A closer look at what's new in Windows 8.1

A closer look at what's new in Windows 8.1

Summary: Most of the attention devoted to Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update has focused on the Start button. But if you get past that controversial addition, there's plenty more to see. New and improved apps, Internet Explorer 11, tweaks to the onscreen keyboard, and a surprising change to File Explorer are all there too.

TOPICS: Windows 8

Earlier this week Microsoft offered a first look at what’s going to be in Windows 8.1. As I noted in my coverage yesterday, this is a significant update and not just a kneejerk reaction to criticism of the initial release.

See also:

Windows 8.1 unveiled: will it change your mind about Windows 8?
The Start button is back. But that's just one of a very long list of changes you'll find in Windows 8.1. Here's what's inside the Windows 8.1 update, which will be available as a preview in late June and will be delivered free to all Windows 8 users before the end of the year.

In this follow-up, I want to touch on some of the smaller details that got might have gotten lost in yesterday’s flurry of coverage.

At the top of the list is a new Help & Tips app that will be pinned to the Start screen by default and will offer a tutorial covering five or so of the most common things a new user needs to know about Windows 8 interface. “If there’s any regret we had” about the initial launch of Windows 8, said Microsoft’s Jensen Harris, “it’s that we didn’t help orient people.” Some OEMs (Dell and HP, for example) have created their own tutorial apps to fill this gap. The official version is overdue and welcome.


Improved apps

Windows 8.1 will include significant updates  to all of the built-in Metro-style apps. With one exception, all of the Microsoft-authored apps will be updated for the preview release due at the end of June. The exception is the communications suite (Mail, Messaging, People, and Calendar), which will be updated for the final release of Windows 8.1 but will be essentially unchanged in the preview.

The Windows 8 Music app is a confusing mess, with a puzzling and frustrating interface that emphasizes the hit-driven Xbox online music service. The Windows 8.1 version looks completely different, beginning with the home page. The three main links on that home page allow you to quickly play music from your collection (local or online) or play streaming music by tapping the Radio link (similar to the current Smart DJ feature). The third link, Explore, takes you to the Xbox Store, where you can search and shop. The display of the collection is neat, crisp, and modern.

In Windows 8, the Camera app is essentially a glorified webcam control panel. In Windows 8.1, it gets a few new controls, including a real-time implementation of Microsoft’s PhotoSynth technology that allows you to create and stitch together panoramas. That feature will make more sense as smaller devices hit the market. Using a 10-inch tablet as a camera is awkward, but a 7-inch or 8-inch tablet works more naturally for photography.

Along the same lines, the Windows 8 Photos app is also slated for a huge update that adds basic (and some not so basic) photo editing features to the app.

New apps

The collection of new apps are mostly utilities:

  • Calculator is an obvious addition. It includes the standard and scientific views.
  • Alarms is another checklist item, with timer, stopwatch, and countdown functions.
  • Reading List is a fascinating addition and one I expect to use a lot. If you’ve ever used Instapaper or Pocket or another “read it later” app, you have a rough idea of this app’s basic purpose. Unlike Instapaper, however, you aren’t restricted to web pages. You can save a link to piece of content from any app on the device, using the Windows 8 Share charm. Your personal Reading List can consist of links to web pages, email messages, snippets from the Finance and Travel apps, tweets, and so on.
  • Health and Fitness aggregates information about diet and exercise with tools to help you track calories and workout schedules.
  • Food and Drink covers recipes and cooking. Its key feature is a hands-free mode that lets you use a tablet in the kitchen without getting your greasy hands on the touchscreen. In this app you “turn pages” by making a swiping gesture in front of the webcam.

File Explorer changes

In Windows 8, Microsoft gave its desktop file-management utility a new name (it’s now File Explorer instead of Windows Explorer) and added an Office-style ribbon. Windows 8.1 makes a couple of significant additional changes.

