Posts Tagged ‘Operating systems’

Windows 8.1 Update deep-dive review: An OS that makes more sense

Windows 8.1 Update deep-dive review: An OS that makes more sense
The latest fix to Microsoft’s much-maligned Windows 8 operating system finally bridges the gap between touch and traditional computing.

The just-released Windows 8.1 Update is a worthy attempt to bridge the significant divide between Windows 8’s touch-oriented Start screen and Windows Store apps (formerly known as Metro apps) and the more traditional mouse-and-keyboard-oriented desktop and applications.

But while the update does well in bringing those two interfaces closer together, I found that it doesn’t go quite all the way in making the operating system feel like a unified whole. And it also lacks an important feature that many desktop users (including me) have been asking for since the launch of Windows 8 — the Start menu. For that, Microsoft says, people will have to wait an unspecified amount of time for another update.

Metro apps get desktop-friendly

From the moment I first tried out Windows 8, I’ve felt as if I were running not one operating system, but two. The Start screen and its Metro (sorry, Windows Store) apps work one way and the desktop applications work another, making up two essentially independent worlds. For example, in Windows 8 and 8.1, desktop applications show in the desktop’s taskbar when they run, and Metro apps don’t. Desktop applications can be closed clicking an X on the upper right, or minimized by clicking a –. Not so for Metro apps. And so on.

With this Windows 8.1 Update, that changes. A new setting lets you change the behavior of Windows Store apps to make them work more like desktop apps. You go to PC settings –> PC and devices –> Corners and edges, and in the “App switching” area, turn on the “Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar” setting. (Note: I reviewed the Windows 8.1 upgrade on a Surface 2 tablet with keyboard and mouse; on at least some, and possibly all, traditional non-touch PCs, this setting is enabled by default.)

Windows 8.1 Update

A new setting lets you change the behavior of Windows Store apps to make them work more like desktop apps.

From that point on, whenever you run a Windows Store app, it will appear on the taskbar in the same way that desktop applications normally do, making it easy to switch to. You’ll also be able to pin Windows Store apps to the taskbar so that you can launch them from the desktop. (Previously, you had to switch to the Start screen in order to launch them.)

In addition, two buttons appear on the upper-right of Windows Store apps when you put your mouse in the upper-right corner: An X for closing the app and a – for minimizing it, just like desktop apps have. In addition, you can now also make the taskbar appear at the bottom of Windows Store apps by moving your mouse to the bottom of the screen. (The taskbar appears at the bottom of all desktop applications.)

Windows Store apps also now have a desktop-application-style title bar that appears briefly when you launch the app and then vanishes, although you can make it appear again by moving your mouse cursor up to the top of the screen.

All this goes a way towards making Windows 8.1 feel more like a unified operating system. I no longer find the process of using first a desktop application and then a Windows Store app as jarring as before, because their behavior is now much more similar.

Having the taskbar available wherever I am is perhaps even more important to me. It means that I am able to easily switch between running apps or launch new apps whether I am in the touch-oriented interface or the mouse-and-keyboard one. In fact, it makes the Start screen less necessary, because you can now launch Windows Store apps from the taskbar.

Windows 8.1 Update

Having the taskbar available no matter where you are in Windows makes switching between apps a lot easier.

Not everything has been fixed. You still can’t resize Windows Store apps, so they can’t float on the desktop in their own windows in the way that desktop applications can. And, as mentioned previously, there is still no Start menu, which would further unify the two interfaces. At the recent Build conference, Microsoft showed what the Start menu will eventually look like: very like the one in Windows 7, but also able to display Windows Store app live tiles. When it’s released, the unification of the different interfaces will be more complete. But we still have to wait.

More Start screen changes
Microsoft has made some other tweaks to the Start screen as well, and all are useful, although none as significant as the taskbar. There’s now a power button on the Start screen, making it a bit easier to shut down Windows 8.1, put it to sleep or restart it. There’s also now a search button — which is actually redundant, because in order to launch a search when you’re on the Start screen, you only need to start typing or else display the Search charm. But many people may not know that, and this provides a more obvious alternative. For me, it made no difference at all.

In addition, mouse users will now be on more familiar ground when it comes to customizing the Start screen. It used to be that when you right-clicked a tile, an app bar would appear that let you customize it — for example, change its size or turn off a live tile. That same bar would appear if you held your finger on the tile using a touch device.

