Who would have thought that a button would have meant so much to so many people? On Wednesday at its developers conference, Microsoft announced that after bringing back the Start button, it’s now rolling out a package of new features for the Windows 8.1 update and Windows Phone 8.1. Based on customer feedback, it’s part of an effort to make 8.1 feel more like older versions of Windows by stepping away from the touchscreen, cloud-centric version of Windows 8 that proved less than a hit with consumers.
When Windows 8 debuted in 2012, it was Microsoft’s attempt at transforming Windows from its days as a highly successful, yet notoriously unstable and kludgy operating system into a cross-platform system that would translate seamlessly across PCs, tablets, and smartphones.
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It was without a doubt an impressive piece of engineering, and it is a great improvement on Windows 7 – which was forever running updates and maintenance scans – and is much more stable, but both 8 and 8.1 have failed to impress many as the system tried to bridge the gap between the conventional desktop and touchscreen devices. Many customers, especially in the business world, who hated the idea of learning a new system, found both iterations of Windows 8 difficult to use. Problems included menus, files, and apps that were hard to find; inconsistencies in how it worked; and a lack of familiar features like the Start button.
For the Windows 8.1 update, Microsoft’s developers relied on user feedback in designing the new interface, which is meant to retain the cross-platform flavor of earlier versions while feeling more like older Windows systems. In addition to the interface features, Microsoft says that the 8.1 Update will allow users to boot straight to desktop mode, and boot apps to desktop mode. It will also provide greater customization, and better multitasking.
By paying a bit more attention to the desires of non-touchscreen users, such as business customers, 8.1 provides an improved keyboard and mouse interface. This is more intuitive and the behavior of the interface is much more consistent, with the controls no longer vanishing or jumping around the screen. Look for the the Close and Minimize buttons, and they’ll appear at their familiar upper right-hand corner position.
The taskbar is also back with a vengeance and can be accessed from any screen by moving the cursor to the bottom. Apps and favorite websites can be pinned to the bar and to the Start menu for easy location. According to Microsoft, the update has better compatibility with Explorer 11 by detecting the device you’re using and adapting accordingly, so the interface appears as if designed for that specific device. The company says that it’s better able to run web-based apps, speeds up powering down, web searches, and switching between apps. Meanwhile, right-clicking a tile in Start mode brings up a familiar context menu that’s the same as on the desktop mode.
In conjunction with the the Windows 8.1 update, Microsoft also announced improvements to Windows Phone 8.1 by introducing an Action Center that complements Live Tiles, and the Senses suite designed to manage data use, storage space, and battery life. It’s also introducing Cortana. Based on a Halo character, it's Microsoft's attempt to learn more about the user by asking questions and confirming deductions.
Microsoft announced that it will be rolling out Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 in the next few months through Windows Update and the Windows Store, plus Phones 8.1 will be preinstalled on new Windows phones. Meanwhile Cortana will launch soon in the US with a beta version in the UK and China later this year, followed by other countries next year.
The video below introduces the Windows 8.1 update.