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 screen
Many 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.

Windows 8.1 Update Start screen
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.
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