Windows 8.1 Update 1 will arrive just in time to woo Windows XP holdouts

Greg Shultz takes a look at some of the changes you can expect to see in Windows 8.1 Update 1. Will it bring Windows XP, mouse, and keyboard users back into the fold?


Windows Update 1
Image: Ed Bott/ZDNet

Windows 8.1 Update 1 is primarily focused on improving usability for mouse and keyboard users and will be arriving at about the same time as support for Windows XP ceases to exist. Coincidence? I think not! 

Let's face it, Microsoft has a big problem on their hands. They introduced the touchy feely Windows 8 operating system to what they thought would be a huge market. The millions of people out there using touch interfaces on their smartphones and iPads would go crazy for a touch-based version of Windows, right?

Well, it might have worked if they had come out with two versions of Windows 8: one with the new interface for touch-based systems and one with the standard user interface keyboard and mouse-based systems. The folks who were enamored with the touch interface would have invested in touch-based Windows 8 systems, including the Surface -- and the traditional mouse and keyboard users, consumers and enterprises alike, would have upgraded from prior versions of Windows, just like they've always done. Sure, Microsoft would have caught some flak for the touch-based Windows 8, but not nearly the revolt that's occurred.

But, as we all know, Microsoft decided that everyone would want a new touch-based interface, for all systems. They removed the Start button/Start menu, replaced icons with tiles, put all these touch-based features on our desktop, and told us we would get used to it. To help us along, they gave us keyboard shortcuts and showed us how to use a mouse to emulate touch-based gestures. They even created the Touch Mouse in an effort to make things easier for desktop users.

Unfortunately, it didn't work. Windows 8 sales didn't take off like they hoped. Surface sales have also been lackluster.

Then we get to Windows XP. There are still a lot of Windows XP systems out there in homes and businesses, and that crowd has been expressing their distaste for Windows 8 every chance they get via the Internet, most notably by vehemently abstaining from upgrading to Windows 8.

Even after Microsoft had been holding XP user's feet to the fire for some time with the impending April 8, 2014 end of support deadline, the "rather fight or switch than upgrade to Windows 8" mantra is as strong now as it ever was. This fight attitude is showing up in the large numbers vowing to keep using XP even after official support has ended. The switch attitude is showing up in those touting alternatives Linux, Mac, Chrome OS, or even Windows 7.

Of course, Microsoft doesn't want XP users to fight or switch, even if it is to Windows 7. They want XP users to happily upgrade to Windows 8.

So, how are they going to make that happen? Well, if you look closely, you can see that they've already taken some steps to that end in Windows 8.1. Better yet, if Windows 8.1 Update 1 brings all the mouse and keyboard features it's purported to contain, Microsoft may be able to bring those hard-core XP, mouse and keyboard users back into the fold. Let's take a closer look.

Windows 8.1

While Microsoft primarily promoted Windows 8.1 as an update of the operating system's touch-based user interface features, the update also contained a host of features that were designed to entice traditional desktop mouse and keyboard users into thinking that Windows 8 might indeed be a good option for them.

Most notably, Windows 8.1 brought back the ability to boot directly to the desktop. To access it, you just right-click on the taskbar, select Properties, open the Navigation tab (Figure A), and then select the check box for When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start. Now, every time you turn on a Windows 8.1 system, you could almost convince yourself that the operating system was designed for mouse and keyboard users.

Figure A


Figure A

The Navigation tab contains a host of features to make Windows 8.1 behave more like a desktop operating system.

They even gave the update a more prominent Start button. While its default action is to open the modern app-filled Start screen, from the same Navigation tab, it can easily be reconfigured to show the Apps view, which can essentially be thought of as a full screen Start menu. To make this Start menu substitute even more usable, the Apps screen can be sorted by category, by name, date installed, or most used, thus making it easier to find the application that you need (Figure B).

Figure B


Figure B

You can use the Apps view like a full screen Start menu.

Then, to make shutting down, restarting, or signing out more like previous versions of Windows, Microsoft added the Shut down or Sign out menu to the Start button's Quick Link menu, which you access by right-clicking on the Start button (Figure C). A bit awkward, yes, but it's an improvement over the separate methods provided in Windows 8.

Figure C


Figure C

You can access the Shut down or Sign out menu on the Start button's Quick Link menu.

Then, to make the Start/Apps screen even more palatable, they made it transparent, thus allowing the desktop wallpaper to be visible behind the screen and improving the illusion that the desktop is still the center of the operating system.

To make the Modern UI more desktop-like, Windows 8.1 introduced the Snap View feature, which allows you to better use multiple apps at the same time. Depending on your display resolution, you can have two to four apps on the screen at one time. Furthermore, apps can now appear on multiple monitors -- so, if you have a two-monitor setup, you can have up to eight apps open at the same time. Microsoft even went so far as to make the Internet Explorer app more desktop-like by allowing you to see the address bar and tabs all the time.

Another option in Windows 8.1 that's designed to make the user interface behave more like a traditional desktop user interface is the ability to disable the upper corner navigation features. Again, on the Navigation tab, you simply clear a pair of check boxes (When I point to the upper-right corner, show the charms and When I click the upper-left corner, switch between my recent apps), and those touch-oriented features go away.

Windows 8.1 Update 1

It's less than a month until the Windows XP expiration date, yet only six months since Windows 8.1 was released (October 17, 2013) -- and here comes Windows 8.1 Update 1 packed with enhancements designed to bring out the desktop even more and improve navigation when using a mouse and keyboard. When you take a closer look at the specific features being added to this Update 1, it's easy to see that it's intended to bring mouse and keyboard users back into the fold.

While Windows 8.1 introduced the ability to boot directly to the desktop via an option the user must manually set, Update 1 plans on taking it one step further and making the boot to desktop the default setting on any device that lacks a touch screen. This means that mouse and keyboard users will never encounter the shock of seeing the Start Screen right out of the box, so to speak.

Most of the other new features are designed to make the modern apps more like traditional Windows applications. For example, the Taskbar now appears on the Start Screen, and modern apps now appear on the Taskbar. Making the Start Screen more like the desktop and making modern apps more like traditional desktop applications should go a long way when navigating Windows 8.1 Update 1 with a mouse.

The Start Screen is now more reminiscent of the old Start menu, complete with Power and Search buttons. Thus, you no longer have to access the Charms bar first.

The Start Screen and modern apps also have context menus like the traditional desktop. If you right-click on a tile on the Start Screen, you can change the size of the tile, unpin, or even uninstall the app. Modern apps now have a title bar with minimize and close buttons, plus context menus with options for the Snap View features.

Other pertinent information

While Windows XP will no longer be officially supported after April 8, 2014, which makes it very vulnerable to hacker attacks, Microsoft is offering the following:

To help organizations complete their migrations, Microsoft will continue to provide updates to our antimalware signatures and engine for Windows XP users through July 14, 2015.

While I was writing this article, but before I noticed, Microsoft inadvertently let the Windows 8.1 Update 1 bits out of the bag, so to speak. While they closed the breach fairly quickly, several astute Windows aficionados caught wind of the snafu and got a hold of the bits. Ed Bott over at TechRepublic's sister site ZDNet grabbed a copy of Windows 8.1 Update 1 and put together a nice gallery of images.

What's your take?

Once Windows 8.1 Update 1 is actually released, I'm sure that we'll find other, more subtle changes that are designed to make Windows 8 more keyboard and mouse friendly. Do you think Windows 8.1 Update 1 will bring mouse and keyboard and Windows XP users back into the fold? Are you still using Windows XP because you detest the touch-based user interface? Will these new keyboard and mouse features make you think differently about Windows 8? Please share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.