Leaked Windows 8.1 Build 9471 surprises, disappoints

Windows 8.1 X 64 Pro Build 9471 -- apparently leaked, but very close to final -- hit torrents and download sites worldwide late yesterday. Here's what I've found

I've been playing with the leaked Windows 8.1 Build 9471 for several hours now and come away both relieved and upset. I say "relieved" because there aren't any huge changes from the Preview version that you've no doubt come to know, admire, and/or loathe. I say "upset" because Microsoft hasn't changed a couple of the new features that are decidedly anti-consumer.

No doubt you've been following the vagaries of the Windows 8.1 Preview version, released six weeks ago. I wrote about that version at length in late June. With that as a starting point, here's what I'm seeing that's new in Build 9471 -- and what we're likely to see in the final, RTM version.

First come the trivial cosmetic things that supplant substance in the eyes of many pundits: There's a new "Dragon" Metro Start screen background/wallpaper, first shown at Build 2013 to wild applause, and several more Metro wallpapers, including ones that actually move (be still my beating heart). There are more Alarm sounds. "Woo-hoo" isn't one of them.

The Metro Photos app, which was inexplicably hamstrung in the Preview, now lets you choose between your computer's Photos Library (hold onto that thought for a second) and your SkyDrive Photos folder. As widely discussed when the Preview hit, Facebook and Flickr links to Photos are nowhere to be seen -- presumably banished because of conflicts with Microsoft.

The Metro Help & Tips app -- which didn't work at all in the Preview -- now has six tiled guides: Start and apps; Get around; Basic actions; Your account and files; Settings; and What's new. All six are at a very introductory level, but nonetheless the tutorial's been sorely needed. Help & Tips also includes a direct link to search Windows.com for additional information. When I sought information for "Windows Experience Index," for example, I was given a load of information about Windows 8 -- but none at all about Windows 8.1. Presumably that will change with time. (WEI is in Windows 8, but it's been dropped in Windows 8.1.)

The Mail, People, and Calendar apps are all in for major renovation, and all look and work differently from their Preview classmates. Mail, for example, has a row of icons on the left that let you view incoming newsletters and social site updates independently of your regular mail. Much has been made online about the inclusion of an ellipses on the border line at the bottom of the Mail viewing pane. It's supposed to remind users that there are more options hiding at the bottom of the window -- where Metro hides everything anyway. Click on the ellipses and you see the App Bar for Mail spring up from the bottom. When I tried that on an empty email account, clicking the ellipses brought up a bar with nothing but another ellipses, which I could click to synch email -- not terribly inspiring. Mail also now allows you to click and drag a message into a folder -- just like you could in, oh, Outlook Express in Internet Explorer 4.

Skype gets installed with Build 9471, although you have to go fishing in the All Apps list to find it.

A variant on the old Kiosk Mode, called Assigned Access, made it into Build 9471. Through the Metro PC Settings menu, you can tell Build 9471 to restrict specific Windows users so that they can use only one designated Metro app. It took an experienced Win8 user about 10 minutes to crack the security on that feature. Hint: Bring up Task Manager.

That's the good part. Here's the bad part.

Microsoft didn't back down on Smart Search. I wrote about Smart Search in my look at the black underbelly of Windows 8.1. In a nutshell, if you turn on Smart Search, Bing (and thus Microsoft) gets to collect every single search term that you use on your machine. I'm not talking about gathering up searches made online -- those are fair game as far as I'm concerned, and if you use Bing to do online searches, you probably realize that Microsoft's going to keep the information. I find it infuriating that Microsoft is now reaching into Windows itself and pulling out local search terms, as long as Smart Search is enabled.

Smart Search is new for Windows 8.1. What really bugs me? Smart Search is enabled by default.

Microsoft also had a chance to back down on the way it's hiding Windows Libraries. In Windows 8, when you bring up File Manager, the Libraries are listed on the left, the same way they were listed in Windows 7. The default configuration for the Libraries -- Documents, Photos, Music, and Videos -- put both the user's folder in the Library and the corresponding Public folder in the Library. For example, in Win7 or Win8, File Explorer (nee Windows Explorer) would show you the Photos Library and it would point to both \My Photos and \Public Photos. That made it very easy to share files with other people on the same machine or between machines in a trust environment like a Homegroup.

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft has disassembled the whole shooting match.

First, Libraries are not shown by default in File Explorer. You have to monkey around with the View ribbon's Navigation Pane icon to even see Libraries. By contrast, SkyDrive is front and center in the new File Explorer. In Windows 8, SkyDrive only appeared in File Explorer if you explicitly installed the SkyDrive Windows program.

Second, Microsoft doesn't build default libraries the way they used to. In Windows 8.1, the Documents Library consists of the machine's \Documents folder, plus the SkyDrive \Documents folder. The \Public\Documents folder is ignored entirely. In addition, the Photos, Music, and Videos Libraries each consist of just one folder -- the user's folder of the same name.

I had a hard time understanding why Microsoft would do something so boneheaded. Then a good friend reminded me: Microsoft doesn't make any money on Libraries. It makes a ton on SkyDrive.

I held out hope that Microsoft would reinstate libraries the way they used to be, but that isn't the case. In fact, to add pecuniary insult to injury, Microsoft is now designating the SkyDrive Documents folder as the default save location for the Documents Library. So if you drag a file into your Documents Library in Windows 8.1, it ends up on SkyDrive. Ka-ching.

It looks like Windows 8.1 will RTM any day now. I no longer hold out any hope that Microsoft will back off the Smart Search or Library debacles.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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