Inside the New Windows 8.1 Update

A guide to the latest release of Windows and why Microsoft may have finally made it more appealing for enterprise users.

When Microsoft rolled out Windows 8 two years ago, it left a lot of users puzzled, confused and angry. Gone was the familiar taskbar and ubiquitous Start button, with its helpful fly-out menu and easy access to programs, settings and controls. In their place users encountered an undiscovered country -- a Windows experience tilted hard to the needs of touch-based tablets rather than workaday desktop and laptop computers.

For all the howling, Windows 8 was a decent OS suffering from Jessica Rabbit syndrome: It wasn't bad software, it was just drawn that way. And after a pair of free, fractional point releases -- Windows 8.1 and most recently Windows 8.1 Update -- Microsoft has done a fine job redrawing its leading OS to better fit the wants and needs of actual Windows users.

The good news is Microsoft has made Windows 8.1 Update available free of charge, distributed via the Windows Update facility. For many, that means the update has already arrived, as Windows 8.1 Update was made available on April 2 to MSDN and TechNet subscribers, and soon after was made available to the public. But for consumers and businesses that have opted to wait, you need to take stock soon. Consumers must update tablets and PCs to Windows 8.1 Update by May 13, or lose access to automatic updates via the Windows Update facility (the deadline for commercial users is Aug. 12). In short, you'll be frozen out of the regular Patch Tuesday releases, not to mention the expected second update of Windows 8.1, expected sometime before the end of this year.

To see if your hardware has been updated, go to your update history by opening the Charms bar, clicking Settings and then Update and recovery. Click Windows Update and then click View your update history. In the list that appears, look for an entry that begins with "Windows 8.1 Update" and has the Knowledgebase number KB2919355. If it says "Successfully installed" under the entry, you're all set.

Is the Windows 8.1 Update not present? Time to go get it. Click the back button to return back to the Windows Update screen, and click the Check Now button. After a brief wait, the screen should update. Click the View details link. If a Windows 8.1 Update item shows up in the Important Updates section of the screen that comes up, you need to check the item and click Install. It will take a while to download and install the update, so be patient. You'll also need to reboot your system once the install is complete.

Once you've rebooted, you'll be running Windows 8.1 Update. The changes from Windows 8.1 are actually rather subtle, ranging from obvious interface enhancements to under-the-covers improvements that will appeal most to users and admins. Let's take a look.

Return to Desktop
The first version of Windows 8 was as much vision statement as it was OS, announcing to the world that Microsoft "gets" the emerging world of device and mobile computing in a way that even Apple didn't -- by presenting touch-savvy OSes across phone, tablet, and rich client laptops and desktops. Say this much for Microsoft -- it was bold. But the jarring transition between the touch-centric, modern UI and the traditional Windows desktop was confusing, especially because the OS favored the modern UI.

With Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft brings a bit of awareness to the party. If you're on a non-touch-enabled desktop or laptop, the OS detects that and boots directly to the desktop by default. But if you're using a tablet or touch-capable laptop, Windows 8 instead boots to the modern UI Start screen. Do you spend most of your time working with traditional Windows applications on a touch-savvy laptop? Force your PC to boot to the old Windows 7 desktop by right-clicking the taskbar and clicking Properties. Click the Navigation tab, and check the top checkbox in the Start screen section. Hit OK, and now your PC will boot to the old desktop on every sign-in or start-up. This tweak alone could save millions in training and help desk costs.

Power and Search
The use of hardware detection to tune the Windows 8.1 Update UI extends to the Start Screen. Laptop and PC users will notice the Start Screen now displays Power and Search icons next to the Account image at the upper-right corner of the Start screen. The change eliminates the need to swipe or mouse hover the Charms bar to reach these controls. The new controls won't appear on tablets, however, in part to avoid accidental icon touches when gripping a tablet screen. Of course, you can still access these controls from the Charms bar by swiping from the right, or via keyboard by pressing Windows Key+C.

