Operating Systems Updated: What's Changed?

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Windows 8.1: The Return of the Start Button (sort of)

When Windows 8 was released on August 1 of this year, its reception was fairly mixed. With a heavy emphasis on the touch capabilities of tablets and touch-enabled computers, Microsoft unintentionally alienated many of its desktop users. While the multi-touch controls and gestures integrated into Windows 8 worked well with touchscreens, they were quite cumbersome to use with a mouse on a non-touchscreen computer.

Windows 8 also introduced the redesigned Start screen, which featured “live tiles” that update in real time. Its resemblance to the Xbox dashboard screen was uncanny and it became clear that Windows 8 was geared toward touch-enabled computers and tablets. While you did have the option to return to the Windows 7-style desktop screen, there was no choice to boot directly into it from a shutdown. The old-school desktop screen also had a somewhat glaring omission: the Start Menu button. Its removal had many users confused and its return was arguably the most requested feature of Windows 8.

Well, Microsoft listened to the feedback of their customers and released Windows 8.1 on October 17th. After many requests from Windows users, the Start button makes its triumphant return in Windows 8.1. While it may not have the exact functionality as its predecessor in Windows 7, the Start button has two core functions. A left click on the Start button will simply take you to the Windows 8.1 Start screen with the live tiles. A right-click on the Start button will bring up an advanced menu where you can access the Device Manager, Network Options, and more. While the Start button does alleviate some navigational issues non-touchscreen users were having with Windows 8, it is clear that Microsoft wants users to utilize the Windows 8.1 Start screen for launching apps. Windows 8.1 also introduced the choice of either booting directly into the Windows 8.1 Start screen or the traditional desktop screen of Windows 7.  Users can also choose whether to boot directly into an app or app view if they so choose. Microsoft says that if you’re already running Windows 8 or Windows RT, in most cases, it will be free to upgrade to Windows 8.1 or Windows RT 8.1. For more information on how to upgrade to Windows 8.1 as well as to see if you qualify for a free Windows 8.1 update, please click here.

Many manufacturers are gearing up to release new versions of their computers to take full advantage of the Windows 8.1 operating system. Samsung announced the ATIV Book 9 Plus 13.3” Ultrabook™. Attempting to push the 13.3” touchscreen of the ATIV Book 9 Plus to its limits, Samsung included an enormous QHD+ 3200 x 1800 native resolution at 275 pixels per inch (ppi). The ATIV Book 9 Plus also has a 4th-gen Haswell Intel® Core™ i7 processor, 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, and a 256GB solid-state drive to ensure that Windows 8.1 runs smoothly and efficiently.

Building on the success of their Yoga series, Lenovo has released the ThinkPad Yoga 12.5” Ultrabook. The ThinkPad Yoga utilizes a 4th-gen Haswell Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, with 4GB or 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3L RAM and a 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive. While the Yoga Series had an 11.6” and a 13.3” variant, the ThinkPad Yoga squeezes in right between them with a 12.5” widescreen IPS touchscreen. The display also has Full HD 1920 x 1080 native resolution for native high-definition 1080p playback. The ThinkPad Yoga also has the unique 360-degree hinge design, which allows it to be folded into a tablet. Of course, the ThinkPad Yoga comes with Windows 8.1 preinstalled.

Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks: An OS Update from Apple…for Free?!

Released as a free upgrade to Mac users on October 22, Mac OS X 10.9 breaks from Apple’s tradition of feline names and is branded as “Mavericks.” While OS X Mavericks doesn’t completely redesign the Mac OS X operating system, it does offer additional features to improve the Mac experience for Apple users. Plus, it’s free.

Arguably the biggest improvement of OS X Mavericks is its approach of multiple displays. If you’ve ever tried to use a Mac and an external display beforehand, you’ve probably had to deal with the frustrations that accompanied it. Putting an app in full-screen mode on one screen usually rendered the secondary display useless, with a blank screen. Well, in Mavericks, there is no longer a primary and a secondary screen. Instead, each monitor has its own menu and the Dock is available on whichever screen you’re actively working. Also, you’ll be able to have multiple apps open on either display, even in full-screen mode on each screen. Mission control makes it easy for you to drag what you want to where you want it. Also, you can stream to external displays wirelessly with AirPlay and Apple TV.

OS X Mavericks also introduces two iOS apps to the Mac. The iBooks app makes its debut on Mac OS X, allowing you to read all the books that you’ve already downloaded on your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch right on your Mac. Reading books in iBooks is intuitive because it allows you to use the touchpad to swipe back and forth between pages while using the pinch-to-zoom function to enlarge images and small text. Another iOS app making its way to Mavericks is Maps. The Maps app allows you to look up directions on your Mac and then send them directly to your iOS device for voice navigation. Maps is not just a ported iOS app, it is made natively for the Mac, so you’ll be able to take full advantage of Apple’s Flyover view, a photo-realistic interactive 3D map, on the display of your Mac.

OS X Mavericks also adds Finder Tabs to help organize your files. The Calendar app sports a fresh new look as well as gaining some new features to keep you up-to-date on your upcoming events. Safari also received some performance upgrades as well as innovative features, such as Shared Links, which are posted by people you follow on Twitter and LinkedIn.

The redesigned Top Sites page also makes it easier to organize your favorites. Apple has added iCloud Keychain, which stores your website user names and passwords on the devices you’ve approved, and protects them with robust AES 256-bit encryption. If you have trouble coming up with your own passwords, you can utilize the Password Generator for unique, hard-to-guess passwords. iCloud Keychain also works with credit card information as well, so you can check out without having to re-enter your credit card number every time you make an online purchase. While OS X Mavericks is available for most Mac computers (please click here to learn how to upgrade), Apple also released several new MacBook Pros with Retina Display as well.

