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The Windows 8.1 Update finally makes Microsoft's Metro future PC-friendly

Brad Chacos | April 9, 2014
With today's free spring update for Windows 8.1, Microsoft is pushing out more than mere tweaks and bug fixes. It's pushing out a message: "We're listening," Microsoft is whispering. "PC users, we want you back."

Yes, I said "minimizing." The Windows 8.1 Update shows open Modern apps in the desktop taskbar, though the feature can be disabled if you'd like. They behave just like traditional desktop programs down there, with support for pinning, jump lists, and peeking. Speaking of the taskbar, it now appears throughout the operating system. Moving your cursor to the bottom of the screen causes it to pop up even in Modern apps and the Start screen itself.

The universal taskbar is a little janky — it looks weird in the Modern UI and can cover interface elements in some Modern apps, which weren't designed with desktop elements in mind — but it does wonders for fusing Windows 8's Jekyll-and-Hyde desktop and tablet interfaces into a more cohesive whole. Using Modern apps is no longer a cognitive burden. Closing them or quickly jumping to another program is now as simple as when you're using desktop software, so PC users don't need to replace Windows 8's Mail, Calendar, and other core apps post-haste anymore.

Sure, it sounds modest, but the combination of the new Modern app menu bar and the anywhere, everywhere taskbar have greatly improved the speed of my workflow whenever I need to delve into Modern apps. It'd be nice if there was a way to make the taskbar permanently appear in the Modern UI, however.

Microsoft also responded to complaints about Windows 8's hidden menus in the new update. The Modern Start screen now includes discrete Power and Search buttons in the upper-right corner, and a tile for the Modern-style PC settings option is now included by default. Hallelujah! Previously, all of those crucial commands were buried in the Charms bar hidden behind an arcane mouse gesture.

Touchy touchy

You can see all of the Windows 8.1 Update's changes in picture form for yourself — there are more than I'm talking about here, and every single one is a step forward — but what's almost more impressive is who won't see all the desktop-focused tweaks.

"What we've done to make touch great is unaffected by these changes," Microsoft exec Joe Belfiore said while announcing the update at Microsoft's Build conference last week. "They're still present, but not required for mouse and keyboard users."

Indeed, if you have a device that uses a touchscreen as its primary input, you'll still use the same old touch-friendly Windows 8 interface, with the same old boot to Live Tiles and the same old finger-friendly app options bar on the Start screen. What's more, the changes found in the first Windows 8.1 release makes it easier for tablet users to stay in the Modern UI without crossing over to the desktop.


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