Hands On with Windows 8.1: Microsoft's 'do-over' OS is loaded with features

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Using a featured called Assigned Access, a Windows 8.1 PC can be “locked down” to boot to a single app. For example, you could lock down PCs to a dedicated test-taking app, preventing students from launching Internet Explorer during exams.

The Start Screen configuration can be exported to an XML file, and enforced as a policy. And Windows 8.1 has been designed with Mobile Device Management in mind: Users get to bring their own Windows 8.1 devices into the workplace, but businesses can put their own apps and documents on the user hardware—and revoke access to this material as they wish.

Other new capabilities more directly benefit employees: Users can set up their PCs as Wi-Fi hotspots, sharing a paid-for work connection, and new “virtual smart cards” can be used as tokens to launch VPNs. Third-party VPNs now work with WIndows RT as well, Dustin Ingalls, a group program manager at Microsoft, said.

Prettier but not perfect

So what’s the bottom line? Right now, Windows 8.1 offers somewhat moderate improvements to a controversial design, together with a few bugs. And, personally, I would have appreciated better organization of the new personalization options.

For now, my thesis remains unchanged: Windows 8 bolts a tablet interface on top of a PC interface, and most people who approach it from the PC perspective are in for a shock. When it comes to user interface design, familiarity breeds not contempt, but rather content—content, happy users who would rather see their beloved interface polished up, but not overhauled entirely. Over time, however, Microsoft will benefit from user familiarity, as people learn how to navigate Windows 8 (and all its updates) and the Modern interface becomes the new normal.

Windows 8.1 is Microsoft’s chance at a do-over. So far, the company has stuck to its guns, offering a few changes to ease the transition from Windows 7. But the company has also promised to increase the pace of change, with more frequent updates. I like what I see—a company that’s scared of becoming irrelevant, listening to its users. I appreciate what Microsoft has done with Windows 8.1, but I like a responsive Microsoft even more.

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