A new Windows 8.1 update tries to win back desktop diehards

A new Windows 8.1 update tries to win back desktop diehards

Summary: With its second major update to Windows 8 in less than 18 months, Microsoft is trying to ease the pain for Windows users who are befuddled by the Windows 8 interface on conventional PCs. Here's what you can expect. Will it be enough to calm the troubled waters?


Microsoft is about to deliver an update to Windows 8.1, its second significant set of changes since the launch of Windows 8 less than 18 months ago.

Last week, someone in Redmond inadvertently left the final update packages available on Windows Update for anyone to install. I’ve had a couple days to use the newly updated Windows interface on a handful of machines.

You can see exactly what’s changed in the gallery that accompanies this post: "A close-up look at the Windows 8.1 Update." Here's some background on why this update exists.



The biggest mistake Microsoft made with Windows 8 was to deliberately eliminate some of the touchstones of the Windows 7 desktop interface, while still leaving most of that desktop intact. As I wrote a few months after the original release of Windows 8:

That decision alienated many desktop users and created a wedge issue that has distracted from the many impressive accomplishments in Windows 8. I know some people (myself included) who have adapted to the new ways and even prefer them. Those who would rather stick with the old paradigms can't catch a break from Microsoft, though. They need to tweak the system extensively and use third-party utilities to achieve the desired result.

Windows 8.1 was a first, very large step on the road to rectifying that mistake. This update—let’s call it Windows 8.1.1—is a continuation of those changes, designed to make the new OS work more smoothly on conventional PCs driven by a keyboard and mouse.

A word of warning: If you’re a Metro hater, this update will do almost nothing to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. The Windows 7-style Start menu does not make a comeback here (although Microsoft has said it intends to include a Start menu in a future update). This update sticks with the fundamental design principles of the Windows 8 interface, and nothing in it comes close to restoring the Windows 7 desktop interface. It is still the Windows 8.x interface, evolved, with that evolution clearly driven by powerful negative feedback.

Some of the changes that are at the core of the Windows 8.1 Update won’t really be visible until we see new PCs with this version of Windows installed as the base operating system. For traditional PCs that are designed for use with a keyboard and a mouse, the new OS will be configured to go to the desktop by default. It will also be less of a disk-space and memory hog, making it possible for this version of Windows to run on tablets with as little as 16 GB of flash storage.

If you install this update when it arrives in April (via Windows Update, not via the Windows Store), the first thing you’ll notice is a series of changes to the Start screen. Alongside the picture and name of the current logged-in user are a new Power button and a Search button. Both of them are designed to reduce the need to play Where’s Windows? with the well-hidden Windows 8 Charms menu.


There’s also an option to right-click on tiles on the Start screen or in the more complete Apps view screen, which lists every installed desktop program and app. That option exposes a new, familiar-looking context-sensitive menu so you can resize those tiles or pin them to the Start screen or to the taskbar.

Oh yeah, that’s the really big change in this update: The taskbar is no longer just for the desktop. It can include Windows Store (Metro style) apps, so you can switch between desktop programs and Windows Store apps with one click. And the new, unified taskbar is available from the Start screen and from any Windows Store app, with a simple gesture.

Move the mouse to the bottom of the screen in Windows 8.1.1 and the taskbar appears. I’ve seen some complaints that the action is inconsistent. It works fine on multiple test systems here. I think what others are seeing is a deliberate design decision. If you move the mouse pointer casually to the bottom of the screen, the taskbar doesn’t pop up as a distracting element. If you really want to see the taskbar, you move the mouse with purpose, or move it to the bottom of the screen and then, after a very brief pause, move it down ever so slightly.


From the taskbar, you can preview any running program or Windows Store app, just as you can on the desktop, and switch to it with a click.

The other big complaint from early users of Windows 8 was that it was impossible to figure out how to close or switch away from Windows Store apps. The solution in the Windows 8.1 Update is a new title bar, with Minimize and Close buttons, which appears when you bump the mouse up against the top of the screen.

