Meanwhile, another new option lets you share your desktop wallpaper with the modern Start screen, imbuing the entire OS with a unified feel. Rough patches remain, but switching from the modern UI to the desktop is mostly less jarring and more voluntary than before.
Microsoft has even enhanced the lock screen so that you can answer Skype calls and snap camera shots without unlocking your device.
That isn't to say Windows 8.1 fixes every flaw, though. I'd still like to see some sort of visual indicator for the hidden charm bar, and a more obvious way to shut down or restart the machine. Many options remain buried beneath superfluous clicks and menus, as well.
Iterating into the future
By and large, the Windows 8.1 RTM version (that is, the version shared with manufacturers) largely mirrors the Windows 8.1 Preview—it's packed with an abundance of new features, new hidden secrets, and even a plethora of new apps. Since our previous articles talked about the majority of the fresh features in far greater depth than I could here, I'll just mention that a slightly tweaked version of the Skype app comes baked in to Windows 8.1, replacing Windows 8's Messaging app.
Virtually all of Windows 8.1's baked-in modern apps have seen an overhaul of some sort; the retooled Mail app shines especially brightly. (Yay for opening mail in a new window!) Rather than diving into the minutiae, let's take a minute to talk about what these changes mean for Windows.
More than any other operating system before it, Windows 8.1 wraps itself snugly around a Web-centric core. The vast majority of Windows 8.1's native apps are inextricably linked to Microsoft services and require a connected Microsoft Account to work. SkyDrive hums along silently in the background, automatically saving your data and photos, and syncing more settings across all your Windows 8.1 devices than ever before. (Now included: apps!) Meanwhile, new default settings automatically update all those apps in the background, keeping you on the cusp of what's new.
Windows 8.1 embodies the "One Microsoft, all the time" creed in some truly staggering ways. When everything is working smoothly, the operating system creates a deeply personal experience that travels with you across devices. There's no denying that Microsoft's new focus on rapid-fire updates—rather than the multiyear development cycles of the past—has helped to whip Windows 8's originally dreadful native apps into far better shape in comparatively short order.
In fact, Microsoft services are so intertwined with Windows 8.1 and are being updated so briskly that the company has warned developers that the RTM release is only kinda-sorta final code; Windows 8.1 and its apps could see further tweaks by the time the update is released to the public.
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