Talking tech since 2003

It’s been nearly a year since Microsoft released Windows 8, and while the reviews have been far from stellar across the board, many critics have noted that there’s definite potential in the revamped operating system. But at the Microsoft Build Conference in San Francisco today, the company took attendees through a demonstration of the changes being made to the OS in the form of Windows 8.1. Based on the reviews from tech journalists trying out preview versions of the update, it seems that Microsoft’s been listening to criticisms and putting solid fixes and changes into place.

Overall, it seems that the update offers its users far more customization and usability options. You can move and resize app tiles to your heart’s content, creating a UI that suits you and your needs best. And the Start button—that stalwart of the Windows experience for years—has been returned to its proper home on the bottom left corner of the screen, as we’d heard it would back in April. Hitting it brings up the Start screen, often called by Microsoft as the “Metro UI.” But while the first version of Windows 8 took users away from their beloved desktops, 8.1 keeps the desktop in view behind the Metro UI app-tiles. It’s a small change, and seemingly insignificant, but reviewers love it.

Having only tried Windows 8 briefly on a friend’s machine, I can already see how much of an improvement that one change might be. The Metro UI is great, but users hate huge changes all at once. The new version of the Metro UI tiles is reminiscent of hitting the Start button in previous versions of Windows, in that you get a quick menu full of important stuff, but not a completely new screen. Blending the old with the new is a great way to give users back what they’re used to, while still keeping the exciting Metro UI a relevant and important part of the experience.

In addition to the revamped Start button, there’s a new and improved snap feature that allows for multiple apps to be easily resized and placed, not to mention more integration between the computer and the cloud-based Skydrive service.

Take a look at this slick video of Windows 8.1 in action:

In all, seeing that critics are far more enthusiastic about Windows 8.1 gives me hope about the future of my platform of choice. Sure, Windows isn’t perfect, but it’s what I’ve used for years, and, dammit, I’m sticking with it.

Until we get another Vista or something. Then I’m out for good.

Anyway, Windows 8.1 wasn’t the only announcement made at today’s Build Conference. The updated OS will also feature a new version of Xbox Music that will include a Pandora-like music service to create a “radio station” based on a song you select in your collection. Microsoft also announced that a revamped, “Metro-Style” Office Suite app is on track to be released in 2014, while Facebook is going to be releasing a Windows 8 app sometime in the near-future. Not mentioned was the fact that no one needs or wants a Facebook app for Windows 8, since using a web browser basically works fine.

Taken all together, the Build Conference shows that there’s still plenty of life in Microsoft’s operating system. Can a Surface 2 be far behind? Or maybe the company’ll just confuse everyone and call its new tablet the Surface One…

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