Windows 8.1 did a whole bunch to make Windows 8 feel more homey by tweaking tiny fit and finish issues. And it worked great. The next Windows 8.1 update (creatively called "Windows 8.1 Update") is pretty much the same thing all over again, but this time with mouse-users specifically in mind. And after trying it out we can say that once again, little tweaks really add up.
When you boot up an updated Windows 8.1 machine, you're not going to be assaulted by the new changes. In fact, depending on what kind of device you're using you might not see any changes by default. That's because the biggest trick up the new Windows 8.1 update's sleeve is figuring out what kind of device you're using and adjusting accordingly. On a tablet? Not much has changed. On a laptop? A lot more.
Take Modern-style apps for instance. To the average multitasking desktop user, full-screen apps can feel a little out of place. Mono-tasking is more at home on a tiny phone screen than a giant monitor. Microsoft isn't backing down on its full-screen push, but updated Windows 8.1 does squeeze apps into a shape that resembles something more comfortably and familiarly window-ish.
Open up a Modern-style app on a machine with a traditional pointing device attached, and you'll be greeted by a friendly little title bar with options to close or minimize (but not resize). It autohides after a second, but slide your cursor all the way up to the top of the screen and it will pop back out again. A minor detail, but one that reminds you Oh right, this is basically just a full-screen window. And that's not just a crutch for new or unfamiliar users; I've been using Windows 8.1 off and on for months and still found it almost strangely comforting.
Likewise, if you throw your cursor down to the bottom of the screen, you'll be see your friendly little desktop taskbar, just as though it was set to autohide and you were looking at a regular program in a fullscreen window. Because, again, you pretty much are.
The taskbar has a few new tricks as well. Apps from the Windows app store can now be pinned there, where you can launch them without a detour to the start screen, and recently used Modern apps that are still open show up there as well. Just like you'd expect a normal, windowed desktop application to. The lines between the two are thinner than ever.
Elsewhere are tweaks that are even more subtle. Cursor gestures now have a merciful little delay. Throwing your pointer to the upper left corner of the screen no longer immediately brings up a preview of the previous app, instantly covering up whatever is you might actually be reaching for. Instead there's a now tiny delay before the image appears, but no delay before you can click to get down to business; Windows is taking the time to make sure you really want to see the preview before it shows.
The change is slight, but the effect is big. Folks who are up there by accident aren't instantly accosted with something they don't understand, and users who know what they're doing don't get slowed down. I never use the hot-corners, and with the delay, I don't get startled by the random pop-up the way I used to.
And the most subtle -- and probably best -- improvements are on the Start screen.
You'll notice there's now a power and search button on the Start screen up in the top right, to help ease the nerves of people who never got the hang of just typing to initiate search, or swiping open the charms bar to find power options, two of Windows 8's lingering weirdnesses.
But maybe best of all is that when you right click a Live Tile with your mouse, it no longer opens a touch-centric menu of options. Instead, you get the good old, mouse friendly right-click menu. You know, because you're using a mouse. And like Windows 8.1's most under-rated feature , this tiny tiny little change does the same. It's OK; it's really just another part of the desktop. It looks a little strange but the same rules apply. At least, they do now. The touch and non-touch sides of Windows are more cohesive than ever.
And the cherry on top? It is (almost) all customisable. The title bars for Modern apps, the constantly accessible task bar, the hot-corner preview delays, all of these are toggle-able if you are really, really specific about how your machine works. But each setting will come switched on (or off) depending on the type of machine you're running, so laptop users who don't want to dive into settings will get these new tweaks automatically. Meanwhile, (crazy?) people using full Windows tablets won't be hampered by mouse-centric changes, because they will be off by default or just won't ever trigger because there's no cursor poking around.
Oh, and the Start Menu is coming back ! It's coming in an update in the future, though Microsoft hasn't said when it will be, and it wasn't in the build of 8.1 Update we got to look at.
More polished than ever
With the Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft balances the needs of its old-school desktop devotees, tablet users, and folks who already learned Windows 8's now antiquated quirks more deftly than ever. With top bars and free access to the task bar, Modern-style apps are more friendly than ever to people who don't know the (bizarrely esoteric) difference between an app and an application. But at the same time, none of the touch-friendliness of Windows 8 is gone or even diminished. In a way, it's almost the perfect update; it offers you some comfortable familiarity but in a completely non-intrusive way, all while changing nothing for the worse.
The bummer is that it took so long to get here, and that "Windows 8" has become practically a dirty word in the process. It's a reputation it doesn't deserve (anymore). First with Windows 8.1 and further with this update, virtually all of Windows 8's initial weirdness -- like the hazard of getting lost/trapped in Metro -- is gone, replaced by the tiny but intuitive tricks it should have had from the start. Better late than never.
The update will start rolling out automatically to Windows 8.1 users on April 8th. Vanilla Windows 8 users can find it in the Windows Store as part of their 8.1 update.