Now when you right-click a tile, a pop-up menu appears with the options, which is more in keeping with what we’re used to on the desktop. (If you’re using a touch screen, you still get the app bar.) And there are now options for pinning and unpinning the tile from the taskbar.
Windows 8.1 Update
When you right-click a tile, a pop-up menu appears with the options, which is more in keeping with what we’re used to on the desktop.

While this new behavior will please desktop users, I found it confusing when I switched back and forth between using touch and a mouse on the same machine. It shows the inconsistency of having two different interfaces in the same operating system.

Change in default Windows behavior

In the first Windows 8.1 release, Microsoft introduced an option that allowed people to boot straight to the desktop. In this Windows 8.1 Update, booting to the desktop becomes standard for non-touch devices. It’s a much bigger change than you might first think, because it means that when people buy new systems, they’ll boot into the interface best suited for the computer they’re using — the desktop for non-touch machines and the Start screen for touch machines.

If you already have Windows 8.1 on a system and you load the Windows 8.1 Update, Windows will follow whatever behavior you’ve already set for it. So, for example, if you have a non-touch PC, but you’ve set it to boot to the Start screen, you’ll still boot to the Start screen unless you decide to change Windows’ behavior.

Other additions and changes

There are plenty of other additions and changes. When you install a new Windows Store app now, you get a notification on the Start screen next to a down arrow. Click or tap the arrow and you’re sent to a screen that shows all of the apps on your PC, with any new ones highlighted. The notification and highlight stay there until you launch the app for the first time.

There are also a number of changes to PC settings. Microsoft has finally added a Control Panel link to the bottom of the main settings screen, something that had been bafflingly overlooked until now. In the PC and Devices settings area, a new disk space screen displays how much space is being taken up by apps and files, and lets you delete apps if you think they’re taking up too much space.

The update also fixes something that has annoyed me ever since Windows 8 launched: that when you double-clicked a graphics file such as a JPG using File Explorer, it always opened the file in the Windows Store Photos app, which I find far less useful than the desktop photo application (Windows Photo Viewer). Now Windows is more intelligent about that: Open a graphics file from the desktop using File Explorer and it opens the file in the desktop application. Open the same file from a Windows Store app, and it launches the Windows Store Photos app.

The bottom line

This update has gone a long way toward making Windows 8.1 appear to be a single operating system rather than two OSes bolted uncomfortably together, notably by having Windows Store apps behave more like desktop apps and having the taskbar available on both the Start screen and desktop. And having Windows automatically boot to the desktop on new, non-touch PCs is a big step forward as well.

Still, I don’t think Microsoft has quite nailed it yet. Windows Store apps still look and work differently than desktop apps — they tend to be more graphically oriented and have far fewer features, just what you would expect in a touch-oriented tablet apps. They still can’t be resized or run in separate windows on the desktop. And there’s still no Start menu.

If those two issues were fixed, Windows 8.1 might finally seem like a single operating system that can shape-change according to whatever device you’re using, rather than two different operating systems coexisting on the same machine.

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Windows 8.1 deep-dive review: Well, it’s a start

Windows 8.1 deep-dive review: Well, it’s a start
The preview of Windows 8.1 brings more cohesion, less frustration and a direct login to the desktop. But is it enough to save the OS?

With the just-released preview of Windows 8.1, Microsoft has gone a long way towards fixing many of the interface goofs and anomalies of Windows 8; it’s also cleaned up the OS’s rough edges and introduced some nice new features and apps.

Windows 8 remains a dual-interface operating system — the touch-oriented “Modern” interface (previously called Metro) and the desktop — but one that is less frustrating to use and a bit better integrated than previously. The changes don’t solve all of Window 8’s problems, but they make it more palatable to use.

The Start screen and the desktop have been at the core of most complaints about Windows 8. In Windows 8, you’re forced to boot into the touch-oriented Start screen, and because it is primarily designed to launch Modern-style apps, many people would prefer to bypass it and head straight to the desktop when they log in. Microsoft made that impossible in Windows 8. Like many people, I was not pleased.

Finally, in Windows 8.1, you can bypass the Start screen and go to the desktop when you log in. Oddly enough, to do that, you don’t change a setting on the Start screen. Instead, you have to do a bit of tweaking over at the desktop.

