Yesterday at the Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows dev chief Julie Larson-Green introduced the one-and-only "Milestone Preview" of Windows 8.1 (aka Windows "Blue"), touting its remarkable improvements over the much-maligned Windows 8 and Windows RT.
In the 24 hours since, I've had a chance to kick the Preview's tires a bit and look under the hood, employing the jaundiced eye of a longtime Windows veteran who isn't the least bit impressed with Windows 8's Jekyll-and-Hyde approach. What I see leaves me more convinced than ever that Microsoft is running Windows into the ground.
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Here's the good news: Windows 8.1 isn't worse than Windows 8.
If you're forced to use Windows 8 or if you're one of the 1% (OK, 5%) who actually prefer Win8 over Win7, Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 are shaping up to be must-have updates.
On the Metro side, Microsoft has heaped loads of features that should have been in the original release: more PC Settings options, resizable Metro Snap panes, better SkyDrive integration. You'll also find the kind of cosmetic surgery you should expect in a version 2.0 product, such as different sizes for live tiles, more colors and patterns, and a few new Charms options.
On the old-fashioned Desktop, we get a new Start button, from which one can actually shut down or reboot the system, and a way to disable the hot corners for the running apps list on the left and the Charms bar on the right. I find it interesting -- disturbing, really -- that one of the two major Desktop improvements is the ability to disable overbearing Windows 8 features.
For both Metro-philes and Metro-phobes, we have a new boot-to-desktop option and a remarkably upgraded Internet Explorer 11. Of course, most of us are still struggling with IE10 on Windows 7 -- or even IE8 on WinXP. No word yet on whether IE11 will be released for Win7. SkyDrive is built-in. You don't need to install a separate app, and Windows RT users finally get access to the full product.
While most of the features in Windows 8.1 should have been in Windows 8, my hat's off to the engineering work done on the update. Microsoft has put together an enormous number of improvements, and it's well on the way to shipping them in less than a year. That has to be the fastest "version 2.0" of a major product in Microsoft history. Plus, it establishes a cadence of annual, substantive updates that Microsoft claims it can maintain.
You can install and run the beta, but it would be wise to understand the limitations first. The final version of Windows 8.1 is widely expected in August or possibly September.
Metro improvementsNew Start screen live tiles. In addition to the Win8 square and doublewide rectangular tiles, Win8.1 adds quarter- and quadruple-size tiles (see Figure 1). An individual tile's background colors can be changed if the tile isn't "live" (in theory -- I couldn't get it to work in the beta).
Figure 1. Metro now offers four different tile sizes.
New Start screen backgrounds. The very limited set of Win8 Start screen colors and swirls have multiplied enormously, and some of the new ones move. You can set a picture as a Start screen background or specify a set of folders for a slideshow. You can even copy the old-fashioned Desktop's background and use it on the Start screen. That's supposed to make the transition from Desktop to Start screen less jarring.
Better control over grouping and naming tiles. In Win8, it's easy to drag a tile out of place and hard to assign names to groups of tiles. Win 8.1 adds a Customize option (right-click the Start screen or drag up from the bottom) that unlocks tiles so that they can be moved about. You can also type in a Group name without zooming out.
All Apps alternative views. In Win8, the Metro All Apps list shows you a giant blob of tiles, sorted in alphabetical order by the first name of the app, with a concatenated list on the end, grouped using the names that would have appeared in a Windows 7 Start menu (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: The All Apps list in Windows 8 is an amorphous mess.
In Windows 8.1, you access the All Apps list by clicking or tapping on the up arrow on the Metro Start screen or by swiping up. The list can be sorted in several useful ways (see Figure 3). Oddly, though, when you install Office 2013, the Office apps don't appear in the main By Category list.
Figure 3: The All Apps list in Win 8.1 is sortable.
Fewer tiles automatically appear on the Metro Start screen. In Win8, when you install an old-fashioned desktop program, any entry that would have appeared on the Win7 or XP Start menu instead appears as an individual tile on the Metro Start screen. What a mess. In Win8.1, those newly installed programs appear on the Apps list, not on the Start screen (see the tiles marked New in Figure 3). To get the tile to appear on the Metro Start screen, you have to right-click or tap on the All Apps tile and choose "Pin to Start screen." That can be a pain in the neck if you don't know the names of the programs you installed, but it definitely beats having hundreds of useless tiles (InfoPath Filler 2013? Dropbox Uninstaller? Logitech Camera Controller?) squatting on the Metro Start screen.
Metro Snap now snaps. In Windows 8, the Metro Snap feature lets you view two Metro apps running at once by dragging one of them to the side of the screen. However, this view was restricted to very precise dimensions: The snapped app occupied one-third of the screen, and the other app took up the rest of the screen, end of story. With Win8.1, the relative size of each snapped app can be adjusted, within limits, by dragging the vertical bar. In some cases you can have more than two apps side by side (see Figure 4); the number of visible apps is limited by the number of 500-pixel strips that will fit on the screen. Note that there's still no communication between the thin strips. For example, you can't select text in the Metro News app and drag it to a program running on the Desktop. Metro Snap on multiple monitors behaves bizarrely in the Preview.
Figure 4. Metro Snap in Windows 8.1 lets you view more than two apps. You can also adjust the window sizes.
Smarter lock screen. The new lock screen can play a slideshow, either from the local hard drive or from SkyDrive. You can use the camera or answer a Skype call when its notification appears on the lock screen, without unlocking the computer. I'm not sure if that's a good idea or not.
