This Week in Tablets: The 5 most important new features in Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 preview

June 29, 2013
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Based on the Gartner data we saw early in the week predicting that tablet shipments will rise 67% in 2013 to 202 million units, and that PC shipments will decline 10.6%, it’s clear that Microsoft’s instincts were spot on with Windows 8, even if its sense of UX design was not. Whether consumers are using pure tablets or ultrabook-style tablet hybrids, touch is now standard for most people’s computing needs.

Regardless, the reintroduction of the Start button in Windows 8.1 is still an important conciliatory nod. Despite the ubiquity of touch, we’re still in a big transition period for personal computing between desktop modalities and newer frontiers of computing.

(For a great exploration of how device manufacturers are navigating these waters, check Ben Bajarin’s column from earlier this week.)

I got to spend some time with the preview version of Windows 8.1 (which you can download from Microsoft’s site), and the notion that this version of Windows is a bridge of sorts is now clearer. With this iteration touch computing becomes a little less awkward, as do the hybrid modes Microsoft and PC OEMs are pushing.

Here are the highlights, and the relevancy for tablet and tablet-hybrid use:

The Start button is back

Much has been made over the return of the Start button, but I have to say it’s a little disappointing. It is nice to see it on the screen in desktop mode, but it’s puzzling why Microsoft didn’t just implement the functions that all Windows users are familiar with.

Instead, we get what’s essentially a click-to-search feature, with no quick access to recent applications or—more importantly—documents and Windows settings. You have to right-click on the Start button to get to the Control Panel or System Tools menus.

This said, considering the amount of time I spend in desktop mode on the Lenovo IdeaPad hybrid I’ve been using, I’m pleased that I’m able to more quickly find the applications I want to use. From a touch computing perspective, simpler is better in this regard.

Perhaps more importantly for the long-term use of Windows 8, the ability to customize groups of apps on the Start screen itself can make finding apps in the Modern UI mode much easier.

(The ability to boot directly to this desktop is nice also, albeit it primarily for more traditional desktop-oriented use of Windows.)

Improved multi-tasking

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft introduces greater flexibility in simultaneously multi-tasking different applications. You can now resize various windows running apps to the point where you can fit 3-4 on a screen at a time. You can also do the same with Internet Explorer alone.

I got into this a bit in last week’s column, but I’ll say it one more time: For tablet productivity, multi-tasking functionality is key—particularly in the context of connecting your tablet device to an external display.

Windows 8.1 also takes this into account by allowing developers to now code their apps for two different displays/windows if they’d like. There are some real interesting possibilities here.

Search results are greatly improved

For tablet owners, search results are beginning to feel pretty outdated. On both iOS and Google Android, we get flat, simple lists of apps, contacts, and…that’s about it.

Search on Windows 8 was an interesting step forward because it delivered a more visual experience. Win 8.1 greatly enhances these results by aggregating all sources—apps, music, documents, and more. Furthermore, the search itself opens up in a panel on the OS, versus taking you to a separate screen.

Finally, searching for a famous artist or celebrity brings up what appears to be a pre-canned results page with large images, links to their songs, and more.

Deeper Skydrive integration

When you save documents now in Windows 8.1, Skydrive is one of the default locations you can save to. That’s nice, but I still find myself wishing for easy and direct integration of Dropbox and other cloud-based storage solutions. Microsoft is still behind the times here.

Improved Windows Store design

It seems trivial, but the UI for browsing apps—particularly on the home screen of the Windows Store—has been upgraded to make discovery easier. You don’t have to scroll through long lists of apps anymore thanks to smarter categorization at the top of the screen. And search works better here as well.

(It’s worth noting that Microsoft is now counting close to 100,000 apps available for Windows 8.)

This week’s winner: Microsoft

With this preview release of Windows 8.1, Microsoft appears to have been successful in correcting the most glaring flaws of its progressive new operating system. Time will tell for sure, but initial reactions have mostly been favorable.

At a deeper, more ideological level, this release was also important because with it, Microsoft shows its customers and critics that the company is capable of listening to users’ demands and adapting the OS to these needs.

Finally, in a competitive sense, Windows 8.1 now exceeds both Android and iOS in some key categories. The enhanced multi-tasking and improved search are winners in terms of productivity.

This week’s loser: Barnes & Noble

One of the very real casualties of the tablet revolution, poor sales and mounting losses in its non-digital business has left the book reseller no choice but to shut down its own production of the Nook line of tablet devices. The company will instead begin outsourcing brand’s production to an as-yet unnamed partner. 


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