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Users of Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 may have noticed a rather large OS update yesterday—that’s Windows 8.1 Update 1, if you were wondering. The update brought a whole bunch of new bits and pieces to the table to make the experience of actually using the operating system less cumbersome for, well, everyone. In short, so far this update seems to be doing a good job of addressing a lot of folks’ complaints about Microsoft’s flagship OS, and could pave the way for even better stuff down the road. But things don’t look to different on the face of things. What changed?

Mouse in the House

right-click-update_486557AAThe biggest improvement is the improved mouse support. It’s no secret that Microsoft optimized the entire Windows 8 experience around the growing popularity of tablets and touch-based interfaces. But there were many, many more users who still interacted with Windows computers in the traditional way, with the reliable old mouse. Moreover, even some of us tablet users (hello!) like using a mouse and keyboard to, you know, actually get stuff done. Touching is nice, but sometimes highlighting text or scrolling in multi-windowed webpages is much better with a mouse.

The new update has some very simple, but welcome, changes that make the mouse a much more effective interface tool. When navigating the Start Menu—also known as Metro mode, or Modern mode, or whatever the hell they’re calling it now—right clicking brings up a bunch of options for what you want to do with your tiles. But when navigating with your finger, those options pop up at the bottom of the screen, as they had before. In short, Windows can tell if your touching or mousing, and will change its options based on that distinction.

The same goes for using Modern mode apps, rather than traditional Desktop mode apps. When in apps like the Windows Store, Mail, or the Calendar (among whatever other apps you download via the Store), moving your mouse pointer near the top of the app will bring up the familiar “X” or “minimize” icons that we’ve gotten so used to in traditional Windows. Their return breaks down the barrier between the two modes that caused so much frustration for Windows 8 users.

Meet Me at the Bar

taskbar_update_68693543Another familiar Windows friend being resurrected in the update? The taskbar. That’s right, the little strip of icons at the bottom of your screen that tells you what apps you’re using at any given moment is back again. When using your finger, the taskbar is reserved for Desktop mode, but once again, the mouse makes it appear in every app simply by moving your pointer to the bottom of the screen. It’s seems a bit finicky—it seems to only be triggered by dramatic moves to the bottom. Even still, I’d rather have a finicky taskbar than no taskbar at all.

And open Modern apps will show up as active icons on the taskbar in Desktop mode. Once again, this is a great way to make the whole OS feel much more unified as an experience. It doesn’t quite solve all of the operating system’s issues, but suddenly Windows 8.1 feels, well, like Windows. That’s not a bad thing.

Still No Start Button Menu

Even with these improvements, we’re still waiting for the return of the Start Menu Button. Being forced into a whole other screen when hitting the Windows button is not super fun. And we still want to be able to simply stick to Desktop mode and put Modern apps into windows. Hopefully Microsoft will roll those improvements out before the year is up.

[Images: Windows Experience Blog]

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