Windows 8.1 review: New version, same mess

If you're stuck with Windows 8, the Windows 8.1 upgrade is a no-brainer, but the fundamental flaws remain

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Finally, as with Windows 8, any serious desktop user will still need a third-party add-on if they want anything remotely resembling the Windows Start Menu. That hasn't changed. The ability to boot to the desktop is nice, but it doesn't obviate the need for Start8 and its ilk.

New for developers
Lest you think Windows 8.1 is all glitz and gloom, there's a silver lining on that big, ugly black cloud. Over on the developer side, Microsoft has finally -- finally! -- relaxed many of its stupid rules for Metro app development. As a result, we may actually see some usable Metro apps appearing in the next few months -- apps that are not bound by the cookie-cutter regulations that have stymied creativity among Metro app developers.

Microsoft Developer Evangelist Jerry Nixon lays out the new rules in his personal (but apparently official) blog: Windows 8.1 says, "Forget all that Design Stuff from Windows 8.0." Even if you aren't a developer, it's well worth reading.

It seems that Microsoft listened to its telemetry and decided the original Metro app design guidelines were all screwed up. There's a reason why the stuff in the Windows Store looks so intensely boring. All the apps have been hamstrung by ridiculous design rules that ensure uniformity, ridigity, as well as groupthink that are anathema to good designs and good designers.

Here are the four design criteria that Nixon singles out for change:

  • Search. Windows 8 users never figured out that the function of the Search Charm changes, depending on which app is running. A context-sensitive Search charm is a bad idea, and it was implemented all over the place. Just for starters, the Search charm on the desktop doesn't -- doesn't search, that is. Jerry says Microsoft is now starting to put Search boxes where the design gods intended, on the search pages inside the apps. See Figure 2 for an example.
  • Silhouette. This is the cookie-cutter design skeleton that forced all Metro apps to look like all other Metro apps. It's out the window. Good riddance.
  • Design grid. The old Windows App rules forced designers to work in a 20-by-20-pixel grid. Windows 8.1 reduces that to 5 by 5 pixels, which gives designers much more leeway in laying out screens.
  • Snap. In Windows 8, new apps had to be able to run in a rigidly defined 320-pixel-wide Metro Snap view. That requirement is gone.

Nixon doesn't mention one other big change: The almost pathological abhorrence for "chrome" in Windows 8 Metro apps is finally giving way to a more reasonable and less rigid approach in Windows 8.1. Metro users were supposed to know, by osmosis, that in situation "X" they had to swipe from the bottom, and in situation "Y" they had to swipe from the right. Or maybe they had to pinch, or unpinch, or tap and hold, swipe with two fingers, or click their heels and repeat, "There's no place like Start." It's all a big guessing game, especially for experienced Windows users who know there's a better way.

Phone UI designers figured out long ago that a little bit of hint goes a long way -- a bump here or a dot there can make the difference between utterly inscrutable and at least marginally discoverable. Perhaps more Windows 8.1 Metro apps will take the cue.

The bottom line
If you're using Windows 8, plan on upgrading to Windows 8.1 -- but give it a month or two for all the creepy-crawlies to shake out. When you install, make sure you turn off Smart Search, and take a minute to get your Libraries back.

If you're using Windows XP or Windows 7 (still my favorite OS), there's nothing to see here. Move along.

In the past few weeks we've witnessed the entire Windows chain of command self-implode. Whether the turmoil will bring improvements to the desktop side of Windows 9 remains to be seen. I still favor the Windows Red approach, which draws a sharp line between Metro and desktop, allowing fans of each side to live within their own comfort zone, and to draw on the advantages of their tablet or desktop-oriented hardware, respectively.

Nobody knows what the next version of Windows will look like or when it will appear, but it's a sure bet it's going to be quite different from Windows 8.1 -- at least, one can hope.

This story, "Windows 8.1 review: New version, same mess," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Windows at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

At a Glance
  • Microsoft Windows 8.1

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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