Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1 has languished as Microsoft seeks to move past its failure, while Apple has extended its Mac OS into an intriguing new direction

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Still, OS X flaws like the iCloud Document remnants and Dashboard awkwardness pale in comparison to Windows 8.1's dissonant UI and awkward stitching together of two distinct environments: Windows 7 (called Windows Desktop) and Metro (which has no formal name).

As an example of an unfriendly change in Windows 8 not corrected in Windows 8.1, Microsoft has added the ribbon to the File Explorer file manager. Fair enough -- it's standard in Microsoft's apps, after all. But unlike the ribbon in other apps, the one in File Explorer is hidden until you click or tap the corresponding menu. That's fine.

The boneheaded part is that when the ribbon displays, it overlays part of your content window, obscuring whatever is at the top. In a file manager, that's especially problematic. Fortunately, you can turn off this autohide functionality to make File Explorer's ribbon work like all other apps' ribbons and stay affixed above the content area.

By contrast, the Metro part of Windows 8 can be downright elegant in its simplicity, focus, and use of imagery, without distracting chrome such as window frames and menus. It makes Windows 7 look dowdy and archaic.

Another nice touch, taken from Windows tablets, is the Snap feature that lets you run two Metro apps side by side. Figuring out how to enable this feature is not at all intuitive (right-click the upper-left corner of the current app), but once you know how to do it, you can use your Metro screen space more effectively, especially for running widgets that don't need a whole screen.

Windows 8.1 Snap view in Metro

The Windows 8.1 Snap view -- once you figure out how to enable it -- lets you use Metro's screen real estate more effectively, especially for widget-style apps like Weather.

Metro still struggles to work well with both keyboard/mouse and touch scenarios. For example, there are two ways to get app options not in the app's screens, and they're easily reached through gestures. But if you -- like 99 percent of the planet -- use a mouse and keyboard, accessing the sharing and settings services (called "charms") involves an awkward action. If you don't have a physical keyboard, such as for a tablet, you simply can't use certain Metro features. For example, you can't search for an app by typing its name in the Start screen because there's no way to invoke the onscreen keyboard. You really need a keyboard to use a Windows tablet.

Fortunately, Windows 8.1 Update 1 brought two new icons -- Search and Power -- that now make search and restart or shutdown both easily discoverable and simpler to use.

Windows 8.1 Search and Power in Metro

A pair of small but very useful additions to the Metro Start screen in Windows 8.1 are the Search and Power buttons (at upper right) that make these two common features easier to discover and access.

Despite its simplicity, the Metro environment can be befuddling. The Store app and Internet Explorer are difficult to navigate, for example, and easily let you run in circles. One reason for this: There's little apparent hierarchy in Metro apps, and you often have to use the application bar to navigate to specific functions rather than move laterally among them via the visible navigation controls. It's a bit like being forced to walk through a maze when you actually want to get somewhere as directly as possible.

However, IE11's copying of Apple Safari's iCloud Tabs is a nice touch, letting you access recently opened websites on other PCs linked to your Microsoft account. Windows 8.1 also nicely reworks the PC Settings app to bring in more functions, but you'll still rely on the separate Control Panel in the Windows Desktop, which provides much more control over the PC.

The Windows Desktop part is the Windows 7 you know and probably love. The good news in Windows 8.1 is that you can set your PC to boot directly to the familiar Windows Desktop, rather than having to go to the Metro Start screen, then clicking the Desktop tile. And the taskbar shows running Metro apps now, not only Desktop apps.

Windows 8.1 taskbar

Windows 8.1's taskbar shows both Desktop and Metro apps, for easier access to both.

Still, you can unexpectedly pop into the Metro environment by double-clicking a file and finding it opens a Metro app instead of a traditional Windows program. Microsoft wants people to switch to Metro, so it has set the default core apps such as email and media players to the Metro versions.

Also, the Start menu remains missing in Windows 8.1, so it's hard to get to your Windows 7 apps quickly. Microsoft has brought back the Start button, but all it does is switch you between Metro and the Windows Desktop -- as if you pressed the Windows key. (To get the handy Power User menu, shown above, you now right-click that Start button, or you can continue to use the Windows-X shortcut.)

Just as Metro works nicely via touch and poorly via traditional input methods, Windows Desktop works well via traditional input methods and poorly via touch -- Windows 8.1 does nothing to fix that. Icons and menus are often too small to read on a tablet screen, as well as too hard to touch or tap reliably. Plus, touch equivalents for common actions such as right-clicking do not work reliably in the Windows Desktop.

Ultimately, you're switching between two different computers that share a file system and a few core services, and each computer is optimized for a different set of input methods. As InfoWorld has suggested, it would have been better to leave Metro for tablets and Windows 7 for laptops and desktop PCs, then slowly merged the UIs as Apple is doing with OS X and iOS. For most users, Windows 8.1 will be a confounding mess, even if the two piles can be kept a bit more separated.

There is hope: The forthcoming Windows 10 takes many of InfoWorld's suggestions to intelligently merge the Desktop and Metro environments. But until Windows 10 ships some time next year, you're stuck with the Jekyll-and-Hyde split that is Windows 8.1.

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