What’s noteworthy about all these changes is that they appear only when you use a mouse. If you use a touchscreen to navigate through Windows 8, you’ll see the taskbar only on the desktop, and you’ll only see the new title bars if you use a mouse.

There are a few additional usability tweaks in this update, including some welcome changes in Internet Explorer. There are also fixes you can’t see, aimed at improving security and performance and swatting bugs.

Will this update quiet the I-hate-Metro crowd? Probably not. Will it make Windows users on desktop machines more productive? Almost certainly.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Windows 8

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  • Is this an admission by MS that it got it wrong with the Metro UI,

    that it really is not as easy to use as they like to pretend? Almost certainly.
    • Happy user of Metro

      in my tablet. Not so sure about Desktop PC. I still use W7
      • Not so sure about PC?

        The windows 8 disaster seems a lot like their networking disaster. So much complexity and it keeps getting worse with each new release. They have to keep adding new bells and whistles wether needed or not, otherwise there's no need for a new release. Can it be called innovation? I don't think so. The new releases are a great way for msft to make money though. How much is it going to take for normal users to realize that msft is ripping them off? When will normal users switch? Uh, well, they already have. It's called Android (Linux) and it's now the number one operating system. When will Information Technology workers switch? Hard to say. Some of them have a lot of years invested in the msft ecosystem, and they're not going to switch too easily. How about msft? When will msft switch? Well, that may be happening right now with their phones. Microsoft will certainly milk their legacy systems as long as possible though, you can bet on that. When will Ed Bott switch? Ed's hunkering down, probably thinking he can hang in there till retirement, and he maybe right.
        • re: Not so sure about PC?

          When will you shut up?
          • Does the truth hurt?

            When will you switch?
          • 3 years ago

            ...switched to Mint. Tried Ubuntu, openSUSE, Puppy too, but Mint is my favorite. Like XP, without the Microsoft drama.
          • Mint is like XP?

            Does Mint have the "Sticky Keys" accessibility option with a visible indicator of which key is active, and do accessibility settings survive reboot? XP has all that.
          • Yes Mint does.

            Univeral Access has Sticky Keys, Large Text, Screen Reader, Beeps, Visual Alerts, OnScreen Keyboard, Simulated Second Click, Hover Click.
            You can access the features from the Control Center or you can set up keyboard shortcuts. Some of the features can also be turned on and off at login time, although I always just autologin myself.
            Sorry, I like XP. But you picked a poor showdown on this one.
          • Finally !!!

            Another sane mind. Waiting to exhale.. Done !! Nothing like a breath of fresh air. Not knocking Microsoft, but is so nice to have an OS (like Linux ) that puts far less stress on your hardware. I am still trying to see if there is anything I can do in Windows, that I can't do in linux (besides run Windows which I can do using a VM :)). I like Microsoft for the simple reason that the problems its OS's creates just by existing creates opportunities for creative people with solutions, that sell.
          • pcdocms, don't put XP down, okay?

            I too use Linux Mint 13, but on a stick. If and when XP finally becomes unsafe to use, I'll just boot from the stick. It's really XP's best friend in so many ways:

            *XP can't read/write DVDs. Mint 13 can, and among the Linux distros is the ONE distro with easy video making and viewing, built-in. Problem is to get it onto a stick, but you can buy them in Amazon, now.

            *XP is better than Win7 in file management, searching, and copying, but even still it bombs when you're copying a whole folder, usually due to desktop.ini -- but I can copy using Mint instead, no glitches.

            *XP, like all Windows versions after it, is terrible at refresh, restore, etc. However, GoBack (which you can't use post-XP), is great. So that leaves backup and clone, which XP cannot do well. Clonezilla or GParted, both Linux products you can use even on a standalone basis, make short work of cloning. A clone is better, because you can BOOT from the clone, and it's a LIVE EXACT REPLICA of your internal hard drive. I learned this the hard way when my XP machine died May 2012, and that's how I came to discover Linux, Win7, and the abomination called Win8.

