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.

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