Microsoft is poised to release Windows 8.1, a deep and crucial revamping of the Windows 8 ideal. The code is final (though Microsoft reserves the right to tweak it further), and the time for speculation is over. Does Windows 8.1 atone for Windows 8's sins?
Yes and no, and that answer is utterly appropriate. More than being just another update, Windows 8.1 is a lesson in true compromise--for Microsoft, and for us.
For Microsoft, the "no compromises" mantra guided Windows 8's development. PC or tablet, modern apps or traditional desktop software, glittering aesthetics or buckle-down productivity, Windows 8 was the operating system that was supposed to deliver it all.
But a funny thing happened on the way to ubiquity: Microsoft's "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to its new-look operating system wound up, well, pretty darned compromised.
Rather than delivering a seamless experience, the modern UI and the desktop interface gave Windows 8 a warring, "Jekyll and Hyde" feel. To make matters worse, the operating system had a nasty habit of ripping you away from one interface and unceremoniously dumping you into the other. The modern UI—while gorgeous—felt half-baked at best, chock-full of byzantine interfaces and missing functionality. And in a bid to push everyone into the modern mobile age, Microsoft eradicated the beloved Start button and made booting directly to the desktop impossible.
PC devotees felt jilted, and complained about their perceived second-tier status. Computer sales plummeted. Now, less than a year later, longtime Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has announced his resignation. No compromises.
My colleague Mark Hachman hit the nail on the head in his wrap-up for the Windows 8.1 Preview: "Windows users skewered Windows 8 for various sins, and Microsoft took the high road by addressing a number of the problems in 8.1."
That effort to meet in the middle is embodied by Windows 8.1's new boot-to-desktop option. Although the feature is as simple as simple could be, and buried deep in an obscure submenu, its existence is a boon to desktop diehards who resorted to arcane workarounds to avoid Windows 8's mandatory Start screen. The boot-to-desktop option makes using Windows 8 on nontouch devices far less frustrating; ditto for the new shutdown options found in the Power User' menu, which you can open by pressing Windows-X or by right-clicking the lower-left corner of the desktop.
Ironically, while the tweaks stray from Windows 8's modern-first focus, they help Windows 8.1 inch closer to the "no compromise" ethos by letting a PC be a PC.
Not all of Windows 8.1's desktop tweaks are quite as welcome. For one thing, the File Explorer doesn't show libraries by default anymore (though you can easily restore them by selecting View > Navigation Pane > Show Libraries). More contentious is the much-ballyhooed return of the Start button—but not the Start menu and its list of programs and shortcuts.
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