The most obvious change is in the navigation bar on the left side of File Explorer. In place of the Computer node is a new link titled This PC. Under that link you’ll find shortcuts to the data folders in your user profile, as well as to local drives. SkyDrive gets its own top-level link as well.

Microsoft’s powerful but arcane Libraries feature is no longer spotlighted in the Windows 8.1 version of File Explorer. The Libraries node is gone from the navigation pane, and the default libraries aren’t created when you set up a new user profile, although you can create custom libraries if you want.

Input changes

If you use Windows 8 on a touchscreen device or a tablet PC, the Touch Keyboard will look essentially unchanged in Windows 8.1, but under the hood it has two significant improvements.

First, it’s backed by an autosuggest service that’s updated continually by an online service. In addition to suggesting words that match the one you’re typing, the new feature also tries to predict the next word you’ll type. And it’s surprisingly accurate, using a linguistic model to help narrow down the list of words you’re likely to type next. Microsoft claims the new feature is 90 percent accurate. We’ll want to put that to the test.

There’s also a new gesture for power users who want to use autosuggest but don’t want to take their fingers off the onscreen keyboard. A quick swipe of the spacebar moves through the autosuggest list so you can select and insert an item.

Internet Explorer 11

We could have spent an entire session on Internet Explorer 11, which will be included with Windows 8.1. The most notable new features are in the Metro version of IE and address some of the criticisms of IE 10 in Windows 8.

Tabs have moved to the bottom of the screen, just above the Internet Explorer address bar. And you’re no longer limited to 10 tabs. You can have an infinite number of open tabs, with the row of tabs scrolling horizontally. And your tabs roam across devices, so you can pick up on your tablet where you left off on your desktop, or vice versa.

In addition, you now have full access to your collection of Favorites, with the ability to add items to the Favorites list from the Metro-style browser.

Topic: Windows 8

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  • Libraries

    "Microsoft’s powerful but arcane Libraries feature is no longer spotlighted in the Windows 8.1 version of File Explorer. The Libraries node is gone from the navigation pane, and the default libraries aren’t created when you set up a new user profile, although you can create custom libraries if you want."

    Wait, what? Need more info!
    • I think I said it all

      The Libraries feature still exists. But they are not created as part of a new user profile and they are not highlighted in the Explorer navigation pane. What else do you need to know?
      Ed Bott
      • Thanks

        Thanks for replying. I'm puzzled by this change because it seems to me the libraries are integrated quite a bit in various applications. Right now there are default save / open locations for public and private files in 4 categories, which seems to work well.

        Removing them from File Explorer implies that they may become a deprecated feature, so I'm wondering what it will be replaced with. Skydrive?
        • The default save location isn't related to libraries

          It is implemented by an under-the-covers Windows feature known as "special folders". That the special folders (essentially things like "my documents", "local application data" and a whole lot more) map nicely to the Libraries is a by-design coincidence.

          I'm *very* sure that the special folders will continue to be there - that's an application compatibility issue
          • Good info

            Thanks for the info. There is still some confusion on my end, as save and open don't map completely. E.g. All third party Metro Video Players know to start Video browsing in the video library - how does that map to the default save?

            Do you have a link with more detail on the "special folders"?
          • Learn to use Bing / Google

          • I'm guessing Skydrive is the answer

            but I don't know. I like Libraries, but at my org, most users are using less than 5 gigs of space in their Libraries so I've started to point them all to Skydrive anyway for the additional backup benefits that gives us.

            I'm anxious to see how this looks---whatever it is, I hope it's as sensible and intuitive, if not more, than the Libraries were. It's good to know that Libraries are still available as a fallback if needed.
            Brian Vistaunet
      • I won't miss them

        Personally, I thought that the libraries were an odd and unneeded addition to Windows 7. I was under the impression that most users always use one location to store all their documents - either the documents folder, the desktop (shudder) or some other location of their choosing. But my point is that they don't spread it out under random top level locations - they pick one place and then it all is under that one folder. Same with pictures, etc. I never, ever saw the point of linking all your folders together. My libraries never had more than just their default folders in them.
        • You don't have enough stuff

          Being able to use a single point of reference for multiple storage locations is very valuable when you're dealing with far more material than any one drive will handle. It also comes in handy when you have a small SSD and a large hard drive, and you need to make sure the SSD doesn't get filled up with data types that don't benefit much from the speed (especially video that isn't being edited) but still use a single point of reference in Explorer for pulling up items.

