I just started using Windows 8.1 on my main desktop (had played around with it on my convertible laptop some before), and it's a nice improvement. The new options are very welcome, and between the "modern" apps actually being good enough to be useful now, modern apps starting up much faster, and the ability to snap modern apps at what ever size and number you want, I'm finding myself actually using the new UI some, even on my desktop with a 27" 2560x1440 display. Before 8.1 I tried using the new UI some on my desktop, but it just felt like it was holding me back and was a waste of my large monitor, so after a couple days I never even looked at it again. There are still quite a few strange quirks that come from the dichotomy of desktop and touch-first UIs in Windows 8.1, but it's much improved now. Something I've been noticing, however, is that with the new tweaks to the modern UI, the charms bar is starting to seem like a bad idea, and I think Microsoft should seriously consider completely revamping it for Windows 8.2/9.
So today, there are 5 charms: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Lets go over them:
Search was originally intended to be a contextual search of whatever app you're using. Now it's a system-wide search, that also integrates web searching through the Bing integration. Searching within apps is now done with a search button/box within each app. It makes more sense to users because it's more obvious what you're doing. If you see a search box within the app, you know you're searching within the app.
The Share charm works the same way that it did in Window 8.0; it let's you share whatever you're viewing in one app, to any other share-enabled app that's installed on your device. The problem is, just like the Search charm, it can be confusing what you're sharing. Windows 8.1 makes it even worse, though. Because you can now snap any number of apps, at any size you like, there is no obvious "active" app that you're sharing from. So now not only is it a discoverability problem, users will have to wonder, "what exactly am I sharing?" Yes, Microsoft added a little white line on the splitter bar between apps to indicate which is the active app, but no typical user is going to notice this.
Start does just what it implies; brings up the start screen. Its usefulness is limited though, since touch devices have a physical Start button, and when using mouse/keyboard you get to the start screen by clicking on the lower-left of the screen.
This one has been confusing since Windows 8.0 came out, and again, Windows 8.1 makes it worse thanks to the same reasons that it made Share more confusing. It's meant to be a way to take whatever you're doing and output it to a "device." Problem is, say an end user wanted to print something. When I want to print, I don't think, "devices," I think "print." It also has the same discoverability and confusion centered around the Search charm. It's just not intuitive, and 8.1 made it worse.
Again, many of the same issues. Users don't ever think to go to the charms when they want to change the settings within an app, because the charms feel like a system-level UI element, not app-level. I've seen many cases where users had no idea that the apps had settings at all until I showed them the Settings charm. And again, Windows 8.1 makes it worse because there is no single "active" app (other than what is indicated by a little white line).
So to summarize the problems with charms:
- They are not intuitive because they feel like a system-level UI element, and not app-level
- They are confusing in Windows 8.1, because not just a single app can be open, so it is not obvious which app the charms are acting on
- They are not easily accessible on a desktop, since you have to do the "move to upper-right corner and down" mouse gesture
- They are now inconsistent in 8.1, since the Search charm is system-level, but the others are still contextually based on the app that you have open
Another problem I have with the charms is the same issue I've always had with the menu bar in OSX; it contains options and commands for the current app, but it feels disconnected. I've personally always preferred the Windows way of doing things, where everything about an app was contained within its window. Charms have moved away from that.
Dump the charms. Just like Microsoft did with the Search charm, they should make it so apps that can share, print, or have settings should have buttons within them for these tasks, rather than depending on charms. Removing charms would then free up the swipe-in-from-right gesture for quick access to system settings and a notification history. Just imagine that when you swipe in from the right that you would basically get the lower part of what comes up when you click on the Settings charm today, and instead of app-specific settings on the top portion of the pane that slides in, you would get a notification history, and maybe access to other useful, system-wide information and settings. I've attached a mock-up of what this could look like.
This is not related to the charms, but the other thing I think that they should add is the ability to split snapping panes vertically, not just horizontally. This wouldn't make much sense on a tablet, but on my 27" screen it would put the modern UI in a position where it could almost become a desktop replacement.
I didn't mean for this post to get so long, I just wanted to point something out that I've been noticing as I've started using Windows 8.1 day-to-day. Please feel free to add any of your on thoughts or opinions on this. Whether you agree or disagree, I'd be interested to hear other opinions.