There's been some doublespeak from Microsoft on the usability point. Redmond executives have claimed that customer feedback informed Blue's development -- but they've also defended Win8's Live Tile start screen, which has been a significant driver of user criticism. There's a fine line between upholding one's convictions and alienating one's fans. Win 8.1 looks like it will land on the right side of that line -- but I'll come back to that later.
First, here are five reasons things are looking up for Windows 8.
1. New Intel Chips, Better Battery Life
Intel's Haswell core chips should be shipping inside Windows 8.1 devices by this fall. If you found the Surface Pro somewhat attractive but were deterred by its poor battery life and modest i5 processor -- your time is coming. Haswell is expected to deliver major improvements in power management, which means designers have more flexibility to balance CPU power and battery life. The result should be Win8 tablets and Ultrabooks that function like high-end laptops but can run all day on a single battery charge. Intel's chips are also expected to facilitate thinner, lighter form factors, and to deliver improved graphics performance -- perfect for the high-density screens that will be common on the next round of high-end, Surface Pro-like machines.
Intel's Bay Trail Atom processors, meanwhile, won't be on the market until later this year. But the new mobile-oriented chips are expected to substantially improve the graphics performance and central processing muscle of Atom-based Windows 8 tablets. Intel says the new processors are twice as powerful as the current ones, and Intel is clearly looking to challenge ARM, the chip of choice for smartphones and tablets. If Bay Trail lives up to its promise, it will enable the lightest and most portable of tablets to not only run the full version of Windows 8, but also, and more importantly, do so without a hitch. In a space dominated by cheap Android tablets and the iPad Mini, the ability to run Microsoft Office and legacy x86 apps could be a major differentiator.
2. Lower Prices
For many users, the first wave of Windows 8 devices was prohibitively expensive. The next wave, however, should offer options to fit all budgets. Intel has stated that Haswell-based Ultrabooks should reach the $600 price point. There will be more expensive options too. But given the improvements the new chips should facilitate, Intel's promise means that devices with more raw processing power and better battery life than the Surface Pro will soon cost only a little more than much-ignored, and x86-incompatible, Surface RT.
Atom-based Windows 8 tablets, meanwhile, could be much cheaper. The prospect of $1,000 Win8 Ultrabooks didn't entice many people -- but $300 for an extremely thin tablet that can capably run Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Angry Birds and most anything else? That could take a bite out of the iPad Mini's sales.
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