          I need to see this for myself because the nomenclature Ed is using doesn't make me feel we're talking about the same thing.

          What I really want is for Microsoft to extend Storage Space to provide a function comparable to Apple's Fusion feature for integrating SSDs into a system with little or no user management needed or space used solely as a cache.
          • File History and Libraries

            File History backs up your libraries automatically. Is there any change there? Because I love this new feature and I'd hate to see it go.
        • Multiple hard drives

          Though I generally agree, the one difference is multiple hard drives. I have an SSD and a normal HD and on the normal hard drive where I store most things (but not everything), I have those folders added to libraries for quick access.

          But yea, since this still exists, it's no big deal. Just saying there was reason to use it for other stuff.
        • Pictures and Videos I found useful

          Mostly from the idea that I would often have some on an external drive. However Skydrive has largely replaced my local file system for picture storage. Which is very convenient. I don't think it's a big deal they're going away.
      • Existing Setup

        Are they going to allow you to add them back to Explorer if you so desire? And will the defaults be dismantled, or merely hidden. I've spent time configuring them and will hold offf updating if it destroys my setup.
        David Dudovitz
    • It is possible to restore the libraries...

      It is possible to get the libraries back! In file explorer, on the left menu, right click and press Show Libraries. This sets it back to how it was before in windows 8.0! I was getting really angry before I saw this :)
      Dan Farmer
  • Good stuff....

    All the developments seem good. Constructive criticism is good and has led to a lot of these changes. However, the negative comments on Windows 8 by many of the bloggers and commenters have been downright foolish. Windows 8.1 is a great improvement over 8 and 8.2 will be even better after that. Certainly Windows 8 is not perfect and much of the criticism is deserved, but it does appear Microsoft is listening. Not everyone will get everything that they want. Microsoft is not bringing back the Start Menu, so can we please just drop that from the conversation? Many of us have moved on from using the Start Menu even before Windows 8. If you really need a Start Menu, there are plenty of 3rd party developers who would love your business. I think it is great there are these options so users can customize their PCs to their liking. If you still do not want anything to do with Windows 8, please move on from these message boards. Windows 7 is not going away anytime soon, and you can always try Linux. I would like to see more constructive criticism on these message boards with real ideas on how to make Windows 8.1+ better, instead of “Metro” is ugly and Microsoft is stupid and is going out of business (that is not happening). Anyway, another good job Ed. Thanks.
    • Why?

      "Microsoft is not bringing back the Start Menu, so can we please just drop that from the conversation?"

      If people want it I have no objection to people voicing their opinions that Microsoft should bring it back.
      • You can have one, if you want one.....

        ...it is just not coming from Microsoft. Isn't it better to have a choice of number different Start Menus then be "stuck" with the one Microsoft could develop? All I am saying is install a 3rd party Start Menu and move on. I am surprised more of the OEMs have not worked more with these 3rd party developers to either install their Start Menu programs by default, or at least have a link on the desktop to their sites to make it easier to find and install these tools. I am not against a Start Menu, I just don't really use it, even in Windows 7. So I am fine with a lack of one in Windows 8.
        • The discussion is not what you're fine with.

          The discussion is what the market is asking for. The market appears to want a Start Menu. Whether you agree with it or not.
          • And....

            ....a Start Menu is available if they want one! ....albeit from a 3rd party. Otherwise, I think the combo the "Start Tip"/Button and the "All Apps" view will be a great alternative. People will adapt, if they just try!
          • Shouldn't have to rely on 3rd party junk apps

            Like Stardock, the old gee-whiz eye-candy manufacturer old timey geeks