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Windows 8.1: The great compromise

Brad Chacos | Sept. 12, 2013
The RTM's out, and it shows that Microsoft listened. The Modern UI plays better with the desktop, and other improvements.

Clicking the Start button deposits you among the live tiles of the modern Start screen. The jump is confusing at first, but it makes sense if you think of the Start screen as a modern Start menu. What's more, Windows 8.1 allows you to tweak the Start button to open the Start screen's All Apps list instead, which delivers a much more Start menu-esque experience while still enveloping you in the modern UI. The new approach is a reasonable compromise, but it also demands compromise from you.

Flattening the learning curve
The Start button's new functionality isn't there just to irritate you, though: It provides a visual clue as to how to exit the desktop, and it reinforces the notion that the Start screen replaces the old Start menu. "Aha!" you'll say when you click it and open the Start screen the first time. "Now I get it!"

The hints don't stop there. While Windows 8 was lambasted for its hands-off, sink-or-swim approach to guiding users through the revamped UI—it was so bad that many manufacturers preinstalled their own tutorial apps on their PCs—Windows 8.1 is packed with helpful usability clues and improvements.

Big, bold boxes pop up after installation, clearly identifying the various hot corners and explaining how to use them. A new, baked-in Help + Tips app provides straightforward tutorials on all aspects of controlling your machine, with lush visuals and short animations. A downward-pointing arrow appears when you move your mouse on the Start screen, marking the way toward the All Apps screen. Even the Windows Store received an overhaul for easier browsing.

It's wonderful. Windows 8.1 will still be a shock to new users, but it promises a far easier learning curve than Windows 8 required.

Usability calibrations
Once you've dispensed with the basics, Windows 8.1's ability to have three or more apps "snapped" open at once, complete with the option to adjust the size of each app dynamically, amps up the usability of the modern UI. (Windows 8 proper allows only two apps on screen at once, in a 75/25 split.) Also new, some apps—such as Internet Explorer 11—can open in multiple windows. The feature is no competition for the variability of traditional desktop windows, but hey: compromise.

The free update also beefs up the modern-style PC Settings menu, adding numerous options that previously required a jaunt into the desktop Control Panel. Likewise, the SkyDrive app now lets you browse through your local files, serving as a modern-style pseudo-File Explorer. Again, they're small tweaks, but the fixes make it easier to stay in your interface of choice.

If you do decide to break down the interface walls, Microsoft made the transition easier with some UI-spanning additions that really help Windows 8.1 feel like a cohesive whole. The new and superb Bing Smart Search—one of the top five reasons to upgrade to Windows 8.1—pulls in information from modern apps, desktop files, and the Web alike, creating a comprehensive list of results. (Too bad about the ads, though.)


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