Windows 8.1 (Blue) Features Revealed

Here’s a quick rundown of what Windows 8.1 will bring to the table, and what Microsoft hopes will result from it.

I’ve been looking at Windows tablets for the past year or so, a little harder than I originally thought I would. I have an iPad 1. My daughter has an iPad 2. My wife has a Kindle Fire, and my son-in-law and two boys has Android tablets. I also recently reviewed a Dell Latitude 10 ST2 for Soft32. You can see the review here.

The Dell is good, but its performance isn’t great. I’ve recently (finally) gotten my hands on a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet as well. The difference in performance is night and day above the Dell. I’ll have some thoughts on the differences between the two in another post.

The big question, though is how Windows 8 works with both; and more importantly, what Windows Blue, officially branded as Windows 8.1 bring to the table to improve the experience on both. Microsoft has officially announced the features of Windows 8.1. Here’s a quick rundown of what they are.

windows-blue

The Start Button Returns
In short, we get the button but not the menu. Simply getting the button back, isn’t EXACTLY what most Windows veterans, especially enterprise users, were looking for. The new Windows 8 Start Menu leaves a lot to be desired at the office. Kids, when we asked for the Button back, we really meant the Menu. The Windows 8 Start Menu and Tiles don’t translate well on the desktop, even on a PC with touch built in like Surface Pro or the Latitude 10 ST2.

Start Menu Filtering
Newly installed apps won’t just get tiled on your Windows 8 Start Menu. They’ll now appear under a “New” filter in All Apps View. You can pin them to the Start Screen if you want, from there.

Boot to Desktop
The one big thing that most Windows vets will appreciate is the ability to bypass the Windows 8 Start Menu and boot directly to the desktop. Current rumor also indicates that you can boot not only to the Start Menu or Desktop but other locations as well, including All Apps View.

Interface Enhancements
You’re going to be able to carry your desktop background over to ModernUI apps. You’ll also see new colors, and backgrounds, including animated elements. Your lock screen can also be configured to run a slide show.

Windowing Enhancements
Microsoft is updating how Snap Views work. You will be able to resize snapped apps to any ratio you like, and can snap up to three (3) apps side-by-side. You can also open more than one instance of the same app and snap it side-by-side.

Settings Update
Settings is getting a decent number of tweaks to help unify and streamline the Windows 8 interface. More settings will be coming over to the ModernUI side of the fence so you won’t swap back and forth between ModernUI and the Desktop as much.

As soon as Windows 8.1 hits the streets, I should be able to install it on the Surface Pro I have. I’ll have a full rundown on it vs. the original release of Windows 8 for Soft32 as soon as its available.

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If Microsoft is Going to Listen, then it Needs to Listen

I need what I need, and not a token bone thrown at me. I’m just sayin’…

The interwebs have been agog lately with a number of different rumors and “confirmations” that Microsoft has heard the wailing and cries of its people. It’s said that the release of Windows 8.1 – or Windows Blue as its been code named – will bring back the Start button to the Windows 8 interface.  Unfortunately, a new undercurrent has been heard recently as well: The Start Button is going to do what it did in the Windows 8 Developer Preview – Bring up the Windows 8 Start Screen and not a Windows 7 Styled Start Menu.

My friend Preston Gralla sites a story from The Verge in his analysis.  He says that it its “true, it would be a [major] misstep for Microsoft.”

I agree, but it wouldn’t be the first time that MS thought it knew better than its customers.

startbuttonGralla says that, “Microsoft [appears] to have a death wish” when it comes to Windows 8. Users have been asking for a return of the Windows 7 Start Menu. No one is asking for a Start Button that gets users to the Windows 8 Start Screen. Users that want a quick way to get to the Start Screen can swipe in from the right edge of the screen, hit the Windows Key on a Windows compatible keyboard or hover the mouse over the lower left corner until a thumbnail of the Start Screen appears and then click on it.  Putting the Start Button back just to get the user to the Start Screen is silly.  We don’t want the Start screen.

We want the Windows 7 Start Menu.

