Windows 8.1: The New Modern Experience

4 Big Changes to the New UI

Lane Shelton

In this series, we’re presenting a first look at Windows 8.1. Today, we’ll be looking at the changes to the Windows 8 “Modern” interface. For those of you who are fans of the new Modern UI backbone of Windows 8, here are the changes we noticed immediately. These are four of our initial impressions, the things that jumped out at us as we’ve been using Windows 8 on our companion devices since launch.

Better Tile Size Options

The first thing we noticed when we booted up were the tile sizes on the Start screen. The screenshot below is a raw first boot without any changes, so it looks a little unorganized. However, Windows 8.1 provides four different tile sizes to choose from, giving us more flexibility to rearrange the chaos below into something orderly and ideally suited to our particular needs. Tile sizes are small, medium, wide, and large, whereas Windows 8.0 only had the medium and wide options. Changing a tile is as easy as right-clicking on it with a mouse or swiping via touch.

You can still unpin tiles from the Start menu (where they’ll still be available in the improved All Apps section). Also, you can turn off the Live feed so the tile remains a static image. Context-sensitive commands are still available as they were in Windows 8.0, such as Pin to Taskbar (on the desktop), uninstall an application, open in a new window, etc.

The ease with which you can manipulate tiles means you can arrange your Windows 8.1 Modern interface into exactly what makes sense for you – and it’s just as easy to continue making changes on the fly. We especially like the new small size for tiles; it was perfect for us to include Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote into one grouping that used to take up a big chunk of the screen. One of the things we didn’t like in the original Windows 8.0 Modern interface was having to move tiles one at a time. Now 8.1 allows you to select multiple tiles to move things in chunks. It’s a small thing, but a huge time-saver we appreciated.

Naming your groups of tiles is also easy in Windows 8.1. We read somewhere that you could do this in Windows 8.0, but we were never able to figure out how. The Customize button in the screenshot above allows you to name your tile groupings and even customize grouping sizes. We haven’t been able to play with resizing groupings yet, but being able to name them was a big help.

“All Apps” – It’s Useful Now
All Apps in Windows 8 was, to put it mildly, a big pile of everything with tiny tiles that weren’t evenly spaced or organized in any way we could figure out. It was a screen we avoided at all costs. We were pleasantly surprised by the more adept handling of All Apps in Windows 8.1. The tiles are much bigger, for one, and you can choose how to organize what’s there. Now we find it very useful because we can arrange things alphabetically, thematically by category, or (our favorite) by most used so all of our heavy-use apps are right at the top. The main benefit here is that you can be choosy with what you include in your Start screen tiles because it’s easy to find your apps now in the All Apps screen.

Better Decision Trees in Menus

This one is hard to describe if you didn’t use Windows 8 to change PC Settings and perform other system-related personalization and tweaks. We struggled at times to find things in the Windows 8.0 interface, and in Windows 8.1 everything feels more intuitive and the layout more thoughtful. For example, in Windows 8.0 when you accessed PC Settings, it gave you a list of items, and you had to work your way through them. It wasn’t hard, but the lists were one-dimensional, and in some cases there were too few choices – in others, way too many. Windows 8.1 presents choices in a better decision tree structure that is clean and intuitive. In the screenshot below, we went to PC Settings, and it launched a sub-menu with different choices.

If you didn’t use Windows 8 frequently, you won’t notice this. But if you did, you’ll find that Windows 8.1 feels more “right” than Windows 8.0. It’s intangible but makes a big difference if you’re using the device for hours at a time.

More Intuitive Search

Search in Windows 8 was highly logical and consistent, for good and ill. It always returned results in three categories: Apps, Settings, and Files, with the ability to expand the search into other areas like Bing, Windows Store, and other apps you might have installed, even Google or your Kindle app. It was a one-size-fits-all search function. For example, search “Angry Birds”, and if the App isn’t installed, it will show no results in Apps/Settings/Files, with the option to go search somewhere else like the Windows Store or execute a Bing search.

Search in Windows 8.1 brings the logic of Bing into your searching to try and better match the results with your intent. Look for “Angry Birds” in Windows 8.1, and you get about twelve different suggestions for expanding the search. When you click on one of the suggestions, it automatically executes the most logical extension – in our case, the Windows Store.

This illustrates why some will like it and others will be less impressed. If I was looking for Angry Birds to install the app, we’d go from search to installing in just a couple of clicks. If I was writing an article on Angry Birds and wanted information about the history of the app and the developers, I would have to find it through a browser or Wikipedia because none of the suggestions were what I was looking for.

Also of note, you can define the parameters of your search via a drop-down menu pictured below. If you like simplification and intuitive search, you will like this. If you like more control, you may find the old 8.0 style to your liking.

Our jury is still out on Search. If you’re Captain Kirk, you’ll appreciate the intuitiveness of the Search function in Windows 8.1 But if you’re more Spock, Windows 8.0 may be the more logical choice.

Bear in mind, we’re using the Preview edition of Windows 8.1, and things may change before the final release, but it definitely looks like Modern interface is moving in the right direction. Check back later this week for our final thoughts on Windows 8.1 as a whole and whether the upgrade will be an asset to your organization.

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