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.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2

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.

This article, Windows 8.1 Update deep-dive review: An OS that makes more sense, was originally published at


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2
It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon