I doubt I was alone in rolling my eyes when I first used Windows 8 a year ago. I found its touch controls and gestures awkward, and I 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.
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 previously?
I could access some computer settings from the tile-based interface, but Windows 8 sent me to the desktop for many others, including changing the display screen’s resolution and controlling how quickly energy-saving measures kicked in. Now I can adjust that and more from the tile-based interface in Windows 8.1, though I still can’t check the specific percentage of battery life I have left without going to the desktop.
Beyond fixes, Windows 8.1 offers these improvements
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” and a map, suggested attractions and the current weather there will pop up. In both cases, I am also shown documents on my computer with those words in the text.
I can diagnose my medical condition by tapping on a body part on the screen and checking off symptoms. I can also keep track of my workouts, recipes and shopping lists. Another feature lets me save content from webpages and apps to read later offline.
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.
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 its functionality has not. 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 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.
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.