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Screenshot Tour: What’s New in Windows 8.1 Update 1

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Windows 8.1 Update 1 offers some crucial improvements for mouse and keyboard users. Windows will now automatically detect whether your computer has a touch screen and do the right thing. It also provides better mouse and keyboard support in “Store apps.”

Microsoft’s latest free update for Windows 8 and will be available to everyone on April 8, 2014. As long as you’re running Windows 8.1, it will arrive via Windows Update like any other update for Windows 8.1.

Boot to Desktop by Default on PCs Without Touchscreens

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Windows 8 didn’t allow you to boot to the desktop. Microsoft referred to the desktop as just another “app” you launched from the Windows Start screen. Windows 8.1 allowed you to boot to the desktop, but this option was hidden in the taskbar’s properties window under the Navigation tab. By default, all Windows 8.1 PCs booted to the Start screen.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 will boot PCs without touchscreens to the desktop by default, skipping that “touch-first” application launcher on traditional desktop PCs and laptops. It’s a welcome change for Windows PC users who don’t care about all the new touch stuff.

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Desktop Applications as Default Applications on PCs Without Touchscreens

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Continuing the theme of doing the right thing based on your hardware, Windows will use desktop applications as your default applications on non-touch PCs. Previously, opening an image from the desktop would whisk you away to the full-screen Photos app. Someone who wasn’t familiar with Windows 8 would be confused because there was no taskbar or title bar in this application.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 is smarter. If you double-click an image to open it on the desktop and your PC doesn’t have a touch screen, it will open in Windows Photo Viewer in a window on your desktop. Normal Windows users shouldn’t have to change their file associations in the Control Panel anymore.

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Search and Power Icons on Start Screen

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The Start screen now features Search and Power icons at the top-right corner. The Power icon allow you to shut down or restart your computer without opening the charms bar. Both the Search and Power icons bring up features that are already in Windows 8, but they make these features more discoverable for users who might not know where to look.

Microsoft never included any help features with Windows 8, so this sort of thing is a real improvement for people trying to understand the new interface.

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Context Menus for Mouse Users

Windows 8.1 now uses context menus instead of app bars when you use a mouse. For example, when right-clicking a tile on your Start screen on Windows 8.1, you’d see the app bar at the bottom of your screen. When right-clicking on Windows 8.1 Update 1, you’ll see a more traditional context menu. These context menus work better with a mouse and require less mouse movement. When interacting with touch, you’ll still see the app bars.

For some reason, this only appears to happen on the Start screen. You’ll still see app bars in Store apps when you right-click. Maybe Microsoft will update Store apps to use context menus in the future.

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Title Bars in Store Apps for Mouse Users

Microsoft has added title bars to Store apps. These title bars only appear when you’re using a mouse, so they won’t clutter things up when you’re using a touch screen.

Move your mouse to the top of the screen when using a Store app and you’ll see a title bar, allowing you to interact with the application like you’d interact with a window on the Windows desktop. This makes the interface more intuitive for mouse users, although it’s definitely not as visually consistent as Windows 8 originally was.

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Show Store Apps on the Taskbar

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The taskbar will now display icons for running Store apps as well as desktop apps. This setting can be changed in the taskbar’s properties window — look for the “Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar” checkbox — but it’s on by default.

Store apps still run in full-screen mode and can’t be used in windows on the desktop without Stardock’s ModernMix. Windows 9 will likely have Store apps running in windows alongside traditional Windows desktop applications.

(If you’re keeping track, this dialog tells us they’re now officially called “Windows Store apps” — not Metro apps, Modern apps, Windows 8-style apps, immersive apps, or anything else Microsoft has called them in the past. And yes, this would mean that a sideloaded Windows 8 app is a non-Store Store app.)

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Pin Store Apps to Taskbar

Whether you choose to show all store apps on the taskbar or not, you can now pin individual store application shortcuts to your taskbar like you’d pin a desktop application. Just right-click a tile or application shortcut and pin it.

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Desktop Taskbar in Store Apps

You can access your taskbar in Store apps while using the mouse. Just move your mouse cursor to the bottom of your screen and the taskbar will appear. It only appears when you’re using a mouse and move your cursor to the bottom of your screen, so it shouldn’t get in the way when you don’t need it. It functions like the “auto-hide taskbar” setting is enabled.

This only works if you have the “Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar” option enabled, but it’s enabled by default.

This feature can definitely be useful, but Windows 8 was clearly not designed with it in mind. For example, the taskbar overlaid over the Store version of Internet Explorer looks like a mess. Just removing the transparency would be an improvement. It’s odd to see transparency here when it was removed from the desktop almost entirely in Windows 8.

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Higher Scaling Options for High-DPI Displays

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Windows 8.1 Update 1 also offers improved support for high-resolution displays on the desktop. You can select multiple new scaling options — even scaling the interface up to as much as 500%. These scaling options will be particularly important on smaller 4K displays and will allow more comfortable desktop use on all the high-resolution Windows laptops being released.

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Disk Space Improvements

In addition to using less disk space, Windows 8.1 Update 1 includes a redesigned Disk space management tool. This tool lets you more easily view and manage what’s using disk space on your Windows 8.1 device and is ideal for touch-based Windows tablets with small amounts of storage. It’s available in the PC settings app under PC and devices > Disk space.

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You might be wondering why Microsoft chose the odd name “Windows 8.1 Update 1″ for this update. Well, it matches Microsoft’s Windows Phone versioning system. So, if you’re a Windows Phone user who doesn’t know what a Service Pack is, you’ll be right at home. For most Windows users, the new naming system is just overly wordy.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 03/10/14

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