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

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.


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.
  • 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, The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
        • Your comment ...

          indicates to me that you misunderstood the original hullabaloo ... while everybody either cries or cheers over the return of the "start button", almost everyone is missing the point ... those of use who have been yammering on since early on about the start button ALWAYS expected the start _menu_ as part of the concept.

          How on earth could the button possibly matter if it doesn't do what it has always done before, namely bring up the start MENU? The article indicates that this new / returned start BUTTON doesn't bring up a start MENU, so what use is it? Seriously, what use is it? Can someone please explain?
          Gravyboat McGee
          • The "All Apps" view....

            I think the All Apps view is a better Start Menu. It has everything you need there. 8.1 will let you configure the "Start Button" to bring up the All Apps view instead of the Start Screen. With the new filtering options in the All Apps view, I think this should work great. If you still do not like it, the 3rd party developers are still in business.
            • You are so clueless. Training costs for corporation may be the last straw.

              I assume that you have never worked a day in your life for a major corporation. Most people who work for corporations are great at their job but they are not computer people. They want to get their job done with as little fuss as possible and they do not want to have to learn how to use windows every couple of years. Stop trying to destroy microsoft with your unconditional love for them. They need to hear about what they are doing wrong.

              Third party products are NOT a solution that corporates are going to accept. If Microsoft does not change course, I expect corporate customers to revolt and I also expect a stockholder revolt demanding Ballmer out of the company.
              • Um....

                I have/do work for major corporations.... yes, many users are clueless. I know many users that still need training still for XP and Windows 7. They really need to learn how to use the Taskbar, and to Pin files within Applications and to the Taskbar Icons. I just do not see the boot to desktop option, combined with the All Apps view when clicking on the Start Button will be that drastic a change from what is available now.... SO your training cost argument is a joke. With the base Windows 8, that is more of an issue, but with the changes coming to Windows 8.1, I don't see it being a major issue. Besides, most major corporations will be on Windows 7 for many years to come, so that is not even relevant at this time. Windows 8 will never overtake Windows 7 in market share. Where most people will gain exposure to Windows 8 is on their personal machines. I am sure many companies will integrate Windows 8 into their environment, but that will be for a small subset of their employees. Anyway… oIo….
                • Only know how to push the power button

                  i work for the government and we just migrated to windows vista in 2010. who knows how long it will be before we go to win 8. and every time our system crashes, and tech support can't talk us through a fix(i'm in atlanta and tech support is in florida) we end up working with hard copies. that's right we have to use paper files until the gov sends an it guy up from florida to fix it. my mom's pushing 60, she doesn't want to relearn a new computer system every two years. especially since she just needs the office software, like excel for her job. i'm 40 and having a hard time adapting, and i live on my computer. but just the other day, i had to get my 15 year old to teach me how to turn off my new win8 laptop.when i did a search for how to turn it off it says win8 is designed to go into sleep mode when you close the lid.i don't like leaving it on all the time even in sleep mode. i want a proper shutdown button. if laptops aren't going to have a touchscreen, then they don't need win 8. last week i paid $300 for a new laptop (and that was hard for me to afford)and it does not have a touchscreen so i don't understand why i need a metro screen? i can't find anything. i'm still looking for the control panel. a paper instruction booklet should have been included so people who only know how to push start, can figure out how to even set the thing up and get online. i'm tired of having to get on my old xp desktop to look for answers on how win 8 works. and why does it keep jumping from start screen to desktop by itself? and why is microsoft copying apple's command key and touchpad? i have carpal tunnel syndrome, i have a hard time using a mouse let alone all that swiping on a touchpad.
                  bottomline, i don't care how computers work, i just want to get online, play videos,games,music, chat and skype with friends family, and do reports for school and work. anything else is irrelevant. imo win8 just complicates things. i don't want a computer that acts like a tablet. i have a tablet already. i want a proper pc ala windows xp.
                  Rydangel Blessed
                • Power Off (Power Button)

                  If you are unwilling to learn how to shutdown - all the rest is mute. If you purchase a car that has no key, but uses a button - will you still look for your key and refuse to accept a push button start. Change allows us to grow, we cannot stop progress even though it feels unsettling. Windows 8 is just another change and those who avoid it will not be better off than those who learn/embrace it. Nothing to do with Microsoft, but purely a personal decision on the users part. Not a negative on Microsoft, just not comfort zone for those who don't like change/progress. Continue to what you always do if that is your thing... Peace
                • Pray, Ed The Fanboy, pray...

                  ...but you can't change the world of evolution. Microsoft is a Neanderthal and there is no room for Neanderthal.
                • Um....

                  toph36, you hit the nail on the head! Currently I'm still using XP. Have used 7 on my sister's laptop. For me it's a matter of saving up for a new or newer PC. I also have Linux on my old XP system. My current XP system will be eventually converted to Linux.
                  Nicole Niehaus
              • CLUELESS

                aristotle your clueless dude! Companies go under everyday because they are stuck in their ways and refuse to change with the times. You can not stagnate and stay where you are or you will die. Life is about constant change. Microsoft products will always be evolving and changing because the world is always changing. So you better learn to keep up or it will be you that will wither away and disappear not Microsoft! I have heard this sad argument at almost every new release of Windows because the old farts don't want to change. And every time windows gets better, our computers get better, and the world is a better place for it. So get over it and shut up because frankly im getting tired of listening to the same old tired BS.
                Rocky Alvarez
            • "Start Button" vs "All Apps view"

              Okay, so you think the "All Apps view" appeases you as it has everything you need.

