Thursday, June 21, 2018
Business

Windows 8 is (sort of) improved

Just about one year ago, Microsoft gave us two new operating systems.

One was a new version of Windows, the one for use with mouse and keyboard. The other was a new operating system for tablets called ''TileWorld.''

All of this might have been fine, except for one tragic miscalculation: Microsoft mashed these two new operating systems together into something called Windows 8.

Now you had two Web browsers to learn. Two completely different Help systems. Two (actually three) control panels. Two kinds of programs: the traditional ones, which have menus and overlapping windows, and TileWorld apps, which don't have either of those things.

PC sales plunged 14 percent in the months after Windows 8's release. Microsoft spent a year trying to fix Windows 8. Now, you can download the result: Windows 8.1. It's free to anyone who already has Windows 8, and it will come preinstalled on new computers.

The changes to TileWorld are nearly endless — and terrific. The anemic, pared-down starter apps, like Photos and Mail, have matured. Now you can edit photos in Photos (not just look at them) and drag email messages into folders. The muddled Music app has been redesigned, smartly and handsomely. A suite of utility programs is there now, right where they should have been the first time around: Alarms, Calculator and Sound Recorder. There are all-new apps, too, such as Food and Drink, Health and Fitness and Reading List. It lets you save Web pages, email messages and Twitter posts for use when you have no Internet connection.

There's now a full-blown Help and Tips app for TileWorld, which is clear, concise and crisp. In Windows 8, Microsoft made the mind-blowingly frustrating decision to rig the Search function so that it could find either programs, settings or files — but not all three categories at once.

Now you can; in fact, Search throws in search results from the whole Internet.

The on-screen keyboard is better now, too. You can swipe your finger across the Space bar to view alternative Autocomplete suggestions.

Finally, Windows 8.1 is even more tied in to your SkyDrive, a free, 7-gigabyte online "hard drive."

These are all wonderful and welcome changes. What you may have noticed, however, is that these changes are solely for the benefit of people who've bought Windows 8 tablets and touch-screen laptops — all nine of them.

On the other hand, almost nothing has changed for people who use the real Windows, the desktop Windows.

And none of the changes listed above address the elephant in the room: the jarring juxtaposition of TileWorld and the traditional Windows behind it.

Fortunately, Microsoft has taken a few steps toward reconciling these two wildly different worlds.

The big news is that the Start button is back on the desktop, in the lower-left corner. Yet incredibly, despite the wails of the masses, clicking it still doesn't open the Start menu. Instead, it just takes you back to TileWorld.

Microsoft's logic: You're supposed to think of TileWorld's Start screen as an expanded, tile-based version of the Start menu. It's the same items, just spread across your screen. So clicking the Start button does, in a way, take you to your Start menu items. (If you prefer the real Start menu, you can still install Classic Menu or another free app that brings it back.)

Furthermore, you no longer need some piece of shareware to make your PC start up to the desktop instead of to TileWorld; there's a buried setting to do that, too.

There are still three different places to change settings on your computer — two in TileWorld, plus the traditional Control Panel. But at least more of the Control Panel's settings are now duplicated in the TileWorld settings panels, so you don't have another environment switch to change them.

We should be grateful for these baby steps. Unfortunately, all of it is a giant exercise in rearranging crackers on plates on deck chairs on the Titanic.

The fundamental problem with Windows 8 hasn't changed: You're still working in two operating systems at once. There are still too many duplicate programs and settings, one in each environment. And you still can never live entirely in one world or the other.

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