Greatly increased number of PC Settings. Win8 had a paltry subset of Control Panel settings accessible on the Metro side. Win8.1 brings many -- but far from most -- Control Panel settings to the Metro side. For example, the screen resolution can be fully controlled from the Metro side of Win8.1 (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Windows 8.1 brings more settings, including screen resolution, to the PC Settings app.
Better SkyDrive integration. Along with backup to the cloud, Win8.1 adds an automatic photo/video backup option that puts photos from your Bluetooth-connected phone or camera in SkyDrive. Also new is an option that lets you save files to SkyDrive by default.
Arguably more versatile Charms. The Devices charm, which did exactly nothing in Win8, now has options for Play (that is, play music or a video), Print, and Project (on a projector). Unfortunately, the behavior of the new Charms leaves much to be desired. For example, if you use File Explorer to navigate to an MP3 file, then choose Devices/Play, you're admonished that "You can only play from apps." Similarly, Devices/Print won't print a Word document or PDF file. The Share charm, which did nothing when invoked from the Metro Start screen in Win8, now lets you take a screenshot of the entire screen and send it in an email. There doesn't appear to be any way to save the screenshot, aside from emailing it to yourself.
Desktop improvementsErsatz Start button. In Ballmer's Build keynote, the reemergence of the Start button drew one of the few noncomatose responses from the audience. For the life of me, I don't understand why.
Consider this: In Windows 8, if you click or tap in the lower-left corner of the Desktop, you're transported to the Metro Start menu. In Windows 8.1, nothing has changed -- except Win 8.1 has a Start button at the left end of the taskbar (see Figure 6). In Win8 if you right-click on the lower-left corner of the Desktop, you get the power user menu commonly called the WinX menu. In Win8.1, if you right-click in the lower-left corner of the Desktop, you still get the WinX menu.
For this, people actually applauded. I figure it would have taken a Microsoft intern about a day to program the "feature" -- and that includes half a day for scaling the Windows icon.
Figure 6. The WinX menu adds an option to shut down or restart the computer.
Shut down and restart from the Desktop. The only socially redeeming factor on the Win8.1 ersatz Start button is its inclusion of Shut Down and Restart (Figure 6). They should've been there all along, of course.
Name changes in File Explorer. I don't consider this a feature at all. It's just tweaking something that ain't broke. In Windows 8.1, Computer (which used to be My Computer) gets another name change, to This PC. Also, the old Libraries entry is gone. Fortunately, it's easy to bring back (Figure 7). Just right-click on any empty spot on the left and choose Show Libraries.
You can change This PC back to Computer (or Snardfargrass for that matter) by right-clicking on This PC, choosing Rename, and giving the entry a new name.
Figure 7: The old Libraries entry is gone from This PC (formerly Computer, formerly My Computer) but easy to bring back.
Change Desktop navigation. This is by far the most important dialog for Desktop users in all of Windows 8.1. Right-click an empty place on the Taskbar and choose Properties, then bring up the Navigation tab (Figure 8). Disable the hot spots in the upper-left and upper-right corners -- you know, the ones you always trigger accidentally when you're trying to get real work done. Have Win 8.1 start on the Desktop. Optionally, mirror the Desktop background on the Metro Start screen (it doesn't make the round trip any less jarring for me, but I don't like in-your-face icons). Show the Apps view instead of the Metro Start screen (see Figure 3) -- it isn't anything like the old Start menu, but it's a step in the right direction. Search everywhere when you search from the Apps list, and list Desktop apps first in the Apps list.
Figure 8. The Taskbar and Navigation properties options allow you to reel in Metro.
Overall improvementsBing Search. The jury's still out, for me, on whether this is a help or a hindrance. When you use the Search charm, by default Win8.1 not only searches your documents (as you would expect) and programs and settings (which you may or may not expect), but it also searches the Web. Certain search terms trigger "hero" displays of images, video, and audio, ready for you to buy. I'm sure the new search does wonders for Bing's hit counts, and it certainly gives Microsoft more information about what interests you -- all the better to make a sale -- but only you can decide if it helps give you more information at a slower pace or if it plasters the results page with useless garbage. Don't like to see all that stuff? Click on the Everywhere line and choose Settings, Files, Web images, or Web videos. To turn Bing Search off permanently, in Metro PC Settings, choose Search & Apps/Search, then turn off Bing.
Internet Explorer 11. IE11 has a bunch of new under-the-covers features that will undoubtedly lead to a better browser. It includes WebGL support, which increases graphics rendering speeds substantially. Mozilla invented WebGL. IE11 also has SPDY support, which speeds up loading times. Google invented SPDY. There's also a gaggle of new developer tools. Metro IE11 and Desktop IE11 should be syncing tabs, but they aren't. It isn't clear if that's beta blues or if Microsoft has something else in mind.
Windows Store. The new Windows 8.1 version of Windows Store (Figure 9) doesn't look or act anything at all like the Windows 8 version. In some respects, that's a good thing. In other respects, it doesn't matter much -- the content in the Store hasn't changed. On that score, Facebook and Flipboard now promise that they will provide Metro apps, one of these days -- quite a revelation, considering Microsoft owns 1.6% of Facebook.
Figure 9: The Windows Store has fancy new digs, and big-name apps are on the way.
Microsoft showed off a number of additional Windows 8.1 goodies: native support for 3D printers; rudimentary photo editing tools, not in the same league as iPhoto, much less Instagram; a cookbook app that advances page by page by waving your hand, so you won't get the screen dirty; a build-it-yourself gaming app; fingerprint login; alarm clock; Metro calculator; Reading List (a reduced-functionality Evernote); a new camera app with Photosynth stitching, and several more. An app for Lego Mindstorms is in the wings, although the iOS and Android Mindstorms EV3 app has been around for six months.