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Windows 8.1: New version, same mess

Woody Leonhard | Sept. 11, 2013
If you're stuck with Windows 8, the Windows 8.1 upgrade is a no-brainer, but the fundamental flaws remain.

The Windows 7 Backup and Restore Center — a bit hard to find, but nonetheless extant, in Windows 8 — is now gone. The Windows Experience Index, present in Windows 8, is also nowhere to be seen in Windows 8.1. System Restore Points, which were generated automatically in Windows 8, are now created only if you manually turn them on.

Finally, as with Windows 8, any serious desktop user will still need a third-party add-on if they want anything remotely resembling the Windows Start Menu. That hasn't changed. The ability to boot to the desktop is nice, but it doesn't obviate the need for Start8 and its ilk.

New for developers
Lest you think Windows 8.1 is all glitz and gloom, there's a silver lining on that big, ugly black cloud. Over on the developer side, Microsoft has finally — finally! — relaxed many of its stupid rules for Metro app development. As a result, we may actually see some usable Metro apps appearing in the next few months — apps that are not bound by the cookie-cutter regulations that have stymied creativity among Metro app developers.

Microsoft Developer Evangelist Jerry Nixon lays out the new rules in his personal (but apparently official) blog: Windows 8.1 says, "Forget all that Design Stuff from Windows 8.0." Even if you aren't a developer, it's well worth reading.

It seems that Microsoft listened to its telemetry and decided the original Metro app design guidelines were all screwed up. There's a reason why the stuff in the Windows Store looks so intensely boring. All the apps have been hamstrung by ridiculous design rules that ensure uniformity, ridigity, as well as groupthink that are anathema to good designs and good designers.

Here are the four design criteria that Nixon singles out for change:

Search. Windows 8 users never figured out that the function of the Search Charm changes, depending on which app is running. A context-sensitive Search charm is a bad idea, and it was implemented all over the place. Just for starters, the Search charm on the desktop doesn't — doesn't search, that is. Jerry says Microsoft is now starting to put Search boxes where the design gods intended, on the search pages inside the apps. See Figure 2 for an example.

Silhouette. This is the cookie-cutter design skeleton that forced all Metro apps to look like all other Metro apps. It's out the window. Good riddance.

Design grid. The old Windows App rules forced designers to work in a 20-by-20-pixel grid. Windows 8.1 reduces that to 5 by 5 pixels, which gives designers much more leeway in laying out screens.

Snap. In Windows 8, new apps had to be able to run in a rigidly defined 320-pixel-wide Metro Snap view. That requirement is gone.


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