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Review: Windows 8.1 Update offers an olive branch for mouse users

Woody Leonhard | March 20, 2014
Windows 8.1 Update brings a tiny handful of mouse-centric improvements and a hodgepodge of interface tweaks

Second, as you may have noticed in Figure 3, Windows 8.1 Update allows you to put Metro app icons on the taskbar. It can get a little confusing — in Figure 3, for example, the second icon is for Desktop IE, whereas the last icon is for Metro IE — but if you don't mind the whiplash from Desktop to Metro, the icons can be useful. Note that the Windows Store icon appears on the taskbar by default.

The Metro app icons on the taskbar and the ubiquitous Metro title bar work together pretty well. If you're on the desktop and you want to fire up a Metro app, click on it in the taskbar. The Metro app takes up the whole screen. Do what you wish with the Metro app, and when you're done, click the Close button (the "X") in the upper-right corner of the title bar. The Metro app dutifully skulks away, leaving you staring at the Desktop. The workflow is reasonably smooth, with the Desktop giving way to the Metro app, then back to the Desktop again. I never thought I'd be able to say that about Windows 8.

Of course, there's still no practical way to copy items from Metro to the Desktop and back, or to have the apps communicate with each other outside of the locked-in-concrete sharing options.

Figure 3: On a new machine without a touchscreen, Windows 8.1 Update boots to the old-fashioned desktop. Repeat after me: D'oh!

Another taskbar trick
The taskbar also makes an appearance on the Metro side of the fence. Hover your mouse at the bottom of a Metro app — even at the bottom of the Metro Start screen — and the taskbar appears, as in Figure 4 below.

Hover your mouse over a taskbar icon, and a thumbnail appears. In the case of Xbox Video and Xbox Music (shown in Figure 4), you even get a miniature set of controls, so you can play, pause, or fast-forward or back from the thumbnail. (No, there's still no volume control.)

Several observers have pointed out, rightfully, that this intrusion of the Desktop taskbar into Metro brings something of a mixed visual metaphor. Metro was designed to allow app switching by swiping from the left and choosing a running app. The (ancient!) taskbar approach performs in a roughly analogous way, except you can bring up individual desktop programs with the taskbar. I would only note in passing that Metro also allows app switching through the old Alt-Tab "coolswitch," so the metaphor was broken already.

Like the title bar, the Metro-side taskbar only appears to mousers.

Behold the new IE
Windows 8.1 Update includes a new version of Internet Explorer that sports a couple of new tricks. By default, the Update-d Metro IE shows the navigation bar and tabs at the bottom of the screen. In earlier versions, you had to know to swipe from the bottom to see the stuff ... which in every normal browser is at the top.

 

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