The line between traditional and modern UI is further blurred on the traditional Windows taskbar, where Windows Store apps now appear alongside their old-style siblings. By default when you go to the traditional desktop, any modern apps you have running will appear on the taskbar, just as running desktop apps do. But you can also pin modern apps to the taskbar, making them always accessible from either UI space. To do so, go to the Windows modern Start Screen and long press or right-click the app tile you want to appear on the taskbar. Click the Pin item and now the icon for that modern app will appear on the traditional Windows taskbar (see Figure 1). Click a Windows Store app on the taskbar, and you'll be whisked off to that app in the modern UI.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1. Windows Store apps such as Windows Mail can now be accessed on the desktop taskbar.

Just Like Old Times
Windows 8.1 Update adds familiar (and welcome) desktop UI elements to the modern experience. All Windows Store modern UI apps now sport an application bar, which appears when you hover the mouse over the top edge of the screen on a modern app. The app bar offers icons to close and minimize Windows Store apps, as well as a system icon on the top left that presents options for snapping the app to either the left or right half of the display.

Microsoft also decided to make the taskbar a player in the modern UI. Hover your cursor over the bottom edge of the screen, and the desktop taskbar -- complete with all your pinned icons -- appears. Not only does the taskbar streamline navigation to other pinned desktop and modern apps, it gives you access to the taskbar Notification Area, including icon controls for the system clock, volume, battery and sundry applications.

Before the recent update, if you were in Windows Explorer and double-clicked an image, music or video file, you would be unceremoniously yanked out of the desktop interface to one of the Windows 8 modern UI apps. For anyone working on a laptop or desktop PC, the transition was not only jarring, it often made little sense. Windows 8.1 Update tunes that behavior. On a tablet, Windows will still launch files in an available modern UI app, but on desktop and laptop PCs, the OS will instead default to launching the associated traditional application.

Browser Refresh
The Windows 8.1 Update also refreshes Internet Explorer, adding Enterprise Mode for Internet Explorer 11 (IE 11). IE 11 was initially released for Windows 8.1 systems in November 2013, but with Windows 8.1 Update, IE 11 gains improved compatibility with older versions of IE. The new functionality enables businesses to move to the latest and most secure version of IE, while maintaining compatibility with existing Web apps optimized for older versions of IE such as IE 8.

Enterprise Mode is a major benefit for organizations that have been stuck on older versions of Internet Explorer because existing Web apps or ActiveX controls won't work properly on newer browser versions. With Enterprise Mode enabled, IE will mimic the behavior of IE 8 for selected Web sites, even telling querying applications that it's the older version of the browser to prevent brittle version checking algorithms from causing programs to crash or shutdown. Users or administrators specify a list of sites to be accessed using Enterprise Mode and can toggle Enterprise Mode on or off when accessing those sites -- a great way to troubleshoot a misbehaving site or app to see if IE versioning might be the culprit.

IE 11 Enterprise Mode isn't enabled in the latest version of IE 11 by default. You have to enable it by launching the Windows Local Group Policy Editor. Press the Windows Key+R, type gpedit.msc in the Run dialog box that appears, and press enter. In the left pane of the Local Group Policy Editor window, drill down through User Configuration, Administrative Templates and Windows Components to Internet Explorer. Scroll down and you'll find an item titled Let users turn on and use Enterprise Mode from the Tools menu. Double-click it, click the Enabled radio button. Once enabled, users can toggle Enterprise Mode on and off for the active Web site by clicking the Tools menu and clicking Enterprise Mode.

Finally, Microsoft also added some welcome device awareness to IE 11, detecting the size and type of device you're using (from mini tablet to full-size desktop PC) and shaping the browsing experience to suit. Working on an 8-inch tablet? IE will render Web sites with smaller fonts, fewer on-screen tabs and streamlined menus. You can also control when the browser remains on-screen or hides away for full-screen browsing depending on the type of device you use.

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.


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