|This story was first published by our friends at Ars Technica. You can read the original version of it here.|
Late last month, Microsoft announced a raft of interface changes that Windows 8.1 would introduce. We've been giving them a spin.
As you might guess from the name, Windows 8.1 is an update to (and improvement on) Windows 8. The new user interface introduced in that operating system—the Start screen, touch-friendly "Modern" apps, the charms bar—is retained in Windows 8.1. What we see is a refinement and streamlining of these concepts.
The differences are visible as soon as you log in. In 8.1, the Start screen offers a lot more flexibility over layout and tile sizing. By default, the Weather tile takes advantage of this, using a new double-height tile size to show the forecasts for both today and tomorrow, in addition to the current conditions.
Support for this largest size is optional, and at the moment most apps don't support it. Future updates to built-in apps will extend large tile support; for example, an update to the Mail app will allow it to show a preview of your latest two or three mails. That update isn't included in this preview release.
The default Start screen also includes a bunch of small tiles for Music, Video, Games, and the Camera app.
The combination of the two new tile sizes serves both to make the Start screen a lot more customizable and a lot denser. Even at modest screen resolutions, you'll be able to pack much more information onto the screen, giving quick access to many more apps. This is particularly welcome for desktop apps, which unfortunately still don't support live tiles.
There are a bunch of new background options for the Start screen. Unlike the static abstract images offered in Windows 8, the backgrounds in 8.1 include a number of subtle animations.
For example, the default background, a stylized betta fish (a motif that Microsoft has used for the last few Windows betas) has a number of bubbles coming from the fish's mouth (and yes, this is accurate; although most fish do not produce bubbles since they breathe using gills, betta fish do in fact make bubbles). The bubbles animate slowly. Other backgrounds that Microsoft has demonstrated (but which don't appear to be in this preview) include a dragon that swooshes around as you scroll through the Start screen and robots with whirring cogs.
The backgrounds all have a parallax scrolling effect, putting them some distance "behind" the layer of tiles.
If you don't want any of those background images, there's a new option to use the desktop wallpaper behind the Start screen. The desktop wallpaper is typically very different from the other background images; they remain stylized and abstract, just as in Windows 8. Desktop wallpaper, on the other hand, is often photographic (especially if using the default wallpaper, which loads a daily photograph from Bing).
The effect this has on the Start screen is peculiar. To me, it makes the Start screen feel much less separate from the desktop, providing a sort of visual continuity that doesn't otherwise exist. This is true even if the desktop itself is covered by a window, as it means that at least the coloring is consistent between the two.
I wish that Microsoft had included this option in Windows 8, perhaps even going so far as to make it the default. While it's only a small change, it does something that Windows 8 has thus far struggled to do: it bridges the worlds of the desktop and the Metro environment.
Who owns the Start screen?
The other major change to the Start screen is not something you'll see, but rather something you won't see. In Windows 8, I noted that the question of ownership of the Start screen was odd. Although the tile layout is meant to be personal, installing any new app, whether desktop or Metro, would just dump additional icons onto the screen. This undermined the notion that the Start screen was your tiles, laid out the way you want.
That's no longer the case in 8.1. Install a new app and its icon will be stuck in All Apps view. It will only appear on the Start screen itself if you explicitly pin it.
Getting to All Apps has changed to be consistent with Windows Phone; in that (primarily portrait mode) operating system, you swipe from right to left in the tile view to see the listing of all your apps. In Windows 8.1, you swipe from bottom to top to do the same. New apps get flagged to advertise their presence, and there is a set of sorting options if you want something other than an alphabetical view.
One consequence of this swipe action is that the way of interacting with tiles on the Start screen has changed. To customize a tile in Windows 8, you nudged it up or down, and that selected it and let you change its size, unpin it, uninstall it, and so on. That nudge gesture is now gone, with "edit" mode now invoked by the more traditional long press.
While I understand the rationale, some of the fluency of the interface is now lost. Long presses make you stop what you're doing and wait for the operating system to recognize your input. At least they are familiar, as other touch operating systems also use them, so that's a point in their favor.
Improvements to search
One of our biggest criticisms of Windows 8—and far and away the most annoying aspect of it in my own day-to-day usage—is that its search feature broke the usage model that I'd depended on since Windows Vista: hit the Windows key and then start typing. Although Windows 8 does support this style of search, it presented results in an annoying, segregated way, with different sections for programs, files, and settings. Combined with the inconsistent division between these categories, the result was a reduction in usability.
Search in 8.1 has undergone a major revision. First of all, basic search results are now unified, reinstating the convenience of Windows Vista and Windows 7. Starting a search (whether using the charm or the keyboard) no longer covers the screen, either; it just shows a search bar down the right hand side of the screen.
If the results in the list aren't what you want, hit return and you'll get a full-screen results set that culls data from a range of sources. The search provides semi-structured results. Search for a person, for example, and you'll see some brief biographical information, along with a link to the relevant part of the Wikipedia app. Scroll right and you'll get image results, Web hits with previews of the pages, related searches, and so on. Microsoft calls these things "search heroes."
I am old-school with my Web searching. I do it from the browser, and in fact, I visit the homepage of the search engines I use first, not even searching directly from the address bar. As such, I'm not sure whether I'll use this new search feature all that much. But it seems to work well and it looks good. I can see how it would be useful, just as long as it can provide structured search hero results for a wide range of searches.
One further consequence of this is that the top-level Search feature is no longer the preferred approach for contextual, in-app search. Instead, apps should use a magnifying glass icon or similar to support their own search features. I've hated the use of the top-level search for in-app search since day one, so this is a very welcome improvement.
Another major sticking point with Windows 8 was its Metro-style settings app. It was woefully incomplete, forcing touch users to use the desktop to configure various options.
The new settings app, which we took pictures of in our gallery, is a great deal more complete. It's not exhaustive—there are still settings that require the use of the desktop Control Panel—but it now covers a much, much larger proportion of common configuration tasks.
Together, these changes conspire to make Windows 8.1 a better, more consistent operating system. I would argue it's how the OS should have shipped. Except for the Start screen background, none of the stuff I've described so far will do much to excite dedicated desktop users who prefer Windows 7 to 8. Windows 8.1 does bring some improvements for those users. I'll be looking at them later today.