Some weeks ago, when I was writing about the way Microsoft might lead a revolution with Windows 8, I ran into an article about the next update of the popular OS, codenamed “Windows Blue”. After that, I found that Microsoft is actually just weeks from releasing this update, which tries to adress all the criticism generated with Windows 8. So I downloaded the beta test available at Microsoft’s website and install it. I have to say, from the designer’s point of view, that it was an interesting experience; some of the graphic features, and many other key aspects were improved. In this article we’ll analyze the changes Microsoft is implementing in the newest update of the OS, what it’s new, and what’s not so good about these changes.
One of the interesting things about the preview is that it actually made me feel like I was using a beta test before, when I was using Windows 8. This release is more user friendly, even during the installation and initial setup processes. The company managed to integrate better (not fully) both tablet and PC environments and it’s trying to incorporate the whole local experience with the cloud, making use of SkyDrive, as we’ll see in later this post.
Among the new features of this update, there have been upgrades to different parts of the product like the general customization options, the lock screen, the tiles and icons, search, colors, and others. In this video, Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the Windows User Experience team has pointed out some of the design advantages of the new OS that we’ll be presenting here.
The overall looks of the design keeps the obvious relationship with the previous release, but we observe a cleaner scheme, with visual improvements that handle the concerns of an excessive use of flat elements, with clear calls to action in icons, more visible options and a cleaner environment by giving control of live tiles to the user.
- This time it has a whole new range of colors, which are meant to allow users to create a custom environment.
- The personalization properties are easily accessed from the Charms bar.
- The OS is “responsive” in some way, since it can be used both in landscape or portrait modes.
- The start screen has some cool personalization options like animated background objects that follow the motion of your interactions by swapping (if it’s a touch screen).
- The company included the All Apps screen which now shows every app on your PC, including the administration tools (a thing that was very criticized for being basically impossible to find for a regular user.) Within this screen, apps can be sorted by name, category, date installed and most used, and they also can, just by selecting one or a bunch of them, be pinned to start, moved, grouped, deleted or uninstalled with a single click all at once.
- Apps’ texts are formatted for better readability across devices.
- The keyboard includes press and hold for typing numbers.
- There’s also a feature called hands free mode that makes use of the camera to allow motion; this can be very useful if you are cooking or something like that, and you don’t want to touch the screen because you’re afraid you’ll get it dirty. With it, you just make a move with your hand in front of the camera and the app will swipe away.
- It has a streaming feature called Miracast, which transmits video and audio to other Windows 8 devices via Wi-Fi.
- The Start button was included again, although hidden at the bottom-left corner.
However, some design elements seem redundant, like for instance, I don’t know what’s doing there that horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen when the OS is installed on a PC; I mean, you are not using it unless you have a lot of apps in the start screen, so it has no reason to be there if you have only a few.
There have been some app improvements, both in functionality and design in some of them, and in the addition of a few new ones.
- The OS now has a reading list app, which stores all the content you want to read later (an app that inexplicably wasn’t created before).
- They redesign the Xbox Music app including radio (which doesn’t require passes or subscriptions), improved search and of course, your Cloud and Local music.
- Within the Photos app there are editing options and default filters to apply, and you can change the saturation for a specific color to highlight it.
- The Windows Store was redesign to be easier to explore, and it gives you recommendations based on the apps you’ve already downloaded.
- The Mail app was also redesigned and it has folders to archive seudo-spammy mail from social sites, a news folder and clear icons to enhance usability.
Search is the feature Microsoft has put a lot of effort this time, probably because it will be a new source of income for them. Search within Windows 8.1 now assimilates to web search, integrating Bing results to regular queries. It is enabled by default on installation.
Apparently, there are no updates on smart search besides the integration with Bing to display search suggestions. Bing searches would not only send your complete search string to Microsoft servers, but they can use suggestions to show you ads. That’s right, ads in a paid product. Worst thing is, they don’t even try to hide it, as you can see in this note.
Smart Search is kind of a built-in app, which gathers everything related to your query; it activates other apps without closing itself or other apps, and if anything is good with it is that it gathers the information related to your query and displays it organizedly, so you can explore it easily.
Icons & tiles
There are 2 new sizes of tiles, big squares of 310px x 310px and small squares of 70px x 70px which allows tiles to display more information. But on the other hand, using one old-fashion program is still very hard to do in the tablet environment. You can switch to desktop to use it as always, or add a tile to the Start screen and expect it works fine (no crashes and fast.). The overall looks of the icons didn’t change a lot, and as you can see they’re still looking like the regular Windows 8 Icons.
The lock screen has a great new design with default images, but you’re able to customize this screen not just with slideshows of your pictures stored in the PC, but also with your SkyDrive photos. It is also more functional since you can add some “widgets” for specific purposes, like the hour, weather, calendar alerts and even receiving Skype calls without signing in to your account.
The company established that “multitasking in Windows 8.1 it’s going to be easier because the user will now have control of the size of each divided space and if you have a bigger screen, you can have up to 4 apps running simultaneously. Also, if you have multiple screens, you can place as many apps as you want. However, the actual “windows” for multitasking are side by side and you cannot place them in other positions besides horizontally. The multiview is, however, more flexible since it doesn’t have fixed window states. Regular apps will have a minimum width of 500px by default, although there are some apps which only need 320px wide, so that’s an additional minimum app developers can make use of to make their apps more functional. If an app opens another app, both will occupy the screen.
According to Microsoft’s CVP Tami Reller, during a speech at the WPC 2013, Microsoft is looking for full integration between devices, focusing in one experience by joining multimedia, games, storage, communication and productivity, but it’s important to note that productivity is not a matter of device, but instead, it’s a matter of OS. She thinks that increased productivity is as easy as adding an external keyboard to a surface tablet, which cannot be more wrong. A keyboard on a tablet is a worthless peripheral device if your OS cannot handle, for instance, real multitasking.
Microsoft is about to release its most important update in years, but it still hasn’t been able to fully integrate multiple devices into one single OS. Is up to them if they decide to improve this problematic features or postpone them until they release a new OS. For now, there’s no revolution on sight.