What’s New in Windows 8.1 Update

Microsoft’s latest update to Windows 8.1 — which has now been officially christened Windows 8.1 Update — continues Microsoft’s efforts to file off the rough edges of the initial Windows 8 release. Although Microsoft won’t describe it as such, Windows 8.1 Update can be viewed as yet another step backwards from the touch-optimized initial Windows 8 release and a step towards satisfying the needs of mouse and keyboard users.

To that end, the bulk of the improvements in this update — which is slated to be officially released this Spring, despite some recent early leaks on the web — center largely around improving the desktop experience for users without touch hardware who rely mostly on mice and keyboards to get their work done.

Microsoft logo
Will Windows 8.1 Update 1 have what it takes to mollify Windows 8 critics? (Image: Microsoft)

Windows 8.1 Update: Improvements and Changes

Let’s take a look at a few of the major changes and improvements in this update, most of which were mentioned by Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore in a post on the Windows Phone blog during last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Given that some of this information is preliminary and from multiple sources, please check back regularly as I update the article with newer and potentially more accurate information.

Boot to Desktop by Default: Windows 8.1 introduced the ability to enable booting to desktop as an option, but Tom Warren at The Verge is reporting that the latest build “…only boots to the desktop on non-touchscreen PCs by default.” This boot to desktop by default feature for keyboard and mouse users could go a long way to addressing some of the gripes that Petri IT Knowledgebase readers (and yours truly) have long had about Windows 8.

New Right-Click Context Sensitive Menus: A convenient feature for mouse and keyboard users is the ability to right-click on a UI element — such as the Windows desktop, the task bar, or other interface elements — and get a context-sensitive menu that provides additional options. While that functionality has always existed in the desktop mode of Windows 8/8.1, Paul Thurrott over at the Windows Supersite says that Microsoft is planning to a add that functionality to the Metro side of Windows 8.1.

Taskbar on the Start Screen: Another chance being discussed for this update is a change to how the desktop task bar behaves when switching between the desktop and Metro interfaces. In Windows 8.1, the task bar would vanish when you switched to the Metro-fied Start Screen. In Windows 8.1 Update, the taskbar remains onscreen when you switch to the start screen. I’ll try to add a photo and/or video of this functionality in action in the near future. Regardless, this change should also help PC desktop users accustomed to the traditional start menu and task bar feel at home.

Search and Power Buttons on the Start Screen: Microsoft is adding some icons to make shutting down and searching easier for desktop and mouse users, namely by adding power and search buttons to the upper right corner of the Metro start screen. I can tell from watching friends and family members using Windows 8 for the first time that simply shutting down the machine and searching for content are not that intuitive, so adding visual icons for these should be helpful.

Pin Metro Apps to Desktop Taskbar: Another area where I’ve seen users stumble when using Windows 8 is when trying to find and open Metro apps from the desktop side. It’s honestly a confusing mess, and Windows 8.1 Update should address this UI mistake as well. ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley says that the update will give users the ability to pin Metro apps to the Windows 8.1 desktop task bar, which will make it much easier to access Metro apps from the desktop side.

Improved  IE8 compatibility in Internet Explorer 11: Belfiore calls this new functionality out specifically in his post, saying that  the Windows 8.1 Update release will enhance IE8 compatibility for Internet Explorer 11 users “…which is especially critical for web-based line of business applications.” ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley has recently reported a bit on this feature in the past, which has been referred to as IE 11 ‘ enterprise mode.’

Cheaper Windows 8 partner licensing costs: Belfiore mentions that Microsoft will “…enable our partners to build lower cost hardware for a great Windows experience at highly competitive price points.” That can only mean that Microsoft plans to reduce the licensing costs that it charges hardware partners to

Improved mobile device management capability: Microsoft has steadily been building out the ability to more effectively manage mobile devices on the IT management and server side with impressive updates to Windows Intune and Microsoft System Center, so it was only logical that the company introduce additional hooks on the client side to facilitate easier management of Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone mobile devices on the client side. Belfiore didn’t spell out exact details about what these enhanced mobile device management capabilities will be, so we’ll update this section as more information is revealed.

Improved deployment options: Belfiore mentioned improved mobile device management and deployment options in the same sentence, and it’s clear that Microsoft is bending over backwards to streamline and optimize the deployment of Windows 8.1 into the enterprise. It’s been widely reported here and elsewhere that Windows 8 adoption in the enterprise is lagging, so anything Microsoft can do to make deployment easier for IT management should help their case.

So will all of the new features in Windows 8.1 Update finally get you to take the plunge and embrace Windows 8? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me an email or touch base with me on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook (see below).