Windows 8.1 update sends some love to keyboard and mouse users

With the latest update to Windows 8.1, Microsoft is trying to prove that it hasn’t forgotten about its core desktop audience.

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You can now pin any app to the taskbar, courtesy of the Windows 8.1 update. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET
Attention Windows 8.1 desktop and laptop users: Microsoft feels your pain and has a few remedies in store with the latest update to its current operating system.

With the launch of Windows 8 in 2012, Microsoft tried to do something unprecedented in the history of its desktop OS, namely create a version that could run adroitly on both PCs and tablets, or more specifically, touch and nontouch devices. Whether the company succeeded is open to debate. But certainly some of the criticism of Windows 8 has been from PC users griping that the focus on touch-screen devices has left them feeling unloved.

Microsoft has been trying to soothe the headaches of traditional Windows users who felt lost with the massive overhaul, in hopes they might be more receptive to the new version if they were more comfortable with the interface. The company previously attempted to smooth the upgrade path with Windows 8.1, which added a Start button, a boot-to-desktop option, and a way to display the same background for both the Start screen and the desktop. With the Windows 8.1 update, Microsoft is striving to make the OS more friendly to keyboard and mouse users.

The update itself is set to reach Windows 8.1 PCs and tablets on April 8 through an automatic update. Subscribers of MSDN, Microsoft's developers network, are expected to get an advanced peek on April 2.

So what can Windows 8.1 users expect from the new update?

First on the list are enhancements to the desktop itself. Instead of jumping from the desktop to the Start screen to launch a Windows 8 Modern app, you can now pin your favorite apps to the taskbar and trigger them from there.

Launching a Modern app from the taskbar opens it full screen (no, you still can't resize a Modern app as you can a desktop program). But move your mouse to the top of the screen, and a familiar sight appears -- a title bar with minimize and close buttons in the right corner and an icon in the left through which you can minimize, close, or split the app window in half should you want to run another app side-by-side.

Move your mouse to the bottom of the screen, and the taskbar reappears, where you can launch other apps or right-click on your current app to close it or unpin it from the taskbar. And, surprise, the taskbar is even accessible from the Start screen, so you can trigger any taskbar icon without having to jump to the desktop first.

Speaking of the Start screen, it's now more accommodating to those of us who want to mouse around. Right-click on any Start screen tile, and a menu pops up with options to unpin it from the Start screen, pin it to the taskbar, uninstall it, or resize it.

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The Start screen also sports a Search icon for people who never realized that you can search for an item simply by typing its name. And getting out of Windows is easier, through a dedicated Start screen icon with options to sleep, shut down, and restart your PC.

The Windows 8.1 update can even alter its behavior based on your device. Run it on a standard PC or laptop, and by default it boots you to the desktop. Run it on a touch-based tablet, and it instead brings you to the Start screen. Of course, you can change that option and many others if you don't like the default settings.

There's more to the Windows 8.1 update, including some tweaks to the All Apps screen. But the desktop and Start screen sport the most dramatic improvements.

So will these enhancements be enough to mollify diehard PC users? To some degree, maybe. But Microsoft still has its work cut out creating a truly seamless and friendly Windows environment that feels at home on both PCs and tablets.

One of the biggest blemishes with Windows 8/8.1 remains the tug of war between the Start screen and the desktop. Users who bounce between both still have to contend with two divergent environments, one geared toward touch and the other toward mouse and keyboard. I've always thought that blending the two into one single interface could have been an ideal way to tear down that wall.

Such a unified interface isn't so crazy an idea. Microsoft started down that path when it introduced the Gadgets feature in Windows Vista. You could pin gadgets and widgets for calendars, clocks, and a host of other apps directly to your desktop. One single interface with the power to run hardcore productivity software as well as lighter and fluffier apps.

Despite its promise, Gadgets never took off. Microsoft eventually abandoned the feature and even advised users to disable it in the wake of security vulnerabilities.

And now Microsoft continues to move in the opposite direction by keeping the split personality of Windows alive and well but giving users more of a choice. The ability to pin Metro apps to the taskbar and the option to boot straight to the desktop means PC users never even have to peek at the Start screen. At the same time, tablet users can stick with the Start screen and Modern apps and perhaps venture into the desktop only when absolutely necessary.

Is that the future of Windows? And if so, will it work? Only time and Windows 9 will eventually tell.

 

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