Since the release of Windows 8, there has been rampant speculation on what to expect from the first service pack. Some analysts predicted that Microsoft would abandon Modern apps (formerly known as Metro apps) and return to a Windows 7-style environment. I myself predicted the return of the Start button. There have also been a number of other outlandish predictions.
Now that the preview of Windows 8.1 is finally here, we can get a look at what Microsoft has included in the new release. I think that the best way to sum up Windows 8.1 is that Microsoft has made a lot of small changes that add up to make a big difference.
From the beginning, I have felt that Windows 8 had something of an identity crisis. On one hand, it seemed as though Microsoft had a bad case of iOS envy and wanted to completely do away with everything that Windows ever was and build a new Windows that borrowed heavily from iOS.
On the other hand, Microsoft realized that nobody would buy Windows 8 if they couldn't run their existing Windows applications. Microsoft had to come up with a compromise. Unfortunately, the compromise wasn't a pretty one. The end result was a Frankenstein-ish operating system in which the Modern interface seemed to have been clumsily bolted on top of Windows 7.
In all fairness, Microsoft had some good ideas for Windows 8. It's just that those ideas were poorly implemented. Windows 8 works well if you are working solely in desktop mode or if you are only working with modern apps, but switching between the two is a jarring experience.
The preview of Windows 8.1 was only released a couple of days ago, and I haven't had the chance to work extensively with the new OS yet. But based on what I have seen so far, Microsoft has put a lot of work into making the operating system less clumsy and more smoothly usable.
Of course, the big news is that the Start menu is back. It isn't exactly like the legacy Start menu, however. Windows 8.1 features a small Windows logo in the lower, left corner of the screen. Clicking on this logo takes you to the Start screen. However, right clicking on the Windows logo reveals a more traditional menu that displays options such as Programs and Features, PowerShell, Run, Control Panel, Task Manager, and Shut Down.
Another small change that yields a big improvement is that Windows now acts more like Windows. Let me explain. In Windows 8, Modern apps were designed to run full-screen. However, Microsoft did make it possible to have two modern apps on the screen at once. Even so, you didn't have much control over the sizes at which the apps were displayed, and you couldn't have more than two apps on screen at one time.
In Windows 8.1, it will be possible to have up to 8 Modern apps on screen at once, provided that your monitor has sufficient display resolution (5120 x 1600 or higher, but the resolution can be spread across multiple monitors). For lower resolution displays (such as those found on Surface RT tablets), you will still be limited to displaying two apps at a time. In case you are wondering, it is also possible to control the amount of space that each app takes up on the screen.
Although being able to use more than two apps in snap view is nice, Microsoft did more than just enable the display of additional apps. They finally made Windows 8 behave in a way that makes sense. The operating system no longer gets in the way of what you are trying to do.
Suppose, for instance, that you are using a Modern app to view your email and you click on a link within a message. Doing so in the past would have launched Internet Explorer in full screen and left an unsuspecting user wondering where their email went. Windows 8.1 behaves differently. Instead of launching the browser full screen, it splits the screen so that the browser and email are both visible.
Based on what I have seen so far, Windows 8.1 doesn't look like a major rewrite of a flawed operating system. In fact, if you merely glance at a computer that is running Windows 8.1, you may be hard pressed to tell the difference between Windows 8.1 and Windows 8. Even so, I think that Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been. Clearly, Microsoft has been listening to its customers and is working hard to address Windows 8's annoyances.