Windows 8.1 – out now – re-starts the Microsoft OS

After Windows 8 flummoxed some customers with its tablet/PC hybrid design, Microsoft answered with Windows 8.1, an update that addressed customer complaints while keeping an eye to the multi-tasking ability of tablets.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Microsoft previewed Windows 8.1, an update to its flagship operating system, at the Build developers conference this week. Here, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer addresses the crowd at the conference.

When Windows 8 was born just last year, Microsoft hoped it would bridge the gap between desktop and tablet software by creating one system that could run on both. However, many people think the software failed to cater fully to either the PC's or the tablet’s needs.

On Thursday, Microsoft responded to customers by releasing Windows 8.1. This time around, Microsoft addressed some key complaints and further pushed its dual-purpose software. But will it be enough to convert the skeptics?

Windows 8.1 still stays true to its original goal as software for PCs and tablets (and the increasingly gray space in between) noted by its dual home screens: a tile-based, touch-screen-enabled option for tablet users, and traditional desktop screen enabled for a keyboard and mouse.  The desktop screen also includes the return of the iconic “Start” button, which was noticeably missing from Windows 8. Though when you press it now, it launches the tile screen where you can toggle to different apps and functions, rather than a pop-up menu.

This Windows update also offers the option for a desktop boot-up, meaning if a company does not have touch-screen devices, the computer will automatically begin at the traditional desktop screen – another complaint many had about Windows 8.

The package comes loaded with new features that make it easier to multi-task between apps. Users can now have up to four apps open at a time on large screen devices (two on tablets) and users can change the size of apps by sliding the edges back and forth. Certain apps, such as Skype, can also be accessed even in lock screen mode, and all apps auto-update, which means there are no more frequent notifications from the Windows store. Users can also have unlimited tabs open and can have two websites open side-by-side.

In addition, Microsoft is experimenting with gesture-controlled apps, like a virtual cookbook that lets you turn the page by waving your hand in front of the front-facing camera – a welcome addition for those who don’t want their touch-screens getting sticky.

A few complaints remain. Not all apps have been configured to the size-changing feature on Windows 8.1, and the dual home-screen option takes some getting used to. But easier multi-tasking and innovative app manipulation could give Microsoft a needed boost in the growing tablet world.

Windows 8.1 is available on Thursday as a free update for anyone with Windows 8. Devices outfitted with 8.1 go on sale Friday.

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