Go to the desktop, then right-click the taskbar. Select Properties and from the screen that appears, click or tap the Navigation tab — a new tab added in Windows 8.1. Divided into two sections, Core navigation and Start screen, it lets you customize many of the frustrating things about the way the Start screen works.

Look for the setting “Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in” then check the box next to it. After that, each time you sign into Windows, you hop straight to the desktop. It’s simple and straightforward, and desktop fans will be extremely pleased — me among them.

There’s more on that little tab that can go towards making the Start screen a more useful tool. If you have no need for the Start screen’s tiled interface, and mainly use it as an app launcher, there are several settings that do that for you. Check the box next to “Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start,” and every time you head to the Start screen, you’ll instead see the Apps view — a listing of every Modern and desktop app on your system. Click an app to launch it. I find this far more useful than the Start screen’s normal multi-sized tiles.

If you mainly use desktop apps rather than Modern ones, make sure to check the box next to “List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it’s sorted by category.” That way, your desktop apps show first on the screen, so it’s easier to find them. I have found this small tweak quite helpful, because I frequently head here to launch Office. Now it appears high on the list.

Note that even if you leave the normal tiled Start screen intact and don’t change the settings on the Navigation tab, there’s now an easier way to get to the Apps view. On the Start screen down towards the bottom, there’s a new arrow that was introduced in Windows 8.1. When you click it or tap it, you’re sent to the Apps view.

Microsoft has also taken a very minor stab at trying to make the desktop and Start screen look as if they are a single, unified operating system, rather than two separate ones. A setting on the Navigation pane allows you to use the same wallpaper on the Start screen that you have on the desktop.

That’s a nice piece of eye candy, but that’s all it is. The two interfaces still look and work differently from one another. It’s not quite like putting a lipstick on a pig; it’s more like outfitting a pig and a giraffe in the same dress and hoping people will mistake them for twins.

The Core navigation section of the Navigation tab has a few settings that I find a bit less useful, but you might want to give them a try. You can turn off the Windows navigation feature that displays the Charms bar when you point your cursor at the upper-right corner of the screen. You can also turn off the navigation feature that switches between your recent apps when you click the upper-left corner.

There’s one more setting there, and it slightly alters the Power User menu that pops up when you press the Windows key + X or right-click the lower-left corner of the screen. It replaces the Command prompt on the menu with the Windows Power Shell command-line automation tool. That setting is turned on by default in Windows 8.1.
The Start button and shutdown

The next big question you likely have about Windows 8.1 is whether there’s a Start button. Well, there is and there isn’t.

If you hover your mouse over the lower-left-hand portion of the Start screen or while you’re in a Modern app, the button appears. It also appears on the desktop’s taskbar (without your having to hover your mouse).

But calling it a Start button is a stretch, because that implies that it does what the Start button did in previous versions of Windows — that is, launched a menu that lets you browse and launch your apps, search, find links to various Windows locations and services, and so on. Instead, it’s just a task switcher that switches you between the Start screen and whatever else you were just doing. I rarely find myself clicking the Start button for the simple reason that it doesn’t really start anything — except my blood boiling about how useless it is.

However, Microsoft has taken one Start button feature from earlier Windows versions and made it more accessible in Windows 8.1: the ability to shut down, restart or put your device to sleep. Pull up the Power User menu and click Shut down to find those options.

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft has addressed a serious Windows 8 shortcoming: the close-to-useless Modern version of Internet Explorer 10. How seriously can you take a browser without the ability to create and use bookmarks, or that won’t allow you to have more than 10 tabs open at a time?

Not very. And so I simply didn’t use the Modern version of IE10.

In Windows 8.1, that’s changed. Like every other browser out there, IE11 lets you have as many sites as you want open in separate tabs. And — be still my beating heart! — you can actually bookmark pages as Favorites. The bookmarking feature includes the ability to organize Favorites into folders.

However, the Favorites feature still isn’t perfect. The Favorites in the Modern version of IE don’t show up in the desktop version of IE, although the desktop IE Favorites do show up in the Modern version. That’s something that should be fixed.

You can now also open tabs side by side, so that you can view more than one tab at a time, each in its own window onscreen. Normally you’ll be only able to view two tabs this way, but on high-resolution displays, you can view up to four.

The new Internet Explorer also has improvements under the hood: notably, its addition of WebGL, a JavaScript API that renders interactive 3D graphics and 2D graphics. WebGL allows websites to essentially deliver the same interactive experiences as game and multimedia apps, but from inside a browser. Competing browsers such as Chrome already have this. In a world in which HTML5 and associated technologies will become standard, the lack of WebGL in Internet Explorer was a serious shortcoming. It’s a shortcoming no longer.

