(MoneyWatch) A year ago, Windows 8 emerged from the labs in Redmond to the most criticism and disapproval that we've seen levied at Microsoft since the debut of Windows ME. Users objected to the new modern experience, the new start screen, the loss of the start menu. They objected to the crippled side-by-side window snapping in modern apps and, well, to almost everything about the new platform. Notable usability expert Jakob Nielsen drove the issue home with his famously scathing assessment of Windows 8, calling it an unmitigated disaster.
Now Microsoft has released Windows 8.1, a significant update to the operating system. It brings a slew of new features and improvements to the beleaguered software. Here's what you need to know:
The Start button is back. But not the way lot of people hoped. Yes, there's a start icon in the lower left corner of the desktop, but all it does is take you to the modern start screen -- just like the empty corner did before the upgrade. It's like a passive-aggressive genie granted you a wish by delivering the literal thing you asked for, not what you intended to get. On the other hand, there is a handy context menu in the Start button -- right click to get access to nearly two dozen items, including a new path to shutting down the PC.
Boot directly to the desktop. People hated booting to the start screen. And even though the desktop was always just a click away, Microsoft acquiesced and gives you the ability to bypass the start screen. To do that, right-click the taskbar and choose Properties, Navigation. You can also control other elements of Windows 8 here, like disabling the "hot corners."
Snapping is better. The nightmare that was modern app snapping in Windows 8 is finally over. Now you can snap more than two apps side-by-side, and easily drag the windows around to adjust their widths automatically. It makes the modern experience actually usable. In just a few days with Windows 8.1, I've found myself using modern apps a lot more because of this. Clicking an external link in the Facebook app, for example, automatically opens the browser and positions the apps side-by-side -- a very nice experience.
You can search "everywhere." The search experience in the modern start screen was, frankly, confusing. In Windows 8.1, when you search you see results from everywhere at once -- the local hard drive, the Web and apps.
Vastly improved PC settings. One of the best examples of how half-baked Windows 8 was that the modern control panel ("PC Settings") only controlled a small set of Windows features, probably because Microsoft simply didn't have time to build out the new control panel in a comprehensive way. So you still needed to go to the legacy desktop control panel for most of you adjustments. No more: The revamped PC settings still isn't complete, but it does so much more that you rarely need to visit the old control panel.
Seamless desktop and start screen. There are a variety of visual improvements and wallpaper changes, but hands down the best one is the coherent background in the desktop and start screen. One reason, I think, that people didn't like the start screen in Windows 8 was the fact that it was a jarring change to switch between the desktop and modern experiences. Now, you can keep the same background, so the start screen seem like it was designed to be an extension of the desktop -- the change is small, but incredibly important.
Deeper SkyDrive integration. Microsoft is definitely following through on its intention to make the Internet cloud an integral part of Windows.
Photo courtesy of Microsoft