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Review: Retooling of Windows 8 turns back the clock

Sun., June 2, 2013

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gives his presentation at the launch of Windows 8 on Oct. 25, 2012, in New York. Microsoft is updating the latest version of its operating system to address complaints and confusion among users. (Associated Press)
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gives his presentation at the launch of Windows 8 on Oct. 25, 2012, in New York. Microsoft is updating the latest version of its operating system to address complaints and confusion among users. (Associated Press)

Think of it as the guy who gets a makeover not only to keep up with the times, but maybe even to push ahead. But then the strange looks that greet him make him decide to add back elements of his old-school style that had worked pretty well all along.

That’s what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8.1, its update to Windows 8, which itself was a radically revamped version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system.

Windows 8.1, the preview version to debut in late June, restores some of the familiar elements of previous Windows versions. Those address some of the biggest complaints about Windows 8, a system that many people – especially those using it on a PC with mouse and keyboard – found disorienting or frustrating to use.

That persistent disgruntlement may have been one factor in the lukewarm sales of Windows 8 devices.

Chief among the complaints: The long-familiar Start button was no longer there. The new tile-based user interface toggled back and forth with a traditional desktop interface, and the transition between the two could be jarring.

Microsoft hopes Windows 8.1 will address some of the chief complaints.

Windows 8.1 will have a Start button – of sorts. There will be a way to make the back-and-forth transition from the tile-based mode to the traditional desktop one less jarring.

Most important for a lot of people, there will be the option to boot directly to the desktop mode instead of going through the tile-based Start screen.

Not end for tiles

The changes don’t mean Microsoft is backing away from Windows 8 and its tiles.

But it is acknowledging it may have missed the mark on some things about Windows 8.

It also adds new features, key among them the ability to search a user’s files, apps and the Web all at once.

“It would be easy for someone to take a look at this and say: ‘Microsoft is saying they’re wrong and moving away from Metro,’ ” said Michael Silver, an analyst with research firm Gartner. “Metro” was the name Microsoft had used at one time for the tile interface.

“Really, that’s not the case,” Silver said.

Microsoft has not specified when the final version of Windows 8.1 will be available, other than to say it will be ready by the holiday season.

People who already have Windows 8 machines will be able to update to 8.1 free.

Tradition and touch

Windows 8 was supposed to be Microsoft’s way of getting its hundreds of millions of Windows users worldwide accustomed to a new interface that worked on both traditional PCs and touch devices.

The idea was to get people used to the tile interface – all the better to transition them to tablets and smartphones running similar-looking Windows operating systems.

Microsoft needed to do something that radical to get a foothold into the rapidly growing mobile-device market, which has been dominated by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems, and which imperiled the future relevance of Windows.

Microsoft executives said this month the company has sold 100 million Windows 8 licenses – about on par with Windows 7 sales at a similar point in its life cycle.

But overall the reception has been lukewarm, with research firms saying Windows 8 didn’t help the slide in PC sales and might have even contributed to the decline.

Old-school ease

Windows 8.1 will be friendlier to users of traditional mouse-and-keyboard PCs.

For one thing, there will be a version of a Start button, which Microsoft execs are referring to as a Start “tip.”

With 8.1, the familiar Windows logo will appear anytime the cursor moves to the bottom left corner.

In the desktop mode, that logo remains visible in the taskbar. Clicking on it brings the user back to the Start screen.

Though it doesn’t function exactly as the Start button did in Windows 7 and earlier versions, that visual reminder should make it easier for users to get to where they want to go.

To make the transition between the desktop and tile modes smoother, users will be able to have the same personal image as both their desktop wallpaper and as the background for the tile Start screen.

Users also will have the option to go directly to the desktop, rather than the Start screen, when they sign in.

New additions

There are also a host of new features included in Windows 8.1.

Chief among them is something Jensen Harris, partner director of Windows program management, refers to as a “search hero”: the ability to conduct a single, global search that brings in results from your files and data, apps, SkyDrive and the Web.

“The idea is that the whole system works together,” Harris said.

Some features in 8.1 include:

• The ability to display a slideshow on the Lock screen.

• The ability to take Skype calls or pictures from the Lock screen without having to log in.

• More tile-size options for the Start screen.

• Improvements in the first-party apps that come with Windows.

• More “snap” view sizes to allow viewing of multiple apps on screen at the same time.

• The ability to roam your settings across different Windows 8.1 devices, thanks to use of the cloud.

• Internet Explorer 11, which the company says will have faster page-load times.

Microsoft engineers have also “done a lot of work” to make 8.1 work on 7- or 8-inch tablets, Harris said.

The boom in lower-cost, smaller-screen tablets was “something that we missed, frankly, in Windows 8, and something that’s an interesting thing for us to think about and work on for 8.1,” Leblond said.

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