The Windows 7 Start menu was simple. It was easy to use.  More importantly, its search results were much more accurate than its Windows 8 counterpart; at least that’s the current perception from most users.  Windows 8 Start Screen search results display data differently than displayed on the Windows 7 Start Menu; and the results sort and display is also confusing users.

Unfortunately, especially on a non-touch enabled PC, the Start Screen isn’t what users want. Windows 8.1 will likely give users the ability to boot directly to their Desktop instead of the Start Screen, which is something that users DO want.  However, giving users a Start Button that doesn’t do what users want it to do is confusing and, well, rude. If Microsoft is going to listen to its Windows 8 critics and change the way the OS works, then it needs to listen.

If The Verge’s report is accurate, Microsoft’s solution seems half-backed and empty.  Windows XP and its Start menu have been around since 2000. It’s over 13 years old. Changing that type of use behavior in the enterprise is NOT reasonable; and I honestly think Microsoft is going to miss the boat again if it doesn’t open both ears and listen to what users want from it.

 

 

 

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Will Microsoft do a Redo with Windows Blue?

New rumors are circulating indicating that Microsoft is trying to win you back with Windows Blue…

It’s true I’m not Windows 8 fan. However since my Dell Latitude 10 ST2 tablet run Windows 8 and is a Surface Pro competitor, I’m at least interested in the future of the platform and what Windows 8.1 – more commonly known as Windows Blue – will bring to the table. From what I understand, there’s good news and bad news.

First the bad news – Microsoft isn’t giving up on ModernUI in Windows 8. Windows RT, even though it has Desktop Mode doesn’t run legacy Windows apps, so it can be confusing. WinRT is NOT the Windows you’re used to.

I saw an interesting article by my friend, Preston Gralla. If Preston is right with his speculation, then MS is going to do a bit of rethinking with Windows Blue and will let users boot directly to the Windows Desktop. However, Preston doesn’t think it will happen.

WinBlue

My other friend, MaryJo Foley, is further speculating that not only is Microsoft considering allowing users to boot directly to the Desktop, they are considering bring back the Start Button as well. While both of these design elements were removed from Windows 8 and were NOT part of the original Windows 8.1 feature set, according to MJF, “these two UI options are looking more likely.”

MJF makes it very clear – nothing is certain, but at least Microsoft is looking at this as a very real option. The next milestone leak or the public preview in June will tell the tale. We’re really just going to have to wait and see, as until the software is in the can, anything and everything can change.

I am stuck in the middle. I’m not entirely certain that MS will relent and have the options built into Blue to bring back the Start Button or allow users to boot directly to the desktop. However, I really think they should do it. If they don’t, I see Microsoft having continued issues with Windows 8 adoption. Unfortunately, that’s something that they really don’t need right now, and the absolutely need to address.

As always, time with tell the tale. In the meantime, if you must have this functionality now, you can always check out my review of Start8 here on Soft32 and install it. It brings back the Start Button and allows you to boot Windows 8 directly to the Desktop.

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Customize the look and feel of your Windows 8 device with Decor8

Decor8-Review-2One of the things that most new Windows 8 users won’t like is the lack of interface customization options it has. The OS is almost completely new, and most users don’t know which end is up as far as putting a personal spin on it is concerned. This is why Decor8 is so important. It’s a Windows 8 customization tool.

Microsoft Windows 8 currently limits your start screen customization options to only a few provided background images and a few pre-defined color schemes. While this isn’t earth shatteringly disappointing, Windows 8 doesn’t really provide a lot of customization options, either.  This is where Decor8 comes in. It removes these limitations and provides the freedom to personalize your start screen with your own images and colors.

D8-02

With Decor8, you can choose from more background images to personalize your start screen.  You can add your own photos and images, select multiple images to create a custom slideshow, randomize background images in timed intervals, and apply effects to scroll, fade, blur, recolor and add contrast to your background images.  You can also choose an image for your lock screen background.

Decor8 will automatically create a color scheme to match each of your background images. You can also customize the color scheme, if you prefer. Custom color schemes can also be applied to your charms bar. You can also control how many rows of tiles are available on your start screen.