Search has been considerably improved, which wasn’t that difficult, given how poor Windows 8’s original search feature was. Previously, when you did a search, you didn’t see all the results on a single screen. Instead, you had to highlight the category you wanted to search through (such as Settings or Apps) and you’d see just those results.

In Windows 8.1, search has become more universal and far more powerful. You now get results from the Web (including graphics and videos) as well as local files, apps and settings, all presented in one interface.

If you like, you can filter to search only settings, only files, only Web images or only Web videos.

A great addition is the so-called Search Hero, which takes results from your device and the Web, and aggregates graphics, videos and information onto a simple-to-browse page. Here you can not only click to get more information, but if you search for a musician, you’ll be able to play music right on the page, via a widget from the Xbox Music app. I find this feature especially useful, because it lets me search for and play music without having to launch the Xbox Music app.

How does Windows search do all this? The page you click to is essentially a Bing results page.

Keep in mind, though, that many searches you do won’t display results this way, because many searches don’t have a rich set of results including Wikipedia entries, photographs and videos.

This isn’t to say that search is perfect. It still has its quirks. For example, if you’re in the Windows Store, you can’t simply start typing in a search term as you can on the Start screen. Instead, you need to display the Search charm, and then do a search.

Internet Explorer isn’t the only Modern app that Microsoft has done work on. It’s upgraded others, and included new ones as well. And in doing so, it’s addressed a major Windows 8 shortcoming: the general awfulness of its Modern apps. Those apps have been extremely underpowered and feature-poor, anemic and touch-focused.

In Windows 8.1, that’s changed. The Photos app, for example, now does more than just allow you to view photos, as it did in past versions. Now it includes some very good editing tools. Is it as powerful as Photoshop? Of course not. But it has plenty of features, including color editing, brightness and contrast changing, special effects, cropping, rotating, red-eye removal and more. I’ve used it several times for simple editing chores such as removing red eye and cropping, and found it simple and straightforward.

Microsoft has also introduced some very nifty new apps as well. The Food and Drink app is a particularly good one. When you find recipes, you’ll be able to integrate them into a shopping list, meal planner or collections. It lets you plan out meals for the week. It’s all very clear, clean and well done. And it also shows off a new trick Microsoft has taught Windows 8: hands-free mode. Rather than use the keyboard and mouse or touch, it lets you move from screen to screen by waving your hand (it uses your device’s built-in camera).

Or at least, it’s supposed to. I was never able to get hands-free mode to work, although at least one other reviewer has reported he got it working. Still, if it ever works properly in this app, it will be great for those times when you’re in the kitchen, up to your elbows in flour and don’t want to foul the screen.

There’s also a semi-useful new Reading List app, which lets you clip content from the Web or other location, save it and then read it when you want.

To clip something, you open the Charms bar, select Share, choose Reading list and save the page. Later on, you can open the Reading List app to see everything you’ve saved. You can search through the list and delete from the list.

While it’s nice to have this feature, the app pales compared to similar, more powerful apps already out there, such as Evernote. Reading List clips entire Web pages rather than highlighted content like Evernote does. And Reading List has one single list; it doesn’t allow you to organize your data into folders or notebooks. I’m certainly not about to give up Evernote for it.

One of the frustrating things about the Modern interface has always been that you could change a few system settings via its Settings screen (accessible by going to the Charms bar and selecting Settings –> Change PC settings), but if you wanted to dig deep and change many of your settings, you had to head to the Control Panel on the desktop. That’s still true to some extent in Windows 8.1, but more settings can now be changed from the Settings screen.

To make it easy to use those settings, the Settings screen has been redone. One of the most useful changes is that when you head there, you’ll come to a Top settings screen, which makes it easy to change those settings you most frequently use. The screen alters according to which changes you make most often. So if you often change your Bing settings, they’ll show up there.

If you’re a dedicated tweaker like I am, you’ll still need to head to the Control Panel to change things such as whether to show hidden files in File Explorer. But otherwise, you may be able to make most or all of your changes from the new Settings screen.

There have been plenty of other changes. SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, is now more deeply ingrained into Windows. You can set it up so that by default all your files are saved to SkyDrive. You can also configure it to have all the photos you take with your mobile device automatically saved to SkyDrive.

