Review: Windows 8.1 Update offers an olive branch for mouse users

Review: Windows 8.1 Update offers an olive branch for mouse users

Windows 8.1 Update brings a tiny handful of mouse-centric improvements and a hodgepodge of interface tweaks

Clearly, the prime directive behind Windows 8.1 Update (variously called Windows 8.1 Update 1, Windows 8.1 GDR 1, Windows 8.1 2014 Update, Windows 8.1.1, and Windows 8.2) was to improve the lot of the beleaguered mouse-and-keyboard user thrust into the Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy of Metro and Desktop. While there are a few improvements in Update that mouse-hugging folks (like me) will appreciate, the overall impression is that Microsoft has stuck more baling wire and chewing gum on the old Windows 8 mess.

In short, don't expect much. If you're using Windows 8.1 and a mouse -- heaven help you -- installing the update is an uninspiring no-brainer. If you're running Windows 8.1 on a touch-first device, there's very little that warrants a second look, much less an upgrade.

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Improvements to the Metro Start screenMany of the Windows 8.1 Update improvements to the Metro side of Win 8.1 are directed at mouse users. That's a remarkable statement, given that Metro's raison d'être always has been the touch-centric user.

The most obvious change you'll see on the Metro Start screen is the inclusion of two icons to the right of the user's name and picture (see Figure 1). These two icons, for Power and for Search, make these very common actions -- formerly hidden -- much more discoverable.

In Windows 8.1, if you want to turn off the PC, you have to swipe from the right (or press Windows-C), choose Settings, tap the Power icon at the bottom of the screen, and choose How to Power Down. If you'd never seen the Metro Start screen before, how would you guess to turn off the darn thing? Throwing it on the floor doesn't count. (You could press the computer's power button and hold it, but many people don't think of that.)

The Search icon chips away at the same class of problems: In Metro, there are many ways to skin multiple cats, but it isn't at all obvious how to invoke any of them. To use the jargon, "discoverability" in Metro sucks (that's a technical term).

In the case of search in Win8/8.1, you can swipe from the right and choose the Search charm. Or you can press Windows-C and choose the Search charm. Or you can press Windows-S. Or you can just start typing (if you have a physical keyboard) and the search panel appears. But normal people don't know these strokes by osmosis, so they spend ages trying to figure out how to search. The new Search icon on the Metro Start screen clearly points the way.

Windows 8.1 Update also brings a Metro tile-manipulation capability that's a little bit more than a mouse-oriented parlor trick. In Win8/8.1, if you right-click on a Metro Start screen tile, you see options in a pane at the bottom of the screen -- called the application bar -- to unpin the tile from the Start screen, uninstall the app, resize the tile, pin the program to the taskbar (for programs that run on the legacy Windows Desktop), or turn the "live" animation on or off. With the update installed, you get the same choices, but they appear as an old-fashioned cascading right-click contextual menu (also shown in Figure 1).

One variation that may be useful to some users: If you right-click on an empty part of the Metro Start screen, you're given the chance to assign names to your groups of tiles.

Figure 1: Two new mouse-friendly features in Metro. First, note the Start and Search icons in the upper-right corner. Second, right-click a tile, and your options appear in an old-fashioned context menu, instead of showing up at the bottom of the screen.

The new, ubiquitous title barEvery Metro app now shows an old-fashioned title bar at the top. The title bar appears when you first launch the app, stays for a while, then disappears, only to be brought back when you hover your mouse at the top of the screen (see Figure 2).

The problem: Most Metro apps are designed to use the full screen -- disappearing "chrome" is, after all, one of the design goals of Metro. Most of the time, having the Metro title bar step on top of the app isn't a big deal, but sometimes it gets in the way, as you can see in Figure 3, blocking a notification on Microsoft's own Answers website.

The title bar adds Split options -- to move the Metro app into the left or right half of a Metro split screen -- as well as minimize and close (on both the left and the right). When you're looking at a Metro split screen with Windows 8.1 Update installed, a title bar appears at the top of each of the split apps. Close ("X") out of an app on a Metro Split screen, and the other apps don't move in to fill the void.

The new title bar only shows itself to mousers: Tappers can push till the cows come home and they'll never see a title bar.

Figure 2: The Metro title bar (below) can get in the way of Metro app information. In this case, it knocks out a cookie warning for the Microsoft Answers site (above), as viewed in Internet Explorer.

Improvements to the DesktopWindows 8.1 Update brings two important changes to the Desktop. First, in a move that should draw shouts of praise (or at least relief) from the peanut gallery, if Windows 8.1 Update is installed on a PC that doesn't have a touchscreen, Windows defaults to booting to the old-fashioned Desktop (see Figure 3).

It remains to be seen if detection of a touchscreen works every time, but new nontouch PCs should boot straight to the Desktop, first time, every time. Note that the methods introduced in Windows 8.1 to boot to the Desktop remain intact. You can manually switch booting preferences by right-clicking on an empty part of the taskbar, choosing Properties, then working in the Navigation tab.

