BitDepth#908 - October 22

What's new in Microsoft's new update to Windows 8?
Windows 8.1 - more of the same
The new revision of Microsoft’s Windows 8 packs in new features focused on making office collaboration easier along with refinements to consumer focused software like the Photos app. Will it be enough to bring fence sitters comfortable with Windows 7 into the fold? Screen captures courtesy Microsoft.

Last week, Microsoft released its first major revision of Windows 8, the troubled hybrid update to its flagship operating system that it introduced in August 2012.

Adoption of the new operating system has been slow, and reception has been distinctly mixed. At least part of the problem has been the depth and breadth of Windows adoption in the personal computer market and the mandate of Windows 8 to provide a bridge between those systems and the surging market for tablet based computers.

I’ve been running Windows 8 since its introduction on what might well be described as the seminal computer for the operating system, a Samsung designed tablet that was given away by the company in the hundreds of thousands to developers and internal users as the test bed for developing the new operating system.

If any system knows Windows 8, it’s this one. Right up until early in 2013, most of the senior Microsoft officers I met were still using the
Samsung Series 7 Slate PC, rather less attractively codenamed the XE700T1A-A01US .
I began using it with the official Windows 8 preview, then installed Windows 8, then the 8.1 upgrade preview and now I’m running the free full upgrade to Windows 8.1.

Like most users, I downloaded it using the Windows Store, the software that normally delivers the Modern UI apps for the tile based OS that runs on top of the desktop version of Windows.
It’s a hefty download, running to almost 3.7GB and when I grabbed it, it came down slowly, possibly reflecting high demand on Microsoft’s servers.

The software than warned that it would restart multiple times (14, if my absent minded recollection is accurate) in order to complete all the things it needed to do and warned that I’d have to reinstall all my software afterward.
This is likely to be an irritating experience for anyone using Windows 8 as a production machine and the payoff isn’t immediately clear.

The biggest difference for me was discovering that this Windows update does a pretty amazing job of scouring old digital cruft and preparing it for deletion.
After installation, you’ll find a Windows.old folder in your root directory which represents everything that Windows 8.1 has replaced and presumably, improved.

That folder, probably because of my profligate installations of both Windows 8 versions and test software represented almost 30GB of cruft that I cheerfully discarded. On a disk based system with just 55GB of space available, that made a significant difference to performance and my general satisfaction with the new update.
Most of the improvements from the Windows 8.1 preview are present, tidied up and displayed with bright, colourful new background images.

The restored not-quite-a-Start-button offers access to common Windows commands, but you must either right click it on a desktop or press and hold on a tablet to access these useful navigational shortcuts. A single click or tap sends you back to the tile-based Modern UI interface.

As with each revision of Windows 8 so far, the 8.1 revision feels snappier and more polished than its predecessor with more fine grained control over interface typography than I recall in any previous version of the OS.
As a closet font buff, I find this attention to detail oddly reassuring and the rendering of text admirably crisp and well kerned.

But I’m not sure such nuances will address the fundamental problem with Windows 8 across all its versions, which is that Microsoft has crafted an admirable hybrid tablet/desktop operating system for a market that doesn’t seem particularly interested.

In Windows 8.1, however, Microsoft has spent a lot of time breaking down the walls of perception between apps in the traditional desktop environment and the software that runs in the Modern UI screen. Most of the improved software appears in this environment, inclusive of social media tools, an improved browser, photos app and a suite of software that make use of the capabilities of the Bing search engine.

My altogether pleasant experiences with the software on a tablet appear to be in the distinct minority of Windows 8 users generally. Windows Phone 8 users love using the software on their mobile devices with no interest in a traditional desktop experience and desktop users seem, in the main, to be quite keen on never seeing the Modern UI ever again.

The relatively thin slice of Windows users who experience the real magic of the hybrid OS seems to be tablet users, and you’ll find us here, right alongside the hen’s teeth.
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