              I differ and resent having Microsoft the attitude of General Bullmoose of the Lil Abner comic strip with "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the U.S.A." line of non-thinking. This change is absolutely nothing more than determination by some dumbass developer within the bowels of Microsoft telling a person that YOU NEED THE ALL APPS VIEW, YOU JUST DIDN'T KNOW IT SO I DECIDED FOR YOU.

              Well, the Start Button goes with the Start Menu just like wheels go with a car.

              So "Toph36", give us a few lines as to why Microsoft can't provide for both rather than arrogantly cramming the All Apps view down our throats by eliminating the Start Menu from the "new, improved" Start Button? Provide for both and the criticism would disappear. For me, the Win 8 upgrade is still in the shrink wrap and will stay that way.
            • Al Apps Stinks

              The "All Apps View" is an ugly, disorganized, NIGHTMARE!

              You can't beat a good, well-organized drop-down menu system, especially if you have a lot of software.

              I use "Free Launch Bar" on Windows 8 just like I have since XP
              • Sounds like more unneeded bloatware.......

                Sorry but I'm not buying it. MS really needs to shut up and listen to their general consumer base, as do the MS loyalists who accept everything they deliver as if it were a godsend.

                Yes I admit change is needed in order to evolve, but change can sometimes be detrimental as well, especially when its an over abundance of change all at once rather than smaller incremental ones, and if you'd take time to realize the sheer number of people who are not happy with 8 and its metro style, and this "new and improved" all apps start button, maybe you'd all realize that your in the minority here.

                Just because its good for you does not necessarily mean that everyone should just fall in line and accept it as you have.

                I personally just got a win8 laptop just a few months ago and I can't stand the metro panels. I'll be trying to play games, watch shows or whatever and hit a wrong key and have to fight to get the stupid Metro panel to turn off and switch back to desktop mode, especially since its not something you can just right click and close like normal programs or annoying popup ads.

                Luckily I was able to find a pretty decent start menu replacement (called Classic Shell 3.9 beta) But in the grand scheme of things it shouldn't have been necessary, and MS and its loyalists need to wake up and realize it. If MS continues to fail to realize and listen to their customers they'll continue to see their PC sales failing as they have since the rollout of Win8.
  • ....

    Pretty much you are the only one. Numbers show not mamy loke windows 8 at all and microsoft is bloeimg the chamce to fix it. The start memu has to ne with the start button thats a hiven and they neef to allow install with no metro at all.
  • Metro = Program Manager

    Metro still reminds me of Program Manager from Windows 4.yuk, except that when you launch apps, you have pre-3.x "window" functionality (fixed sizes, lame 16-color pre-VGA graphics look).

    That prolly works well on tiny screens you can barely see in strong daylight, poked at with big stubby fingers, but for folks with a "real" screen and mouse, it's like trying to do CAD with crayons.

    Still, this does sound like a big improvement, I just hope it doesn't break retro-fits of the Start Menu (which IMO is more important than a visible "Start" button), both those based on 3rd-party software, and native functionality.

    Ed: Is it now possible to retain a choice of Start Screen tiles, across the SysPrep and imaging process? Or does everything get nuked back to MS's self-serving "Windows Store Uber Alles" duhfaults?
    • SysPrep

      Tile layouts are a user defined choice so are likely to be nuked by SysPrep. However, it'll be interesting to see if the Default User's tile layouts can be modified and used as the default layout for new users.

      Program Manager was more of a static icon grid á la iOS.
    • Sysprep and startscreen

      I am in process of building a Win 8 image. As far as I have seen there is no way to pre-deploy a user some extra apps apart from adding them to Window's Wim file. Furthermore you have to remove the default apps from the image otherwise they re-appear post sysprep - even if you have uninstalled them, this is a pain. You can remove the App Store access through group policy though so that does not need to be removed.

      You can add shortcuts to the start menu through group policy though. Some useful links here.

      Lastly if you are making a default profile leave in place the below or you lose ui elements, despite supposedly being able to just delete anything in appdata\roaming as it is dynamically generated.
  • Yes

    Yup, you are the only person on the planet to like windows 8. Actually, probably not the only one... but you are definitely in the minority.
    John Lauro
    • Windows 8

      I like windows 8 too! I thought I would not but I found it easy to work with.
  • get rids of it?

    Watched Hobbit last night?
  • Re: Get a Grip

    "The old fashioned start menu has no place in today's world."
    That comment shows that you are out of touch with reality. Think about the masses of computer users that do not have the same understanding of the computer workings that you might have.
    "If you really can't figure out how to use a computer without it. Just keep Windows 7 on your computer forever."
    That suggests that Windows 7 has something about it, like the start menu, that makes it easier for the computer novice. Do you mean to imply that every new computer user is immediately an expert and that there is no need for some simplicity integrated into the new OS to help these people get started? To me, your opinion is an arrogant and closed-minded approach.