The Windows Store has also been given a revamp, with a more pleasing graphical look and features that make it easier to browse and find apps. For example, when you’ve viewing an app and you scroll or swipe over to the right, you’ll see a list of related apps, a feature that is old hat by now in other places, but is now finally making its way to the Windows Store.

Also, if you drag or swipe from the top of the screen you’ll see a listing of all the categories in the store. Again, pretty much every other app store already has this, so the feature isn’t new. More than anything, when it comes to the Windows Store, Microsoft is playing catch-up.

There is also more comprehensive support for portrait mode, such as in the News app. Unfortunately, not all apps are capable of portrait mode yet. Why should you care about this? Today, you likely don’t. But a generation of Windows 8 and Windows RT mini tablets is on the way, and portrait mode is well suited for those devices.

File Explorer (called Windows Explorer in previous Windows versions) has been given some minor tweaks as well. The Computer view is now called This PC. And if you’re looking for your file libraries, you won’t find them. Instead, you’ll see folders for Documents, Music, Pictures and so on, as well as a SkyDrive folder. This is just the latest iteration of Microsoft’s long, winding, and confusing road of default organization for your files, which seems to change every several years.

Some reviewers tell you that this version of Windows 8 is the one that Microsoft should have shipped in the first place. They’re only partially right.

It’s true that the new features — such as the ability to log in straight to the desktop and easier access to desktop apps — should have been baked into Windows 8 right from the beginning. And overall, the new features have improved Windows 8.1 considerably, especially for die-hard desktop users and those who don’t have touch screens.

But this still isn’t the Windows 8 that should have been shipped. The ideal Windows 8 would have been a coherent operating system, with a single, unified interface and way of working, rather than a touch-oriented tablet operating system bolted uncomfortably onto a desktop operating system, and forced to do double-duty for two very different categories of hardware.

With Windows 8.1, you don’t see the bolts quite so much. But they’re still there, and so are two separate operating systems, coexisting a bit less uneasily than before. Still, this is a good enough upgrade that once it ships, all Windows 8 users should use it. They’ll find that it makes Windows much better.

You can get the Windows 8.1 preview right now. But keep in mind that if you install it, you won’t be able to upgrade directly to the final version of Windows 8.1 when it ships. Instead, you’ll have to go through a reinstallation procedure, and when you do that, you’ll have to reinstall all of your desktop apps.



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Microsoft announces app updates for Windows 8 RTM

Windows 8 RTM users will on Friday begin seeing app updates prior to the Windows 8 launch.

In a Thursday blog post, Microsofts Steven Sinofsky, president of the companys Windows group, announced a slew of app updates that will roll out to early adopters of Windows 8 RTM in the coming days and weeks.

RTM build of Windows 8 reveal Microsoft blocked any bypassing of the Metro desktop

Starting tomorrow, a Bing update will be available to download in the Windows Store, with more updates rolling out steadily until the Windows 8 launch on Oct. 26. In Sinofskys blog, Microsofts Gabriel Aul detailed the list of upgraded apps, which were first released in the manufacturing build of Windows 8 in August. AulA also delved into specific improvements for each program.

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Aul said the updates will also be available for PC manufacturers to ship with new Windows 8 models as well as users who have installed Windows 8 RTM.

SkyDrive, Mail, Calendar, People, Photos, Maps, News, and Games are among the apps to receive refreshes in the weeks preceding Windows 8s launch. Microsoft late last month announced updates to SkyDrive , and will soon add a search within SkyDrive function and allow you to rename and move folders.

Among other interesting app updates, the Mail app will include a conversation view of your inbox, and the Photos app will support photo cropping and rotation, as well as auto-curated slideshows. The Maps app will include a bird’s eye view function, some 3,000 indoor maps, driving direction hints, and integration with Microsoft’s own Bing and Travel apps.

Speaking of Bing, a new file picker will let you grab images for use on your lock screen. The News app, meanwhile, will add content from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and include an improved article reader with font customization, zoom and other features. The Weather app will also improve, with up to 10 days of weather forecasts, and more granular temperature reports.

The upshot? While the Windows Store might be suffering serious problems with third-party inventory, it’s nice to see that Microsoft is paying attention to propping up the apps over which it has direct control. For the full list of improvements to built-in Windows 8 apps, hit Sinofsky’s blog entry here.

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