Today sees the global release of Windows 8.1. It should start rolling out in the App Store for everyone. Although 8.1 is a minor upgrade, there are some big changes: mainly the re-positioning of SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based storage service. My relationship with SkyDrive has been like a celebrity marriage: lots of excitement at first, love and hugs, and then a quick unraveling as its little glitches become more apparent. It just never has stacked up well to Dropbox, or even Google Drive, for God’s sake. But, as Ballmer once told us, Microsoft is “all in” … so this update sees SkyDrive move to front and center. So front and so center that its sync engine is built-in to the core of the OS. Additionally,¬†Microsoft has made one improvement that really excites me (the whole celebrity marriage thing reignites!) — instead of defaulting to syncing your entire SkyDrive folder to your PC, it first loads icons, and enough information required to identify the file. When you decide to open the file, it downloads it on the spot. I love that, since my SkyDrive space sometimes exceeds my SSD space! You can still set preferences to sync entire folders for offline work as well. The other magical result of SkyDrive being front and center is easy access to all your apps, files and settings across multiple Microsoft devices. Like a thin client, just login to any device and continue where you left off (kinda)!

With 8.1 also comes IE11… another version of the venerable web browser we all love to hate. I’m slowly becoming somewhat of an IE convert… it’s kinda become like the Republican Party — it has a loooong history of reckless behavior to overcome — but it’s actually quite a mature, responsive browser. I couldn’t ever see myself leaving Chrome, but IE11 is worth calling out in this upgrade mainly because of two seemingly little tweaks that will undoubtedly have a big impact: it now supports WebGL, so now you can play in-browser games with stunning speed and cool visuals, and IE now has a “Reading View” option, similar to the one in Safari that is the absolute #1 reason to use Safari if you’re on a Mac! Thanks for these, Microsoft. Now, if you would only grasp the idea of “extensions” like Chrome has, we would have a much more lively relationship.

Let’s not forget the App Store. Just last year, Microsoft’s App Store resembled a Soviet grocery store in the 1940s: cold and dusty with barren shelves full of nothing but moldy bread. With only 10,000 apps (and let’s be honest, some of what Microsoft counted as an “app” were thinly disguised versions of silly web pages), the App Store has now grown up a bit and boasts over 100,000 apps (but still no Instagram!). The one thing worth noting with this post, however, is the rejoicing we can all engage in because the Mail app has been redesigned. W00t! Thank God for small miracles. The Mail app has been one of the most consistent reminders of how bad an app can actually be. With this upgrade, Microsoft realized it needed to make some hefty changes.¬†The Mail app has been completely redesigned, improved for both touch or keyboard and mouse use. You can drag and drop messages into folders, easily select multiple messages with checkboxes, and generally filter out and manage email a lot more easily. Performance has also greatly improved, with draft emails simply appearing on the right-hand side rather than taking up the full screen. Thank you, Redmond.

Even better news: this big, little upgrade is free for existing Windows 8 users. I’d say go get it now!

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