How searching has changed in Windows 8.1

There have been many welcome changes from Windows 8.0 in Windows 8.1, both in the users and developers’ perspective. However, I believe not all of those changes are really improving the user experience (I still think some are only make to dodge the media critics). One of those is the introduction of the hero Search screen, where your search result is now the accumulation from installed apps, Windows settings, local files, Windows Store and Bing results (including some big images and information about the recognized entity, Web images, Web videos and websites). I remember they said about one page where you could get the search results from everywhere, but I still do not see search results from data inside my own apps.

The old Search charm

With the debut of Windows 8.0, Microsoft introduced a very innovative capability: the Search charm, which was an extension to the old search box on the Start Menu of Windows 7. Search charm allowed you to search not only the files and settings on your PC, but also to search inside a Windows Store app. Imagine you can open the charm anytime, type in a word and tap on your dictionary app. Bam, the dictionary app opens directly to the page with your querying word! Or in another case, you search for a game in the Search charm and realize you have not installed it yet; you just have to tap on Store to search the Windows Store without retyping your query. Then you realize it is not in the Store as well, so you want to search the internet for more information; just tap on Bing or Internet Explorer to search the same phrase from the Internet.

Below is the old Search charm, showing some suggestions while you are typing to search inside SingAdventure.

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The new Search charm

In Windows 8.1, you don’t have that capability anymore. The app list in the Search charm has been removed. There is now a dropdown above the query textbox, but it has only “Everywhere”, “Settings”, “Files”, “Web images” and “Web videos”; either choice will open the new Search app to show results.

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People said that the Search charm was hard to discover. I totally agree; many new Windows 8 users do not realize that new feature of the OS. So I thought Microsoft would just adjust the guideline, providing a new Search button so that developer can put them on the top right corner of their app; tapping on the button will automatically open the Charm and focus on the query textbox. I already did that on my app because it requires just 1 simple button and one API call, but many developers are lazy, they want Microsoft to do this for them. Unfortunately, Microsoft simply removed (not completely for now) the feature, and introduce a new SearchBox control to replace the in-app search from the Search charm.

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SearchBox is good because it provides choices for developers, but now if I am in a Search charm integrated app, swipe from the right and open Search charm, I saw the “Everywhere” search (like the picture above) instead of searching inside my app. I can still switch to in-app search by choosing so in the dropdown, but it will jump back to “Everywhere” in many situations. I think the proper way should be the reversed one, where  being in an app will set the Search charm’s default as in-app Search and have a dropdown to allow users to switch back to “Everywhere.” Even more confusingly, calling the Search charm from any APIs inside the app (SearchPane.GetForCurrentView().Show() or typing when SearchPane.GetForCurrentView().ShowOnKeyboardInput == true) will trigger in-app Search directly, just like the old behavior.

You can see an example of suggestions of the new SearchBox and the new Search charm below. I am not sure how much we can customized the templates of the suggestions of the new SearchBox, but those of the new Search charm remain the same (3 types: text, separator and item with a picture and a description).

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The arguments about the awkward way of typing the query first and choose the app later are also valid in many cases; people usually open the app first. However, I hope Microsoft should know that the app list in the old Search charm helps people to jump from app to app with a single query, not just to initialize a Search operation. 

Is there any thing good in the new Search charm?

Absolutely! The new unified Search app (but only for files, settings, and Bing stuffs) is amazing when you want your search results to be powered by Bing. Besides, since this one is now the unification of settings, files and web, the suggestions is also much better, especially if you are familiar with searching for a file, a settings in control panel or an application in the old Start menu of Windows 7.

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There are also improvements in the way in-app search works: the number of search suggestions allowed has been increased (or the limit has been removed, I am not sure). You can now give people a long list of suggestions and they can even scroll down! The layout of each suggestion also looks much better with more space. Those changes really confuse me because I am not sure if Microsoft want to phasing out in-app search on the Search charm or not.

Conclusion

I really like the way the suggestions show up in the new Search charm (and don’t really like the small suggestion flyout of the new SearchBox control), so I will keep using it in the Windows 8.1 version of SingAdventure, of course with a search button on the top right corner. It looks better and feel more integrated to the OS although there is no way to jump to another app now. Anyway I still hope that the app list will return back to the Search charm in the future!

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