Decor8 is a decent app; and it’s one of the very few customization apps out there right now for Windows 8. The app follows the same look and feel as Start8, also from Stardock.  The one thing that I would do at the time of this writing is to hold off on any purchase of Decor8 until after the release of Windows Blue. The update is supposed to add to Windows 8’s customization options, and that will likely cause a rev in Decor8 as well.

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Windows Blue Leaves Me Feeling That Way

I have seen the Windows Blue overview and its left me feeling, well… blue.

Windows-9I’ve been using Widows 8 since the release of the Developer’s Preview. I’ve written comprehensive reviews of both the Consumer’s Preview as well as the RTM version of the new Microsoft flagship operating system. I feel I know it well enough to voice a justified opinion.

 

I’m waiting for Windows Blue.

I don’t want to say that I’m hanging my hat on the next release because Windows 8 is unusable. It is usable, but that usability comes with some serious caveats.

 

  • Pick an interface – ModernUI or Desktop Mode. Mixing both in a single computing session or experience is confusing and leads to a disjointed experience.
  • Desktop Mode is where most 9-5-er’s are going to be productive – ModernUI apps just aren’t there yet, nearly a year after Windows 8’s release
  • The touch metaphor doesn’t work on a PC without a touch screen – This seems like a no-brainer to everyone else OTHER than Microsoft. Hello..! A touch pad is NOT a touch screen and can’t sub for one.

The list goes on. The OS itself isn’t bad. It’s fast. Its stable. The problem Windows 8 has is that its UI really sucks. It’s a drastic step back to Windows 1.x. Seriously. Those of us that can remember what THAT convoluted mess was like have been likening the flat, inefficient screen usage and what appears as a massive step backwards in UX (user interface design) experience between the two computer experiences. It’s confusing, really.

Windows, codenamed Blue, is the latest release of Microsoft’s PC operating system. I initially typed, “desktop,” but that’s not really the case anymore. While it’s not clear yet if Windows Blue is a service pack for Windows 8, or if it’s supposed to be Windows 9, it was generally thought that there were supposed to be some serious UI changes in the OS…and there are. Unfortunately for those of us that don’t like ModernUI, the changes are disappointing.

Windows Blue really reinforces ModernUI. It tries to improve on how the UI works; and perhaps it will improve the experience, but Windows 8/Windows Blue still has some very serious issues. The bulk of Windows compatible software available is still written for either Windows 7 or for Windows 8’s Desktop mode. The Windows 8 software store is relatively empty. The apps available there aren’t very good or don’t provide the value that legacy apps do.

With the “improvements” to ModernUI, Settings, Charms, etc., users are still going to continue to swap back and forth between the two interfaces as they spend more and more time relying on ModernUI to handle more of the OS level tasks.

According to my good friend, Paul Thurrott of The Windows Supersite, the release of Windows Blue sheds a great deal of light on the strategic direction Microsoft is taking Windows in; and it involves the complete elimination of the classic Windows Desktop.

To quote Paul, “Microsoft still sees the touch-centric Metro environment as the future of mainstream computing.”

This means that they have not addressed what many pundits in the tech industry have called a serious schism between MS-based touch-centric computing – ModernUI – and where hundreds of millions of Windows PC users are productive every single day. If you remember, Microsoft did this to us twice before with WindowsME and with Windows Vista. Both were supposed to place new user experiences on the desktop and both were a serious flop. They moved things. They changed the way people worked. The cry went up unto Redmond and Microsoft heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth and “corrected the problems.”

They either don’t seem to care or don’t seem to want to at this point. This combined OS that they seem to think is good for both a tablet and as a tool to get serious work done isn’t working. It just isn’t. I’ve been a Windows user since Windows 1.x, and a serious proponent since Windows 3.x. I was on their technical beta team from Window 95 through Windows XP (That includes Win95, Win98, Win98SE, WinME, Win2K, AND WinXP); and I can tell you, When Windows Vista hit, it was a train wreck.

The difference here is that Microsoft took what the industry and their users were saying into account. It’s clear that they have made a conscious choice to stop listening; and it’s sad. Which is why I noticed that Windows blue has left me feeling that way…Blue.

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