When I first used Windows 8 a year ago, I found the touch controls and gestures awkward, and was troubled by how little its primary, tile-based interface could do on its own.
For many basic tasks, I had to return to the system’s traditional desktop mode, the one that resembles older versions of Windows. It felt as though I was working on two different computers at once.
Since then, I’ve warmed up to many of those touch controls and gestures, such that I’ve even tried to use them absentmindedly out of habit on my touch-less MacBook laptop. And the free Windows 8.1 update just released addresses many of my remaining gripes.
Windows is still far from perfect. It continues to come across as a work in progress. But Windows 8.1 shows Microsoft is listening. People who already have Windows 8 will find digital life more pleasant with the update.
What was so bad about Windows 8’s tile mode?
• I can open only 10 Web pages at a time in the Internet Explorer browser. Pages automatically close once I’ve hit the limit, without any prompts or choice of which one. With Windows 8.1, there’s no limit.
• The browser in Windows 8 doesn’t let me view more than one Web page at once. Sure, I can open 10 tabs, but I can see only one at a time. I can’t have a news site or Facebook continually open on one side while I check Gmail on another. With Windows 8.1, I can open a “new window” rather than a “new tab” using a right click to have a second page visible.
• That limitation also applies to Window 8’s Mail app. With Windows 8.1, I can now have two messages open at once. And if I click on an attachment, it opens to the side rather than replace what I’m reading. The Mail app’s layout adjusts to fit into the remaining space.
• I can access some computer settings from the tile-based interface, but Windows 8 kicks me to the desktop for many others, including changing the display screen’s resolution and controlling how quickly energy-saving measures kick in. I can adjust that and more now from the primary interface with Windows 8.1, though I still couldn’t check the percentage battery life I have left without going to desktop.
Beyond fixes, Windows 8.1 offers these improvements:
• Universal search. With one search command, I can access files stored on my computer along with Web content on the Internet. Type in “Shakira,” for instance, and I’m invited to hear her songs through Xbox Music or watch her videos on YouTube. I also get links to her biography, official website and Wikipedia entry. Type in “Toronto” for a map, suggested attractions and the current weather there. In both cases, I also get documents on my computer with those words in the text.
• Customization. I can rearrange tiles and rename groups of apps more easily. With one swipe up from the home screen, I can see all my apps and arrange them by name, category, installation date or frequency of use.
• Old habits. I can set the computer to always boot up in the desktop mode, allowing me to minimize my interaction with the tile-based interface. That said, this seems like cheating, an admission that the tile mode isn’t working, when Microsoft is banking its future on it.
That gets me to the things Windows 8.1 doesn’t fix:
• It still feels like two separate computers at times. Each mode has its own Internet Explorer browser. Pages I have open in one won’t automatically appear in the other. Many programs, including Microsoft’s Office, work only in desktop. I can customize the background images so both modes match, but that’s cosmetic.
• Although Windows 8.1 lets me adjust how much screen space each visible app takes, that slider only moves left to right. So with three or four apps open, all of the apps are vertical. That’s awkward for video and word processing. And while Windows 8.1 doubles to four the number of apps I can have side by side, it was unlimited before Windows 8.
• There’s no easy way to open apps without going to the full-page start screen. Before Windows 8, there was a Start button on the lower left corner to do that. The Start button has been restored in Windows 8.1, but not its functionality. So if I have video playing, it stops as I switch from app to app or do one of those universal searches.
• The touch controls can still be confounding. Windows 8.1 comes with new gesture controls, such as the ability to accept word suggestions as you type by swiping and tapping the spacebar. Too often, I simply add unneeded spaces instead.
Microsoft’s tile and touch approach will still take time to get used to, even with Windows 8.1. That approach works fine on phones and tablets, but not necessarily on desktops and laptops.
I know change is inevitable. I eventually embraced Apple’s Mac OS X, introduced in 2001, after more than a decade of growing up on what became known as Classic. But it took me until 2006 to fully switch. It’s been only a year with the new Windows. I’m not ready to cede my Windows 7 and Mac computers quite yet.
If you’re buying a new Windows computer or already have Windows 8, your choices are limited. In that case, you might as well accept Windows 8.1, which is far better than Windows 8.