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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 26, 2013 at 6:05 PM

First impressions of Windows 8.1: Starting back to the future

SAN FRANCISCO _ Yes, the start button is back.

But after pressing it a few times in Windows 8.1, I’m wondering what all the fuss was about.

Other changes in Microsoft’s flagship operating system are more interesting but the button has received all the attention, becoming a focal point for those who dislike the new software.

Microsoft released a preview version of Windows 8.1 on Wednesday morning and will release a final version later this year, so new PCs going on sale this holiday season will come with the new software. It’s a free upgrade for Windows 8 that’s being distributed through the Windows app store.

The restored start button is a Windows icon appears in the lower-left corner when you’re running the software in the traditional desktop mode. When you press it, the screen flips back to the tiled Windows 8 home screen.

startbutton

Restoring the start button shows that Microsoft is being responsive to customer concerns. Along with other improvements in Windows 8.1 and a range of new and affordable touchscreen PCs coming out this holiday season, it could help finally revive PC sales.

But bringing the button back still doesn’t address the semantic disconnect between Microsoft and users who can’t get the hang of Windows 8. It may still take some time for people to get used to the new layout Microsoft’s software is bringing to PCs.

Microsoft wants users to think of the tiled Windows 8 desktop as a full-screen start screen. This screen, full of icons to launch programs, is intended to replace the control panel and file lists that has popped up in the lower-left corner of Windows PCs for nearly two decades. So that’s where you go when you press or click “start” on Windows 8.1 – by default, it just takes you to the tiled desktop.

If you’re looking for a “start” button that surfaces a traditional Windows control panel with a search box, shutdown control and list of files and system controls, stick with Windows 7. Or you can tinker with new controls in Windows 8.1 to make it feel more traditional.

UPDATE: You can also right click the “start” button to surface system controls, a reader in Redmond told me today. This surfaces a list of options similar to what you get by pressing the Windows and X keys simultaneously on Windows 8.

I didn’t realize the start button had this capability when trying 8.1 on a tablet. Today I found a desktop PC running 8.1 and tried it out. Right-clicking dramatically increases the utility of the start button, especially for Windows power users, but this feature isn’t obvious. If people discover the right-click, they’ll probably use it all the time. Here’s a screenshot:

startclick

To search for files or power down a Windows 8.1 PC, you’ll probably continue to use its “charms” controls. As on Windows 8, they surface on the right side of the screen when you point the cursor into one of the right-side corners, or flick a finger on a touchscreen. (You can also just start typing to search.)

Microsoft has made a number of notable improvements to the “start” screen that may minimize the issue.

Image417

Most obvious is the ability in 8.1 to have smaller icons, allowing more programs to be shown on the initial screen. Scrolling sideways also surfaces a “down” arrow button that calls up a list of all apps, accessories and system controls. This “apps view” list includes the Control Panel, file explorer and “run” commands.

appview

The browser also behaves differently. Control buttons and the address bar remain visible, instead of disappearing as they do in Windows 8. The original idea was to maximize viewing area when browsing, but it’s maddening to have to constantly click or flick a finger to get the browser controls back in view. Keeping browser controls directly at hand is a welcome change in Windows 8.1.

One of the most significant changes in 8.1 lies below the surface, where Microsoft has added options for changing the default desktop.

It takes some poking around to find, but Microsoft added settings to 8.1 that let users go to the traditional desktop when they sign in on their PC.

startconfig

This enables traditionalists to largely bypass the modern, Windows 8 interface.

Also added are controls for changing what happens when you press the start button. One option is to have the start button bring users back to the traditional desktop.

Another option lets the start button call up the “apps view” listing all apps on the system. This gives the start button some of its old oomph.

To change these settings, you launch the control panel and its appearance and personalization controls. Clicking “taskbar and navigation” controls calls up a dialog box that lets you override Microsoft’s preferred Windows 8 interface and take your new PC back to the future, if you choose to set it up that way.

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