Second, as you may have noticed in Figure 3, Windows 8.1 Update allows you to put Metro app icons on the taskbar. It can get a little confusing -- in Figure 3, for example, the second icon is for Desktop IE, whereas the last icon is for Metro IE -- but if you don't mind the whiplash from Desktop to Metro, the icons can be useful. Note that the Windows Store icon appears on the taskbar by default.

The Metro app icons on the taskbar and the ubiquitous Metro title bar work together pretty well. If you're on the desktop and you want to fire up a Metro app, click on it in the taskbar. The Metro app takes up the whole screen. Do what you wish with the Metro app, and when you're done, click the Close button (the "X") in the upper-right corner of the title bar. The Metro app dutifully skulks away, leaving you staring at the Desktop. The workflow is reasonably smooth, with the Desktop giving way to the Metro app, then back to the Desktop again. I never thought I'd be able to say that about Windows 8.

Of course, there's still no practical way to copy items from Metro to the Desktop and back, or to have the apps communicate with each other outside of the locked-in-concrete sharing options.

Figure 3: On a new machine without a touchscreen, Windows 8.1 Update boots to the old-fashioned desktop. Repeat after me: D'oh!

Another taskbar trickThe taskbar also makes an appearance on the Metro side of the fence. Hover your mouse at the bottom of a Metro app -- even at the bottom of the Metro Start screen -- and the taskbar appears, as in Figure 4 below.

Hover your mouse over a taskbar icon, and a thumbnail appears. In the case of Xbox Video and Xbox Music (shown in Figure 4), you even get a miniature set of controls, so you can play, pause, or fast-forward or back from the thumbnail. (No, there's still no volume control.)

Several observers have pointed out, rightfully, that this intrusion of the Desktop taskbar into Metro brings something of a mixed visual metaphor. Metro was designed to allow app switching by swiping from the left and choosing a running app. The (ancient!) taskbar approach performs in a roughly analogous way, except you can bring up individual desktop programs with the taskbar. I would only note in passing that Metro also allows app switching through the old Alt-Tab "coolswitch," so the metaphor was broken already.

Like the title bar, the Metro-side taskbar only appears to mousers.

Behold the new IEWindows 8.1 Update includes a new version of Internet Explorer that sports a couple of new tricks. By default, the Update-d Metro IE shows the navigation bar and tabs at the bottom of the screen. In earlier versions, you had to know to swipe from the bottom to see the stuff ... which in every normal browser is at the top.

The new Metro IE also has the wrench-icon Options entry -- at the bottom -- that provides a shortcut to the Options pane. Previously, you had to swipe from the right, choose the Settings charm, then choose Options. Metro users must have lots of discoverability problems with charms.

The new Enterprise Mode has seen some serious press, but I've noticed very few details. For example, corporate IE mavens want to know how Enterprise Mode differs from the old Compatibility View settings. We'll no doubt learn more in the weeks ahead.

To enable Enterprise Mode, run gpedit.msc as an administrator. Choose Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Internet Explorer, check the boxes to set both the Let Users Turn On and Use Enterprise Mode checkbox and the Use the Enterprise Mode IE Website List checkbox to enabled. Reboot, and in IE, press Alt, then choose Tools > Enterprise Mode.

Figure 4: The taskbar now appears in all Metro apps, as well, including the Metro Start screen.

Other changesWindows 8.1 Update brings many more little changes. Many of them should have been in Win8 from the get-go. For example, in Windows 8.1 Update, the default apps for viewing pictures and media on the Desktop doesn't propel you to the Metro side any more: You get connected to Desktop programs that can handle the file type just fine.

SkyDrive has been renamed to OneDrive, reflecting the change Microsoft-wide.

There's a new Disk Space Tracker in one of Metro's PC Settings apps. To see it, bring up the Charms bar (or press Windows-C) and choose Settings. At the bottom, choose PC Settings. On the left, choose PC and devices, then choose Disk Space.

The Disk Space Tracker doesn't have a fraction of the features you would expect from a free disk analysis utility, but it's marginally better than the Desktop's Disk Compact command.

Although it won't make any difference for those of you who are, uh, updating with Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft managed to shrink Windows 8.1 considerably. Windows 8.1 Update can reportedly run on a machine with 1GB of RAM and with 16GB of storage. Smaller footprints lead to smaller, cheaper machines -- and that's good for everybody.

While the Windows 8.1 Update won't win any converts from the Windows 7 Desktop trenches, it shows enough movement in the right direction that we know Microsoft is listening, at least a little bit. If you commonly use a mouse with your Windows 8.1 PC, Windows 8.1 Update is not very inspiring, but it's certainly worth having. If you use a mouse infrequently or not at all, the promised security and performance improvements may be worth the effort to update, but that's slim pickings.

The best part about Windows 8.1 Update is that it clears the way for Windows 9. Here's hoping Microsoft can turn out at least one version of Windows 9 that presents a compelling reason to upgrade from Windows 7.

This story, "Review: Windows 8.1 Update offers an olive branch for mouse users," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Windows at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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