Windows 8.1 unveiled: will it change your mind about Windows 8?

Summary:The Start button is back. But that's just one of a very long list of changes you'll find in Windows 8.1, which will be available as a preview in a few weeks and will be released before the end of the year. Don't let the name or the price tag (free) fool you: this is a major update. Here's what's inside.

It’s not just about the Start button.

Yes, that’s the most obvious element in Windows 8.1, the much-anticipated update to Windows 8. You’ll find the new Start button, which looks exactly like the Windows 8 Start charm, on the Windows 8.1 desktop, nestled in its old familiar home at the left side of the taskbar. You’ll also find it at the bottom of the app switcher, in place of the Start screen thumbnail that occupies that spot in Windows 8.

01-snap-with-start-button-small

But there’s much more to Windows 8.1 than just that tiny button.

Yesterday, I sat down in San Francisco for a two-hour whirlwind tour of Windows 8.1 with Microsoft’s Jensen Harris and Antoine Leblond. It wasn’t a hands-on session, and I didn’t leave the room with a copy of the latest build. Like you, I’ll have to wait until the end of June to dig into this update. (A public preview for Windows 8 and Windows RT is scheduled for release at the beginning of the BUILD developer’s conference. The final version of Windows 8.1 is due before the end of the year and will be delivered free to all Windows 8 and Windows RT users through the Windows Store.)

See also:

A closer look at what's new in Windows 8.1

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.

Still, two hours was long enough to see the sweeping changes that are going into Windows 8.1. Don’t let the “point-one” moniker or the price tag fool you. This is a significant update that clearly represents much more than just a reaction to seven months’ worth of occasionally brutal customer feedback about Windows 8.

Besides the Start button (sorry, no Start menu), Windows 8.1 will also include the following changes:

  • The lock screen, which currently allows you to customize it with a single full-screen image,  becomes “the world’s best cloud-powered photo frame.”
  • The Start screen is significantly more customizable, with two new tile sizes (that makes four sizes in all), new ways to use the All Apps screen, and the ability for the Start layout and installed apps to roam between Windows 8 devices connected to the same Microsoft account.
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  • The Metro-style PC Settings section is dramatically expanded and includes virtually every Windows setting that was previously part of the desktop Control Panel.
  • The Windows Store is completely redesigned.
  • Clicking the Search charm no longer displays a long list of search scopes for you to go through one at a time. Instead, you get a single search box, and the unified results list includes apps, files, settings, and content from the Web and from installed apps like Wikipedia.
  • The touch keyboard has an improved autosuggest capability and supports new gestures, making it easier to insert numbers and symbols without having to change the keyboard layout.
  • Updates for Windows Store apps will be applied automatically as part of Windows 8.1’s background maintenance process. That’s a significant shift from Windows 8, which requires manual updates to the new apps.
  • A wide range of new snap behaviors are available for Metro-style apps. Depending on your screen resolution, you can arrange up to four Windows 8 apps side by side, in various widths, without being restricted to the current 320-pixel snap width. The new snap behaviors are also appropriate for a class of smaller tablets that will begin appearing this summer.
  • A default installation of Windows 8.1 will include a handful of new apps and significant revisions to the existing app collection, including dramatic changes to the roundly criticized Xbox Music app and a well-rounded set of editing tools for the Photos app. (The commuications suite - Mail, Calendar, Messaging, and People - won't be updated for the preview but is scheduled to get a refresh in the final release.)
  • Synchronization capabilities between SkyDrive and Windows 8.1 are built directly into the operating system, where you can choose which cloud-based files or folders to sync with a local device. That’s a major change from Windows 8, which requires you to install and configure a separate utility to handle those tasks. (This also means Windows RT users will finally be able to sync files between SkyDrive and a local device.)
  • Yes, you can bypass the Start screen and boot straight to the desktop. You can also synchronize the backgrounds of the Start screen and desktop, making the transition between the two environments less jarring and more natural. And one of the most important elements of the desktop environment, File Explorer, is getting a significant change.

Now, what was that about the Start button again?

That’s a long list. Let’s dive in.

Topics: Windows 8, Innovation

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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