The update to Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2 released on April 8, 2014 by Microsoft brought some notable changes and improvements. These involve mostly the GUI targeted towards general users but bring some additional features IT folks might enjoy as well. Though no real changes were made to the networking functionality, there was yet another GUI change involving networking.
General GUI changes
Overall Microsoft’s GUI changes and improvements were made to help improve the experience of traditional mouse and keyboard users. Though with the Windows 8.1 and R2 updates you could make Windows boot directly to the desktop instead of the Start screen with a setting change, after the recent update it by default does that if you aren’t on a tablet. Plus you’ll now see buttons for Search and Power options (for most PCs) on the Start screen of the modern UI.
The update also helps integrate the desktop and modern UI a bit more. Now the taskbar from the traditional desktop GUI will appear in the modern UI when running the cursor along the bottom of the screen. Plus the taskbar will now show opened apps from the modern UI along with the traditional desktop applications.
This includes the thumbnail preview of the app when hovering over it on the taskbar and any built-in controls like for pausing when the app is playing media. You can also pin desired apps to the taskbar just like you can with traditional applications.
Microsoft added more familiar mouse and keyboard options to the modern UI. Right-clicking an app title on the Start screen brings up a context menu allowing you to perform actions like pinning/unpinning and uninstalling the app.
When an app is open you can now move your cursor near the top of the screen to see minimize and close buttons.
The update also adds a few new Tiles grouped together on the Start screen of new users: This PC (basically My Computer), PC Settings, Documents, and Pictures. Remember this is added to new users and you won’t see them added to existing user accounts.
Networking GUI changes, again!
Microsoft keeps flip-flopping on the support of the right-click context menu of the network list. In Windows 8 you could right-click a network name to access the connection properties, turn sharing on or off, forget the network, and enable or disable the new metering and data usage features. But in Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2 they completely got rid of this right-clicking ability. But now with this update they brought it back!
But the context menu now only includes three shortcuts: Show estimated data usage, Set as metered connection, and Forget this network. So you still have to access the Network and Sharing Center in order to access the connection properties and to turn sharing on or off.
Additional features for IT pros
Microsoft added what they call Enterprise Mode (also available in Windows 7) to Internet Explorer 11 to provide better compatibility for websites designed for Internet Explorer 8. However to use this mode you must disable the Enhanced Security Configuration feature of IE 11 and specify a list of web apps to render dynamically in Enterprise Mode.
In Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft added the ability to sign into Windows with an alternate login ID that is an attribute of the user object in Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS). This is especially useful if utilizing Azure Active Directory or Office 365.
Mobile device management (MDM) is another area with improvements. They’ve added additional policy settings that can be managed with third-party MDM solutions, such as Intune, Mobile Iron, or Airwatch. Whitelisting and blacklisting of modern apps and websites for a Windows device or support for installing apps are examples of new policies that are supported.
Another improvement from the update is the ability to more easily side-load apps by not requiring a VL-key, or installing modern UI apps without having to publish them to the Windows Store. However, this requires a domain joined device running Windows 8.1 Update Pro.
As you’ve seen, Microsoft is continuing to make GUI improvements and integration of the two interfaces, along with adding more enterprise functionality. However what you won’t see yet is the resurfacing of the Start menu, previously rumored that it would come with this update. But some sources say a redesigned Start menu will be seen in the second update to Windows 8.1 currently scheduled for August 2014.