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

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The new, ubiquitous title bar
Every 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.

Windows 8.1 Update Metro title bars
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 Desktop
Windows 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.

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