Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Update: What Windows 8 should have been from the start

Microsoft is starting its rollout of Windows 8.1 Update on April 2. The new features and changes are starting to make this an operating system I actually want to use.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft officials confirmed on April 2 what those of us who keep tabs on Windows operating-system leaks have known for a while: The Windows 8.1 Update, which the company is beginning to roll out starting today, makes Windows 8 a lot more usable for those of us who rely on mice and keyboards.


On April 2, during the first day of the company's Build 2014 show, officials showed off the latest update for Windows 8.1, known officially as "Windows 8.1 Update." As leaks and tipsters have made plain in recent months, the 8.1 Update adds new capabilities, such as easier access to the taskbar with pinnable apps; inclusion of new, context-sensitive menus by right clicking on apps; and the ability to more easily close and navigate across Desktop and Metro-Style apps.

Regardless of any rumors you may have read, the Metro Start Screen isn't going away. On PCs and other devices that are more likely to be used with keyboards and mice, Windows 8.1 Update will boot to the Desktop screen, rather than the Metro/tiled screen. On touch tablets, the Metro/tiled screen will still be the default boot-up screen, as it is currently with Windows 8.1. The bottom line: OEMs will be able to decide which "power profiles" make sense for which devices (slates, desktops, workstations, mobile devices) with the Windows 8.1 Update, but users will be able to override most of these new default settings.

As sources have told us previously, and as Microsoft officials are now confirming, Microsoft plans to make the Windows 8.1 Update bits available to MSDN/TechNet subscribers today, April 2. The rest of the Windows 8.1 user base will get the Update on April 8 via Windows Update.

Also, as sources indicated previously, Microsoft has managed to compress Windows 8.1 Update and improve its memory-management so that it will work better on cheaper, smaller devices. Those of us with devices already running Windows 8/8.1 won't get this smaller OS; it's for new devices only.

I've been using the final Windows 8.1 Update bits (the RTM bits provided to me by Microsoft) for the past week or so on my new Acer Aspire S7 laptop. While I still feel as though Microsoft offers too many different ways of performing the same task in Windows 8/8.1, I'm more at home with the Update installed. My usual workflow feels less interrupted by Windows 8 than it did without the Update. With the 8.1 Update installed, Windows 8 feels more familiar, sensible and useful to me. Moving between Metro and Desktop is finally starting to feel less jarring.

You say recanting; they say refining

Microsoft officials maintain they aren't simply renouncing the company's original directions because of less-than-stellar public acceptance of the Windows 8 OS. The Windows team is continuing to listen to customer feedback and are "steadily refining the set of features in both first-party apps and the operating system itself," in the words of Director of Communications Chris Flores.

Microsoft execs say that on touch-enabled devices, Windows 8 has the highest customer-satisfaction scores than any version of Windows ever. So why make the kinds of changes that Windows 8.1 and then the Windows 8.1 Update are delivering?

There are a lot of customers out there with a lot of muscle memory as to how they've learned to interact with Windows, execs say. Microsoft is trying to strike a balance between big/bold and familiar without alienating the millions of users who rely heavily on mice and keyboards. Microsoft's official stance is the company needed to make sure touch was in a good place" before shoring up the OS for mice and keyboards.

It's tough to make pizza for more than a billion, Microsoft officials are fond of saying. I'm just glad with Windows 8 Update I am finally getting my slice with pineapple but no ham.

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