            *XP isn't good at dual monitors. Mint 13 is great. The latter can also make fullscreen HD videos ON both monitors at the same time. I do a lot of videos, so this matters.

            *XP's updates, as you know, are ceasing. But Mint is one of the most popular among Linux distros, so is ongoing. Updates are automatic, if you want, or you can 'shop' in a VAST STORE of stuff, not just the OS, from the Software manager.

            *XP is still better when it comes to the vast array of other productivity software you can buy, but since I have Mint for the areas of vulnerability, I can keep using XP. However, WordPerfect is made for Linux too, which means I can still operate and use all my MS Office documents from within Linux, and not have to learn how to use WINE.

            There's more to say, but this post is long enough already. I should thank MSFT for abandoning XP and for the horror of Win8, else I'd never have learned what I typed above.
          • XP And DVD's

            XP can copy, paste and run DVD's. Linux is a good OS and yes it has a small foot print, but why anyone is upset about XP not being supported makes no sense. XP is yesterdays news. Why folks haven't moved on to at least Windows 7 I don't understand. Windows 8 isn't complete yet and probably won't be in the most desirable form until Windows 9, but upgrading now to Windows 8.1.1 is not a problem. There are more higher version releases between now and the end of the year, which will be the time Windows 9 could be released. Nothing is confirmed yet about Windows 9 actual release date. Guesses range from December 2014 to April 2015. My guess is this April Microsoft will announce the true Windows 9 release date. If you like Linux fine use it.
          • I've come from the future...

            to respond to:

            " Why folks haven't moved on to at least Windows 7 I don't understand."


            MS's new releases don't bring anything to the table that would justify the expenditure. Everything since XP has been progressively more tightly controlled, bigger and more wasteful.

            If I were on a budget I wouldn't be too excited to run out and buy MS's next big thing, either.

            In my own case, MS forcing the evolution of desktop computing into a dumbed down, oversized smartphone, touch screen stabby fest is also laughable.

            It's about control- keeping knowledgeable users from being able to leverage their knowledge to do anything apart from pay Microsoft and its partners.
          • Re "WordPerfect is made for Linux"

            I'm a lawyer and I have used WP since 5.1 for DOS.

            The MOST RECENT Linux version of WP is WP EIGHT. For comparison, WP 9 for Windows was released 2000. The CURRENT version is X6.

            And even the Linux WP8 version requires customization to get it to work on modern Linux installs.
          • Really?

            "If and when XP finally becomes unsafe to use, I'll just boot from the stick." What planet are you on? That happened about ten years ago.
          • Yes we all know

            that this is the year of linsux again (Yawn!!!)
          • Tough crowd

            Blogsworth, I agree we've heard this tune before and I'll also agree this will NOT be the year of Linux, but calling is linsux is not necessary and simply trolling mate. OK, I've responded, you've been fed, now back in your box.

            Linux is an awesome operating system and if true alternative business and productivity software existed on it in the vein of Office for example, there would be NO Microsoft in my house. Alas not the case.
          • When will you stop the stupidity?

            So, you think that Metro is complex? It doesn't offer half the in depth features that the desktop does (it's not really supposed to, for now). Ha, ha! That truly does make me laugh. I would go on to argue points with you, but the end of your post tells me that you're probably just trolling. I mean seriously "When will MSFT switch?" Bravo, but try harder next time.
          • I agree...

            Windows 8 is easy and I can do anything as fast on my non-touch Windows 8 work machine as my Windows 7 home system. While I understand not upgrading because you don't really need to anyone suggesting that Windows 8 is confusing or difficult to use is either stupid or stubborn/lazy.
          • @thejokker

            100 Votes for you.
          • school

            good to see there's someone who was willing to learn instead of complain.