linux in the netbook days, device makers have embraced these platforms because they're free. So Microsoft is responding much as it did before, this time with much lower licensing on Windows 8.1 with Update 1. But there are some important differences between today's low-cost Windows offering and that of the past decade.

Thanks to the componentization efforts that have happened since the initial release of Windows XP, Microsoft was able to trim the fat further than ever before and create a version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 that can run in just 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of onboard storage. This effort, called 116 (for 1 GB of RAM + 16 GB of storage), includes over 200 efficiency and performance improvements and enables Windows to run on lower-end devices than was previously possible. More to the point, it lets device makers sell low-end Windows devices that can compete effectively with sub-$250 Android and Chromebook devices.

According to Microsoft, it was able to get Windows working well in just 1 GB of RAM by refining its app store frameworks so that the process lifetime manager is more aggressive about suspending apps, as opposed to killing them, which in turn leads to quicker app restart times as well.

As for the storage improvements, they've been able to reduce the size of the on-disk install image by 60 percent, freeing up valuable storage space (and, hopefully, ending the inanity of reviewers comparing usable disk space on new devices). A new WIM (Windows Image) compression technology also lets those smaller install images be read while compressed, which saves PC makers about an hour of time during manufacturing.

The bad news? These improvements only apply to "future devices," and they are not available to any PC you already own. If you upgrade to Update 1, you won't experience a smaller disk footprint, for example.

Internet Explorer changes

In Update 1, the compatibility tools in Internet Explorer 11 have been updated to include new IE 7 and 8 compatibility modes, which map to the newest versions of the browser that work with Windows XP. The goal here is to help businesses upgrade from XP to Windows 8.1, and IT can specify that the browser works like an older version and is thus compatible with older line of business apps or intranet sites. There's been a lot of talk about this feature for some reason, but it's just a minor improvement over a feature that's been in IE for years.

Availability and pricing

Microsoft confirmed that it will make Update 1 available to all Windows 8.1 (including RT 8.1) users via Microsoft Update/Windows Update on April 8, 2014. It is of course a free update.

Final thoughts

Microsoft tells me that it's very happy to be able to respond to user feedback more quickly than it did before and that Update 1 hints at a "more aggressive schedule" it plans to keep going forward. And on that note, Update 1 does deliver, especially given its fourth month development time. In it, Microsoft address those complains it can, but it leaves others—the oft-complained about need for a Start menu option and of course floating Metro windows—for the future. So it is in effect a step forward.

As I've noted, Update 1 isn't perfect, and that step forward bit also means that it's not the full vision for the future, but is rather just partway there. But none of the problems are insurmountable, and many of the things I complain about here won't bother others.

Overall, I'm just happy to see the Windows team pick up the baton of "rapid release cycle" and really run with it. And it's very clear that by continuing to provide feedback, we can materially impact Windows and ensure that it's the product we expect. That alone signals a new era, and a new sense of hope.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 is highly recommended. You should upgrade as soon as possible.

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