The 13.3” MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a 4th-gen Haswell Intel Core i5 processor, which utilize low voltage for improved battery life without having to sacrifice performance. The Haswell chip also has Intel Hyper-Threading technology, which allows you to enhance performance of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display by pushing each core to run multiple tasks simultaneously. This essentially turns the dual cores of the Haswell Intel Core i5 processor into four virtual cores. Integrated into the Haswell chip is Intel Iris Graphics, which boosts graphical performance by up to 90 percent more than the previous generation MacBook Pro.

The 15.4” MacBook Pro with Retina Display also received 4th-gen Intel Core processors in the form of Crystalwell Intel Core i7. The quad cores of the Crystalwell chip can be pushed to eight virtual cores, thanks to Intel Hyper-Threading technology. Integrated into the Cyrstalwell chip is Intel Iris Pro Graphics, which provide up to 128MB of embedded memory to accelerate the graphics-intensive apps by acting as an ultra-fast cache. Certain 15.4” MacBook Pro with Retina Display models also come with a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card with 2GB of GDDR5 discrete memory for additional graphical performance.

iOS 7: Redesigned and Reimagined…with Minimalist Icons

For iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users looking for a change in the iOS design, Apple has answered your call (or text). Apple released iOS 7 on September 18, for compatible iOS devices. Apple has refined the typography, redrawn each icon around a new grid system, and added a precise color palette for a minimalist design.

iOS 7 adds a number of quality-of-life features, such as the ability to access the Control Center from the lock screen. Just scroll up to gain access to the most common settings, such as Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay, camera, volume, and more. The Notification Center now has tabs for filtering between notifications. Multitasking has also been redone so you’ll be able to swipe between the apps in a preview instead of just the app icons on the bottom of the screen. You can also close apps by swiping them up and out of the preview. Siri has also been refined to sound less robotic and performs a bit faster and better than before.

iOS 7 also introduces iTunes Radio to US users (sorry, international Apple users). iTunes Radio allows you to make your own stations and listen to your favorite songs. You can also view the history of everything you’ve heard and add it all to your Wish List and then download them from iTunes. Apple also updated the iPad and iPad mini in order to take full advantage of iOS 7.

The iPad has been rebranded as the iPad Air, thanks to its 0.29” thin profile and 1 pound of weight. The bezel is also much narrower than the previous iPad for a better grip and viewing experience. Overall, Apple claims the iPad Air has had a total of 24% reduction in volume from the previous iPad. The iPad Air still has the aluminum unibody design with distinctive bezels, which are cut with a mono-crystalline diamond for a sleek look.

The iPad Air isn’t just thinner and lighter, it’s also much faster. Utilizing the A7 chip, the iPad Air runs on the 64-bit desktop-class architecture for up to twice as much performance as its predecessor. There’s also a secondary M7 co-processor, which takes the load off the A7 chip by processing all motion functions. For wireless connectivity, the iPad Air now utilizes ultrafast 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which is up to twice as fast as 802.11n Wi-Fi. The iPad Air also supports more LTE bands and networks for more mobile Internet access. The iPad Air still has the 9.7” Retina Display with a 2048 x 1536 native resolution at 264 ppi. The iPad Air replaces the current iPad with Retina Display and is available in Silver & White and Space Gray & Black. The iPad Air will be available with iOS 7 preinstalled starting November 1.

Apple users have been clamoring for a Retina Display on the iPad mini, and Apple delivers. The iPad mini with Retina Display has the same 2048 x 1536 native resolution found on the iPad Air, except the iPad mini has a 7.9” screen for 326 ppi. For comparison, the iPad mini with Retina Display has four times the resolution of the previous iPad mini. The iPad mini with Retina Display also has the same A7 chip with an M7 coprocessor, and it supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi as well as more LTE bands and networks. The iPad mini with Retina Display is available with iOS 7 preinstalled, in the same colors as the iPad Air.

Android 4.4 KitKat: Breaking off a Piece for Everyone

Google recently released Android 4.4 KitKat, which is currently only on the Nexus 5. With the ambitious goal of reducing Android fragmentation, Google aims to make KitKat readily available across all Android smartphones. For this to happen, KitKat will have to be optimized to run on both budget and high-end mobile devices. Google hopes to achieve this by requiring KitKat to use less memory than previous versions of Android. Of course, there are other factors to consider as well. Google will have to make Android 4.4 KitKat available across all manufacturers who produce Android devices. Also, some companies have their own user interface to compliment the Android OS. For example, Samsung uses TouchWiz. It’ll be interesting to see how Google will handle these issues in order to reduce Android fragmentation.

KitKat also brings new and improved features to Android. Google Now is integrated deeper into Android. In fact, you can start using Google Now without even having to touch the screen. Instead, you can simply say “OK Google” to your smartphone and you’ll be able to do voice search, send a text message, get directions or even start playing music. Speaking of voices, the phone app has gotten a revamped look. Instead of the tired alphabetical sorting, KitKat will evaluate which contacts you speak with most often and automatically prioritize your contacts list accordingly. Also, the phone app is integrated with Google Maps so you’ll be able to look up nearby restaurants and hotels directly from the app. On a related note, Caller ID also gets some Google Maps integration as well. If you receive a call from a phone number that is not in your contacts, Google Maps will search and display any matches from local businesses.

KitKat will also come with Quickoffice preinstalled. With Quickoffice, you’ll be able to create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, view PDF files, access Google Drive and even attach files to your emails. There is also improved support for wireless printing, Message Access Profile (MAP), IR blaster, and NFC. There is also an immersive mode that will clear up the clutter on your screen. It automatically hides everything, even the status and navigation bars, while you’re viewing a photo, video, or playing a game. Oh, there is now also an emoji keyboard so you’ll be able to send smiley faces at your leisure.