At its Build 2014 conference, Microsoft announced the widely leaked Windows 8.1 Update. Not only was the news about the update made public, but so was the update itself, which has been floating around the web for a few weeks.
The update brings a fresh round of tweaks, just as 8.1 itself did, with Microsoft putting back more and more of the features it took out of Windows 7. They also make the OS easier and quicker to use, making commonly used features more prominent instead of being hidden away as per Microsoft’s minimalist philosophy for Windows 8.
The update will be free, and will be available as of 8th April, meaning only a few days’ wait for those eager to try out the new features. As long as you haven’t disabled automatic updates, your PC should install 8.1 Update as soon as it’s available. See also: Windows 8.1 review: still an OS of two halves
Windows 8.1 Update: new feature highlights
So, what’s new in Windows 8.1 Update? Here's a brief overview of the important changes in Windows 8.1 Update:
New Start screen power button and search
If your Windows 8 machine is set to boot to the new Start screen, you’ll notice two new icons to the right of your user name and avatar: power and search. (Note: the power icon will appear only on some mobile devices such as laptops. Tablets won’t get the button.)
Now, there’s no need to bring up the Charms bar to access either of these features. The power icon gives you the same options you’ll find if you tap on Settings in the Charms bar, then Power.
The search icon makes this crucial function more obvious and you can use it to find apps in the Windows Store as well as apps already installed, files and web search results.
A minor extra addition is that the PC Settings tile is now on the Start screen by default. You could add it yourself before, of course.
Start screen tile customisation
Most people still use a keyboard and mouse, and in Windows 8.1 Update you’ll now get a familiar context menu when you right-click on a tile on the start screen (instead of the app bar at the bottom).
It lets you change the size, unpin it, uninstall the app or disable the ‘live’ part of a live tile.
If anything, this is a confusing change, since no other Modern UI apps have gained desktop-style context menus when you right-click.
The good news is that you can drag and drop tiles with a mouse without first entering a ‘customising mode’ as you have to on a touchscreen Windows 8 device.
New app notifications
In Windows 8, a new tile was added to the Start screen when you installed a new app. In 8.1, Microsoft stopped that and no new tiles were added – you had to go and find the new app and pin it to the Start screen yourself.
With 8.1 Update, we have another new method: no new tiles are added automatically, but you do get a notification pointing to the Apps screen. Click or tap on it and you’ll see the new app icons highlighted in the full apps list so you can (more) easily find it. Whether the highlights are obvious will depend on your colour scheme (it's not that easy on this purple theme), and how many apps you have installed.
Apps screen tweak for desktop users
A minor tweak is a new option to display more app tiles in the Apps screen. This is better for desktop users with large, high resolution monitors. Previously, the screen was designed mainly for touch operation (as you’d expect) but it meant that anyone using it with a keyboard and mouse saw too few apps simultaneously.
Modern UI apps on the desktop taskbar
This one’s big: you can now pin Modern UI apps to your taskbar on the traditional desktop. This makes it faster to launch an app than bringing up the Start screen and finding (or searching for) the app in question.
You’ll see a thumbnail of the apps – or multiple thumbnails for apps such as IE11 which support multiple windows – just as you do with desktop apps.
Certain apps, such as Xbox Music, can display playback controls.
Modern UI apps still launch and run in full-screen mode, sadly. That’s rumoured to be possible in Windows 9, which should launch in April 2015.
Subtly different from the ability to pin Modern UI apps on the taskbar is the option to display running Modern UI apps there. This means they’ll only appear when they’re running but has the side benefit of the taskbar being displayed when running Modern UI apps. It’s a benefit because you can more quickly switch directly to another app instead of first returning to the desktop or toggling through apps using Alt-Tab or Windows-Tab.
App title bar for Modern UI apps
One nod to those who still primarily use the traditional desktop (which is virtually everyone) is a new title bar which appears when you mouse over the top of the app. It has an ‘x’ at the right-hand side for closing the app, and an app icon on the left. When you click that, you get the option to snap the app left or right (quite why Microsoft has confused matters by calling it Split is anyone's guess).
PC Settings app
We moaned about the limited number of options in the PC Settings app in 8.1 and that’s now been addressed. You can now see how much disk space is used by various things as well as uninstalling apps. You also get a link to the Control Panel, something that was sorely lacking in previous versions.
There are also other updates in PC Settings, making it generally much more useful. Have a play with it and you’ll spot the new features pretty quickly.
Windows 8.1 Update: bottom line
As with Windows 8.1, getting the update is a no-brainer. There’s nothing here, features-wise, that constitutes a reason not to upgrade, neither is there any financial reason, since it’s free.
It’s a shame that Microsoft hasn’t made the leap to Modern UI apps running in smaller windows on the desktop, but the other changes are wholly welcome. Although it's far from unified, the two sides of the OS don't feel quite as separate now, and being able to see the taskbar from anywhere, including the Start screen goes a fair way to making it much less jarring.
It’s also good to see Microsoft making good on its promise of regular updates, and listening to user feedback.