Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Take a look at two great features in Windows 8.1

The new Windows 8.1 Start Screen and the new Snap feature may make you rethink some of the modern interface's shortcomings.
While I didn't particularly care for the concept of combining the tablet user interface with the desktop user interface when Windows 8 came out, I have to admit that after using Windows 8.1 for the last couple of months, I think I'm starting to come around. I'm not sure if my resolve is simply giving way to the inevitable fact that Microsoft isn't going to give up on the combined user interface or whether the changes that they made in this iteration of Windows 8 are really an improvement on the concept. I guess I have to say that it is a little of both.
Now don't think that I've completely fallen under their spell. I still feel that the complete removal of the old Start menu from Windows 8 was a travesty and that return of the Start Button in Windows 8.1 is a halfhearted effort. But, since I am still a fervent user of Start Menu Reviver, which I enthusiastically endorsed last summer in my article The Windows 8 Start Menu reimagined and reinvigorated, I have been able to overlook this sleight of hand and really begin to appreciate some of the other enhancements in Windows 8.1 - namely the new Start Screen and the new Snap feature that allows you to have more than two modern apps open on the screen at one time.

In this article, I'll take a closer look at these new Windows 8.1 features and discuss why I like them.

Modern Apps

While I still feel like the modern apps design goes against the grain when it comes to using a desktop computer for the type of work that is traditionally done on these machines, I am not missing the fact that many modern apps are things of beauty and really interesting to use. The high quality user interface imagery and the unique way they display content makes them intriguing. And over time, I have found that I really like to use certain modern apps on my desktop system after I'm done working with my real applications in the desktop user interface. However, working with modern apps in Windows 8 was a bit kludgy. Fortunately, I have found that the new features I mentioned in the introduction make using modern apps in Windows 8.1 much better.

The new Start Screen

As I mentioned, I said that I like Start Menu Reviver, yet I also said that I like the new Windows 8.1 Start Screen. While this might sound like a contradiction, it's really not. You see, I use Start Menu Reviver to launch all of my desktop applications and I use the Start screen to launch all of my modern apps.
So, now when I access the Start Screen to begin using the modern apps that I enjoy, Windows 8.1 provides two improvements that make the Start Screen more palatable. First, when you switch from your Desktop, as shown in Figure A, to the Start Screen, its background is now transparent allowing your Desktop wallpaper to show, as shown in Figure B.

Figure A

Fig A 11-27.png
When you switch from the desktop…

Figure B

Fig B 11-27.png
…to the Start Screen, having the same wallpaper makes the transition less abrupt.
In Windows 8, when you switched from the Desktop to the Start Screen, it was like going to a separate user interface. The Start Screen background would be a solid color or some goofy pattern on that solid color. It was really a disconcerting switch. In fact, that was one thing that really turned people off about the Start Screen. Now that the Start Screen has the same background as the Desktop, switching to the Start Screen is more like bringing up a menu rather than launching a foreign application.
The second improvement to the Start Screen is the ability to choose a wider variety of sizes for the tiles. In Windows 8 you had two choices: Larger and Smaller. In Windows 8.1, you now have four choices: Small, Medium, Wide, and Large, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

Fig C 11-27.png
When you right click a tile and then and select Resize, you now have four choices for the tile size.

The new Snap feature

Another frustrating limitation in Windows 8 was that fact that you could only have two modern apps on the screen at one time. And in most cases, one app was on 1/4 of the screen and the other app was taking up the remaining 3/4. In Windows 8.1, you can evenly split the screen between two modern apps, as shown in Figure D. Having the even split makes it easier to simultaneously work in two apps.

Figure D

Fig D 11-27.png
Having an even split makes it easier to work in two apps at the same time.
And best of all, the Snap shortcut keystrokes will allow you to easily switch the windows' positions. Just press the [Windows] key along with the left or right arrow keys and the windows will shift positions. Select a window and press the [Windows] key along with the up arrow and that window will be maximized.
If, while you have two apps on the screen, you open a third, that app will appear as a large thumbnail in the middle of the screen, as shown in Figure E. You'll then see the thumbnail tilt back and forth indicating that it can replace either one of the apps currently on the screen.

Figure E

Fig E 11-27.png
When you open a third app, if will appear in the middle of the screen as a large thumbnail image.
However, if you drag it to the gap in the middle of the screen, the app will take up the middle third of the screen, as shown in Figure F. Alternatively, if you press the [Windows] key along with the left or right arrow keys, the thumbnail will shift positions and when it is in the position you want, press [Enter] and it will pop into place. Being able to have multiple apps open on the screen at one time can be convenient in many situations. Now, if you have really high res monitor, you could even have four apps open on the screen at the same time.

Figure F

Fig F 11-27.png
You can place the third app in the middle of the screen.
You can even drag the desktop into the mix, as shown in Figure G. This can really expand your horizons.

Figure G

Fig G 11-27.png
You can even bring the desktop into the same screen as your apps.

What's your take?

I've found that the new Start Screen and the new Snap feature make Windows 8.1 more palatable as I move back and forth between using my Desktop applications and my modern apps. Of course, using Start Menu Reviver also helps me keep things separated. What do you think about these new Windows 8.1 features? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by here and let us hear from you.