27 Jul.

The Windows 8.1 Update User Experience Part 1

With each new release with Microsoft Windows, there are always a large number of new features and capabilities, but sometimes these can get can get washed out amongst the noise that usually surrounds some of the other changes. This has definitely been the case since Windows 8 was released, much of the focus has been on the changes to the interface, rather than focusing on some of the benefits these and other changes bring to users of earlier versions of Windows. With the recent release of the Windows 8.1 Update, there’s plenty to offer both Windows 8 users, as well as those who are looking at moving from earlier versions of Windows.

Let’s start with some of the undercover changes that aren’t quite as obvious. There have been huge improvements in the basics such as startup performance and security, in many ways the latest releases have taken what was good with Windows 7 and made them great. While some of these under the hood changes aren’t the glamour features that jump out straight away, over time they are the ones that you start to appreciate the most and come to depend upon day after day.

A great example of this is the ability to associate your Windows sign in with your Microsoft Account. What’s a Microsoft account? You may have known it previously as your Hotmail account, your LiveID, or for those of you who have been doing this for a while, you may know it as your Microsoft Passport account. By enabling this association between accounts, you can start to backup and synchronise a large number of settings across multiple Windows PCs including your Internet Explorer favourites, background, Start Screen layout, apps that you’ve installed, web passwords and much more.

OneDrive Sync
Use Microsoft’s free OneDrive service to Synchronise your customisations across multiple Windows 8.1 devices with your Microsoft account.

Many of the new features that are included with Windows 8.1 Update are for both the business user but can also be used by consumers, it’s common for many to use the same device for business and pleasure. If you do have a Windows tablet or a laptop with touch, you will quickly learn to appreciate how useful pinching and zooming can be in Internet Explorer. This works in the same way as we are accustomed to from our smartphones, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble taking advantage of this capability. The modern version of OneNote which is available from the Windows Store is a great way to see how touch can enhance business applications that you have been using for quite a while.

What this means for us as users is that we can easily access our documents and settings if we use multiple Windows PCs, whether they be laptops, desktops or tablets, and have a much more tightly synchronised experience across them. It even makes the process of setting up a new PC much easier, as you can sign in with your Microsoft Account and choose to synchronise settings from your first sign in, saving you lots of time that would normally be spent making the PC behave the way that you want.

An area where there has been a great deal of attention focused on Windows 8 and the follow on releases is the change in the user interface, which really is the first major overhaul since Windows 95. This means that we do need to learn a few things that are new, but we all live in a world where we are working with many different interfaces across our phones and tablets. For the rest of this post I will focus on some of the user interface changes that have  taken place, as well as how some of the interface elements you know and love have moved forward into Windows 8.1.

The biggest change overall is the introduction of the Start Screen as a replacement for the aging Start Menu, which has been designed to work better in a world where touch enabled devices are becoming the norm. This doesn’t mean that those of us using a keyboard and mouse have been left behind, as we have the ability to interact and change this experience by right mouse clicking, as well using drag and drop in ways which we have grown accustomed to. In many ways we can think of the Start Screen as a simplified launcher, and then rely on the enhanced search capabilities to find those applications we don’t use all that often.

Default Start Screen
The Start Screen needs to be customised to suit your needs, you can add and remove Live Tiles until you are satisfied.

For many people, their first experience with a Windows 8 based system was seeing the new Start Screen, which hadn’t been customised for their requirements. This can feel a bit overwhelming to begin with, as it is a major change to previous versions of Windows. However, once you start working with the interface, and discover the ease with which you can customise it to suit your needs. This is something you can change over time as different applications become higher and lower priorities, and ends up providing something much simpler than the Start Menu had become. If you take a look at the top right hand corner you will see that there is an easily accessible power icon, as well as the ability to search your PC as well.

Customised Start Screen
My customised Start Screen with much less clutter, and easy access to my most important apps, the desktop, and search.

Windows 8.1 Update includes doesn’t just include shortcuts to the inbuilt search capabilities, but it also provides an easier way of navigating to the power button shortcuts, easily available when you are using a keyboard and mouse. For those of you a bit more adventurous, right mouse clicking on the Start button will also bring up a shortcut with power options, as well as a few more options that are more suited to the more technical users.

Shutdown From Start
Right mouse click on the Start button to expose additional capabilities, including a more familiar way to shut down and restart

It’s important to mention that you can choose to boot straight to the Windows desktop where you can pin your favourite time tested applications, as well as get easy access to modern apps when you need them. This blending of old and new means that we can leverage whichever app works best for what we need to get done, something which took huge leaps forward in the Windows 8.1 Update. This highlights one of the greatest strengths of Windows, which is the huge base of business and personal applications we have been relying on for years, and we don’t have to sacrifice these as we move forward.

Boot To Desktop
The fourth checkbox enables boot to desktop, a welcome return!

Like any new experience, there is going to be an adjustment period to some of the things that have changed, but within a short while you should find that you have found a few new features that make your tasks easier, and will have customised Windows 8.1 to deliver the experience that you need. There are more changes that will help you to adjust to Windows 8.1,,and I will target those in part two of  this series.

This content has been created in partnership with Microsoft Australia

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