Microsoft is restoring the Start button and adding a boot-to-desktop option in Windows 8.1, but they aren’t giving up on the Modern interface. The Modern interface has been dramatically updated, and it no longer feels quite as half-baked.
Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been, and the Modern interface in Windows 8.1 is what should have shipped in the first place. Microsoft would have seen much less criticism if it did.
In Windows 8, the Snap feature was a toy. You could snap apps in 70/30 view, so one app could only take up 30% of your screen, no matter how large that screen was. The app featured a slimmed down interface, so it was only really useful for chatting or looking at weather in a sidebar while you did something else.
Windows 8.1 makes the snap feature much more flexible. You can now snap apps in 50/50 view, using two apps’ full interfaces at once, completely side-by-side. Every snapped app has a width of 500 pixels.
Snap Up to Four Apps
With a large enough screen resolution, you can now snap up to four apps side-by-side. Sure, that isn’t particularly impressive when you compare it to what you can do on the desktop. But, compared to the iPad’s nonexistent support for multiple apps on screen at once and Android only supporting special, rare floating apps for multitasking, Windows 8.1 offers a much more powerful tablet interface than its competitors.
Multiple Copies of an App at Once
Windows 8 limited you to a single copy of an app at once, while Windows 8.1 allows you to have multiple copies running. This means you can have two different Internet Explorer 11 sessions at once, snapping them so you can see two web pages side-by-side. This sounds like a basic feature — and it is — but it was conspicuously absent from Windows 8.
A Redesigned Windows Store
The Windows Store included with Windows 8 has a fairly terrible interface, and Microsoft has redesigned it for Windows 8.1.
The Windows Store is no longer a static list of categories. It shows a list of recommended apps for you, popular apps, new releases, and the top paid and free apps, so it feels much more dynamic. There’s a new search box in the interface — this will disappoint purists who believe no Modern app should have an integrated search bar, but will help average users understand how to search for apps. The Windows Store also automatically updates apps, just like it should have from day one. (You can disable these automatic updates on a per-app basis, if you like.)
A More Comprehensive PC Settings App
With Windows 8, Microsoft promised that tablet users would never have to use the desktop if they didn’t want to. This turned out to be false — many common settings still required users to head to the desktop and use the old Control Panel, even on a tablet. The PC Settings app was half-baked and didn’t incorporate all the options it should have.
With Windows 8.1, the PC Settings app is much more comprehensive and contains many more settings panes. Common settings like Windows Update, File History, Region and Language, and even integrated SkyDrive support are now included in the PC Settings app.
The Start screen also has more options, and it can now share your desktop wallpaper. You can also use different tile sizes, allowing you to view live tile information on a larger tile or fit many more app shortcuts on a single screen.
Improved Search Features
Windows 8.1 now offers a unified search experience so you can search your apps, settings, and files at once without clicking between categories. This will mostly be appreciated by desktop users, however. Tablet users will find that the search experience also includes deep Bing integration, encouraging users to use Windows 8.1’s integrated search feature to search the web — with Bing, not Google.
More Included Apps
Windows 8.1 offers more included Modern apps. Most importantly, there’s a Help & Tips app that will be pinned to the Start screen so new users will have some help coming to grips with Windows 8’s unfamiliar interface.
There’s also a Reading List app, which integrates with Internet Explorer and the Share charm, giving you a Pocket or Instapaper-like app you can use to save articles to read later. Scan, Calculator, Sound Recorder, and Alarms apps are included, fleshing out the Modern experience with more accessories. Bing adds Food & Drink and Health & Fitness apps, while the official Skype app will replace Messaging in time for the final release.
Updated Modern Apps
The included Modern apps have also been updated, and they’ll continue to be updated throughout the preview process and after release. Most significantly, the widely panned Xbox Music has been redesigned so it no longer requires six or seven clicks to play a song. The Mail app has been made much more powerful and offers additional options that it should have offered from day one, like drag-and-drop.
While there isn’t yet a Modern File Explorer app, the included SkyDrive app can now browse your PC’s local storage.
More Available Modern Apps
The Windows Store now has over 100,000 Modern apps available. Like in all app stores, they’re mostly terrible apps that you wouldn’t want to use. However, Microsoft is still working hard to increase the app count. Microsoft has announced native apps for Facebook and Flipboard are on the way, and they’ve been adding more and more apps all the time.
Microsoft still has a long way to go, however. Many popular apps are still not available — not to mention the less-popular, niche apps people depend on. One huge pain point is still Google’s services. Google offers no Modern apps except a Google search app, so users who are invested in the Google ecosystem of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and other apps won’t be able to really use the Modern interface unless they want to use all their favorite services in a Modern browser.
The Modern interface isn’t perfect yet. In particular, Microsoft hasn’t released Modern versions of Microsoft Office apps — except for OneNote. The interface still only allows you to install Microsoft-approved apps, so there’s no sideloading for average users. Remember when Apple blocked Google Voice from the iPhone for a year? Or how Apple still refuses to approve games that deal with serious issues? We could be seeing similar controversies coming to Windows 8 soon, if it takes off.