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Windows 8.1 Update: 5 Essential Facts

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update will try to tempt non-touch users, including those transitioning away from Windows XP.

Windows 8.1 Update 1: 10 Key Changes
Windows 8.1 Update 1: 10 Key Changes
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Microsoft on Tuesday released a Windows 8.1 update designed to make the touch-oriented operating system more palatable to mouse-and-keyboard users, a great many of whom might be looking for new PCs now that Microsoft no longer supports Windows XP.

Microsoft is currently riding a solid momentum streak, thanks in large part to new CEO Satya Nadella's cloud-first, mobile-first strategy. Still, it's hard to handicap the Windows 8.1 update's prospects.

The update, previously called Update 1 and Spring Update in online reports, is more about tweaks than new features, making it modest compared to last year's update from 8 to 8.1. Windows 8.1 provided significant improvements but didn't provoke a spike in adoption; according to Net Applications, fewer than half of Windows 8 users, who can all install 8.1 for free, have bothered to update. If Windows 8.1 has floundered, can this comparatively lightweight update somehow do the trick?

Maybe. Whereas Microsoft merely encouraged users to move from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, it's forcing the issue this time, at least if you're already running Windows 8.1 and want to receive future security updates.

[Still using Windows XP? Read Windows XP Game Over: 9 Upgrade Options.]

Even so, the update makes the OS easier to use on non-tablet devices. Are the changes enough to satisfy Windows 8 skeptics? Sound off in the comments to let us know what you think.

1. Boot-to-desktop is the new normal.
Unless you're using a tablet, Windows 8.1 now boots directly to the desktop, even on touchscreen laptops and desktops. Users can still choose whether their device boots to the desktop or Start screen. Only the default has changed, and only on traditional devices.

2. File associations are smarter.
Before the update, pictures, music, and video files opened by default with Modern apps. That's still true for tablets, but laptops and PCs will instead use desktop applications. Users can still customize these associations, but the switch should make Windows 8.1 less jarring.

The Windows 8.1 update's new features includes more apparent search and power tools. (Source: Microsoft)
The Windows 8.1 update's new features includes more apparent search and power tools.
(Source: Microsoft)

Many new users are surprised when they click a jpeg file on their desktop, only to be thrust over to the Modern UI. Now, that experience can be avoided.

3. Modern apps can be treated more like legacy applications.

Modern apps still launch into full-screen mode, but if the user directs his mouse to the bottom of the screen, the taskbar becomes accessible. The apps also include a menu bar that's invisible by default but surfaces when users mouse over the top of the screen. It includes familiar right-corner icons to close or minimize the app.

When minimized, Modern apps even appear as thumbnail previews on the taskbar. Some of them, such as the Xbox Music app, allow the user to access basic controls without fully opening the app. When Modern apps are closed, Windows 8.1 now takes users to the last closed app, instead of the Start screen.

Modern apps are now accessible from the taskbar, and some, such as the Xbox Music app, even integrate controls into a thumbnail preview. (Source: Microsoft)
Modern apps are now accessible from the taskbar, and some, such as the Xbox Music app, even integrate controls into a thumbnail preview.
(Source: Microsoft)

Some people aren't using many Modern apps, but Microsoft hopes to make new titles more visible by automatically pinning the Windows Store app to the taskbar. Users can unpin the app if they choose.

In sum, these tweaks mean that once an updated Windows 8.1 PC has been

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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4/11/2014 | 5:54:37 PM
Re: Win 8 update
I think a lot of people feel that way-- but remember: A lot of the decision-makers who worked on the original Windows 8 are no longer with the company. That might not wash the bad taste out of your mouth, but if you haven't already jumped to a non-Windows platform, I think it allows for some optimism. Seems like Terry Myerson knows the stakes facing him.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
4/11/2014 | 5:50:59 PM
Re: Booting to Windows start screen after Windows 8.1 Update 5 installed
Thanks for listing the steps, moonwatcher. Incidentally, for those who haven't done much tweaking in Windows 8.1, the Navigation tab is also where you can activate or deactivate hot corners, among other useful things.

Oddly, though, some important controls are elsewhere. As mentioned in the article, the Surface Pro we updated didn't have the Windows Store app pinned to the taskbar at first. To enable this feature, we went to PC Settings via the Charm, then PC and devices, then Corners and edges-- but not the Navigation tab.
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