What's new in Windows 8.1 Update

Changes to default settings, dubious new features -- if you expect something amazing to turn you on to Windows 8, you haven’t been following along

What's new in the Windows 8.1 Update
What's new in the Windows 8.1 Update

Windows 8.1 Update (variously called Windows 8.1 Update 1, Spring Update, GDR 1, Win 8.1.1, Win 8.2, and/or Windows 8.1 2014 Update) adds a few interesting nips and tucks to the oft-maligned Windows 8.1 fail whale.

To its credit, most of the changes make Windows 8.1 behave better for mouse-and-keyboard Windows users. Since at least 95 percent of all Windows customers currently use a mouse and keyboard, that's a welcome sop.

Will the Update make Windows 8.1-shy customers run screaming for the nearest tablet? Hardly. Will the Update make life easier for those who are stuck with Windows 8.1? Yeah. A little bit.

Here's what to expect.

Et voilà, the desktop
Et voilà, the desktop

If you install the Update over a copy of Windows 8.1 that hasn't been modified, on a machine that doesn't have a touchscreen, mirabile dictu, Windows boots directly to the desktop, by default. Presumably, new computers without touchscreens and clean installs on computers without touchscreens will exhibit the same refreshing change. 

Experienced Windows 8.1 users know that switching to boot-to-desktop involves a simple two-click setting. But folks who don't know -- or don't want to take the time to learn -- will suddenly find themselves in a familiar environment, not at the mercy of the Metro tiles.

To me this trivial change is by far the most important change in the Update.

Exposing Windows' charms
Exposing Windows' charms

The Win 8.1 Update puts two new icons on the Start page, in the upper-right corner, next to the user's name.

The first icon lets you Sleep, Shut Down, Sign Out, Lock, or Restart. It duplicates the functionality buried in the Settings charm's Power icon, at the bottom of the Settings pane. For the generations that have learned to shut down Windows by clicking Start, it's not exactly comparable -- but at least the Update version doesn't require advance knowledge of right-swipe settings.

The second icon invokes the old Windows 8.1 search pane, which is hidden behind the Search charm. It's entirely superfluous: Typing any text brings up the same pane. But at least it's now visible.

Start screen context menus
Start screen context menus

Prior to the Update, right-clicking on a Start screen tile brought up a hokey stripe at the bottom of the screen that allowed you to make changes to the tile. With the Update, right-clicking on a tile brings up a normal, everyday context menu -- with the same options.

Be still my beating heart.

The taskbar now shows Metro apps
The taskbar now shows Metro apps

As with desktop programs, you can pin a Metro app to the taskbar. If a Metro app is running, it'll have an icon on the taskbar, too.

And as with desktop programs, if you hover your mouse over a taskbar icon, a thumbnail of the Metro app appears. For some apps you will also see fully functional miniature media controls, as in the illustrated Xbox Music app. (No, there's no volume control.)

Store appears on the taskbar by default.

To banish Metro apps from the taskbar, right-click any empty spot on the taskbar; choose Properties; and under the Taskbar tab, uncheck the box marked Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar.

Metro apps get title bars, taskbar
Metro apps get title bars, taskbar

Microsoft put a title bar at the top of every Metro app. Hover your mouse at the top of the screen, and the title bar appears, obscuring everything that sits along the top of the Metro screen.

Click on the icon at the left edge of the title bar and you can split the Metro app (put the app in half of a 50-50 Metro split screen), or you can minimize or close the app, just as you can with the icons on the right.

Hover your mouse at the bottom of any Metro app, and the taskbar appears. As shown in the preceding slide, the taskbar includes icons for each running Metro app.

Clash of the mouse and finger cultures
Clash of the mouse and finger cultures

Putting the taskbar at the bottom of Metro apps vividly demonstrates the new clash of cultures introduced by the Win 8.1 Update. It's really hard to tell where the touch-centric universe stops and the mouse-centric world takes over.

To see what I mean, press Windows-Tab to pull out the list of running Metro apps on the left side, then hover your mouse at the bottom of the screen. You get two lists, from the two different Windows worlds.

It could be worse. If you have Metro snapped apps running side-by-side, the taskbar appears only once, stretching across the entire screen. Thank the Windows gods.

Metro Internet Explorer brings back the chrome
Metro Internet Explorer brings back the chrome

I gagged the first time I saw Metro IE. Microsoft insisted at the time -- do you remember? -- that IE got out of the way so as not to interfere with the Web page. The "chrome-less" approach meant that none of the navigation methods we've come to use over the past five decades (Internet years) worked, unless you were smart enough to swipe from the top or the bottom or hover here or right-click there.

With IE11 in the Update, Microsoft's finally showing some chrome by default.

The new, improved IE11 has tabs and an address bar showing by default -- except they're at the bottom of the screen, instead of the top, where they belong.

A few IE improvements
A few IE improvements

Visible changes to IE11 in the Update are disappointing, at best.

Aside from the on-by-default address bar and tabs, the Wrench icon -- Metro IE's analog to the desktop IE Gear icon -- now has an entry called Options. Clicking Wrench -> Options is equivalent to bringing up the Charms bar, choosing the Settings charm, then picking Options.

Do you get the feeling that Microsoft's telemetry says many people are confused by charms? I certainly am.

Try IE11's Enterprise Mode
Try IE11's Enterprise Mode

The Update ships with a new version of IE11 that supports Enterprise Mode. In theory, IE11 Enterprise Mode lets you set up a list of sites that should be loaded in IE8 mode. Documentation is crude at this point, and the difference between Enterprise Mode IE and properly configured Compatibility View settings in IE isn't at all obvious.

To enable Enterprise Mode, run gpedit.msc as Admin, then in Administrative Templates -> Windows Components -> Internet Explorer, set both "Let users turn on and use Enterprise Mode" and "Use the Enterprise Mode IE website list" to Enabled. Reboot, and in IE, press Alt, then click Tools -> Enterprise Mode.

Reduced Metro/desktop whiplash
Reduced Metro/desktop whiplash

In Windows 8.1, if you're on the desktop and you double-click on a picture file, like a GIF or a TIF, you're tossed into Metro hell, with the Metro Photo app taking over. If you double-click on a media file like an MP3 or MP4, up springs the Metro Video app -- which is the last thing you probably wanted.

The Update fixes those problems: Under Update 1, your pics open in Windows Photo Viewer; your media opens in Windows Media Player. Those aren't great choices, but they'll do until you can install third-party programs worthy of your desktop.

One throwback: PDFs still open in the %$#@! Metro Reader.

SkyDrive becomes OneDrive
SkyDrive becomes OneDrive

Aside from changing "Sky" to "One," there doesn't appear to be much difference between the two.

As before, there's a clunky File Manager capability built into OneDrive, where you can hunt and peck your way to files stored on your local machine.

New Metro disk space tracker
New Metro disk space tracker

While it won't win any awards, the new Metro-side Disk tracker routine actually offers more features than the desktop side's Windows Explorer and Disk Compact command (on the Properties dialog) combined.

It's still woefully underpowered compared to free third-party desktop programs, but at least Microsoft is making some effort.

Bottom line
Bottom line

That's what you see in Windows 8.1 Update. There are no major changes and precious few minor ones that extend beyond default changes and a few dubious new capabilities -- Metro icons on the taskbar being a good example.

If you aren't yet part of the Windows 8 generation, there's nothing in the Update that will convince you to join the Jekyll-and-Hyde revolution.

If you're running Windows 8 or 8.1, yes, the Update is worth installing.

Let's see if Microsoft can do better under new management and with more time. Hope still springs eternal for Windows 9.