A Closer Look At Windows 8.1 Update 1

As TechCrunch previously reported, Microsoft today detailed Windows 8.1 Update 1, announcing that starting April 8th, the new code will begin to roll out to the operating system’s users around the world. It will be a gradual deployment via Windows Update, so don’t set an alarm.

I met with Microsoft yesterday to discuss the update, which the company likes to refer to as “laser focused” on users who are still keyboard and mouse kids, and not touch-first users. Microsoft told TechCrunch that user satisfaction with Windows in a touch environment is high, the highest for any version of Windows ever, but that among keyboard and mouse users, there is less enthusiasm.

Anyone who has tried to Windows 8 on a device where touch is not enabled can attest to this. So, Microsoft has prepped a raft of updates that will make its new code sit well atop traditional PCs. Other updates are included, like rebuilding 8.1 to better sit on cheap hardware. Let’s start there.

Device Support

If you are an OEM and want to sell Windows devices, you want hardware flexibility. So, with Update 1, Microsoft rejiggered Windows 8.1 to work with devices with 1 gigabyte of RAM, and 16 gigabytes of internal storage. The firm calls these devices 116 devices, wittily.

To allow for this, the Windows image — before crap and bloatware that OEMs can tack on in pursuit of something akin to margins — has been reduced up to 60% in size.

Also included for these lightweight, underpowered devices is an updated method for handling app exits. If you are on a 116 device, the chance that you have a processor of impact is slim. So, Microsoft will suspend more apps, using as little memory as possible, to prevent full cold boots on applications; if you lack megahertz, wait times can spiral from zero to sixty.

When might we see 116 devices in the wild? It’s up the OEMs, Microsoft told TechCrunch.

UI Tweaks

Moving to software updates, let’s dig through what is new. Up first: New default boot settings. If your device is touch-first, Windows 8.1 Update 1 — what a name! — will boot to the Metro start screen. If you are on a desktop, say, the device will boot to desktop. The goal here is to make using the new Windows as natural as possible.

How does Update 1 decide where to boot you? Windows 8.1 leans on the power choices made by OEMs to decide what sort of machine you have. Desktops, for example, are rarely tuned to save power.

As expected, leaked, and so forth yes, in Update 1 the Windows Store is now pinned to the desktop taskbar by default:

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Unsurprisingly, according to Microsoft, testing has demonstrated that when they add a shortcut to the Store to the desktop by default, more people use the Store. This is another small change that matters for Microsoft given that the company is hell bent on driving more usage of Windows 8’s Store apps. You know the drill: More downloads provides a positive incentive for developers that will increase their investment in Windows 8.1 itself, spurring a better end-user experience that Microsoft wants to capitalize on to both strengthen Windows and beat back competing platforms.

Also, you can pin other apps to the taskbar as well:

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I offered during our meeting that the addition of Metro apps to the desktop experience was something of a bridge between the two interfaces. Microsoft agreed. How wide a bridge, and what sort of traffic it will manage is the new question.

Continuing the theme of uniting the desktop and Windows Store apps, Metro apps will have live preview when pinned to the taskbar like other apps.

Other tweaks exist. You now right-click on apps in the Start Screen to edit their settings, something that before was a more touch-driven bit of interaction.

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If you mouse-up to the top of a Metro app, a bar appears that includes an ‘X’ that lets you kill the app. Killing Metro apps has long been the work of a long swipe down, something that becomes more difficult if your screen doesn’t cater to touch input. It’s a nice change that, for some reason, is impossible to take a screenshot of.

Also in Metro apps, you can bring the taskbar up, with a firm swipe down with your mouse. It won’t be triggered without somewhat forceful input. This prevents false positives. Similar work has been done to corners. If you swing your cursor with a mouse to the upper corners of Update 1 it won’t immediately bring up an icon of another app that you can switch to. This, again, prevents false positives and gives keyboard-mousers the ability to interact with apps’ upper slopes without molestation.

Microsoft has also changed default settings for certain file categories. Fire up an image from the desktop, and you will now have a Windows 7-like experience. If you have certain default settings, you can keep them, but Microsoft will shunt others with default settings to new defaults. This will induce less desktop-to-Metro jerking.

Continuing, in Update 1 search and power soft buttons have been added to the Start Screen user interface. According to Microsoft — and this explodes my cranium — the biggest feedback they received was that folks couldn’t figure out how to shut down their computer, or find search. Irony abounds, but Microsoft has to cater to the larger market, and so new buttons were added.

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And finally, Microsoft will now alert you when you have installed new apps to jog your memory. The all-apps view will also now highlight new apps. It looks like this:

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That’s the gist for now. We’ll have more thoughts as time rolls along. Strap in.