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Windows 8.1 Update might change your mind about Windows 8

Testing the common-sense fixes Windows 8 should have had from the start.

Sarah Tew/CNET

With the second major revision to Windows 8, somewhat confusingly named Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft seems to have finally remembered that there are PC users out there who still work with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Not everyone is happily tapping and swiping away at tablet and hybrid screens yet, and the loudest complaints about the OS have been regarding its lack of support for those who use their PCs in a more traditional fashion.

Windows 8.1, released in October 2013, was a course correction of sorts, walking back some of the more egregious nods to trendy tablet thinking found in the original release of Windows 8, including a limited-use Start button and a search function that no longer required you to search apps, settings, and files separately. Despite these improvements, Windows 8.1 still felt like a one-size-fits-all solution, cramming a slate-style mentality onto every screen.

With Windows 8.1 Update, you now get a computing environment that feels flexible enough to work on 8-inch tablets as well as 27-inch desktops. Touch is still the preferred input method for working in the tile interface many still call Metro, but at last, mouse and keyboard users aren't completely left out.

These select features stand out as the highlights of Windows 8.1 Update ( read more about the rest of the new features here ), and the most likely reasons you'll finally feel OK about upgrading if the somewhat tortured history of Windows 8 has scared you off before now.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

The return of the X-to-close button

If you have a touch-screen device, anything from an 8-inch tablet to a 27-inch tabletop PC, one of the first Windows 8 moves you no doubt learned was to swipe a finger down from the top of the screen to the bottom in order to close native Windows 8 apps (accompanied by an awkwardly stilted animation). But with a mouse, the same move was both counterintuitive and hard to pull off consistently. Simply adding the top-right-corner X button to close is such a no-brainer, it makes the entire Windows 8.1 Update download worthwhile.

One weird catch, however. Closing a Windows 8 bumps you back to the traditional desktop, even if you were previously in the Metro interface. Inexplicably odd.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET
Different views for different screen sizes

Got a traditional-size laptop or monitor screen? Then you'll boot right into the familiar desktop view from previous versions of Windows, rather than the tile-based menu. Of course, you can still switch at will, but having the classic desktop as the main event rather than a hidden feature is what politicians would call "walking back" a controversial move. Small tablet-style screens still boot to the tile view, which makes sense, and a taskbar properties menu allows for even more customization.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET
Right-click support for Start screen tiles

The blocky tiles that make up the Windows 8 Start screen can be baffling. Launch a new PC for the first time, and you'll find a different mix of apps represented by these tiles, in different sizes, and grouped into different sections, all with little rhyme or reason. Even worse, some of the largest tiles offer no usable information beyond a simple icon drawing. That particular problem hasn't gone away, but at least it's now easy and intuitive (that's a word that keeps on popping up, in case anyone at Microsoft is paying attention) to simply right-click on any tile and resize it, hide it completely, or even pin it to the classic desktop taskbar.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET
An easy-to-find power button

Short and simple, and exactly the type of common sense feature inexplicably missing from Windows 8 for its first 18 months of life. In the upper-right corner of the tile interface, there is now a big power icon, which can restart, shut down, or set your system to sleep. Previously, if you were using a mouse and/or didn't have a touch screen, you had to hover the mouse cursor at the upper-right corner, then carefully navigate down to the Setting section, then down to the tiny power button all the way at the bottom of the screen. Search gets a top-corner icon as well, but that was at least easier to find access pre-Update.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET
Add any app to the desktop taskbar

As mentioned previously, you can now right-click on any Windows 8 app (the kind that runs full-screen by default) and add it to the classic desktop taskbar. Even if you hate the tile view, there are some good apps hiding there, and I personally really like the built-in News app. Now you can still access these without having to navigate to the tile-filled Start screen first.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET
Battery, time, network, and date indicators in the Start screen

Actually, these are all basic-but-useful features still missing from Windows 8. Even after more than a year and a half, PC users can't simply glance at the vaunted Start screen on their laptops, tablets, or hybrids, and see how much battery life they have left, to say nothing of the ability see the time or date. As always, activating the Charms bar gives you some of this information (with just a very basic visual icon for the battery and connection icon for the Wi-Fi network), but it still hides lots of very practical things from view without user interaction. In contrast, thanks to the live tiles on the Start screen, the latest sports scores, recipes, and promoted app store apps are always easy to see.

Despite this oversight, the updates included in both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update are small pieces that add up to a very different feel from the original Windows 8 experience. If the OS had launched in this condition in 2012, we'd likely have a much different view of it, rather than waiting for common-sense features to trickle in over time. That said, for the first time, I now feel like using Windows 8 on a nontouch all-in-one desktop is now a viable experience, rather than something that constantly requires you to think about workarounds and compromises.