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.


I noticed the first new Windows 8.1 feature immediately, before the demo officially began. In Windows 8, the lock screen allows only a single basic personalization option: You can replace the default background image with one of your own (storing up to five personal images) and see that image along with the current date and time and any notifications when you view the lock screen.

In Windows 8.1 you’ll be able to replace the lock screen background with a collection of photos in the local Pictures folder or on SkyDrive. Those photos appear in a shifting slide show, with some full-screen images and some as part of a collage. The algorithm behind the slide show adds some smarts to the display. It knows the date, for example, so as the seasons change it’s likely to show you photos from the same time in previous years.

When you get past the lock screen, you get to the Start screen. At first glance, it looks a lot like its Windows 8 counterpart. Same bright colors, same live tiles.


The most obvious difference is a pair of new tile sizes. In this sample screen, the Weather app gets the new double-size tile, which provides enough room for a multi-day forecast to appear in the live tile. You can also see the new small tile size, which allows you to cluster four icons (sans labels) in the space previously occupied by a single small tile.

Move the mouse over that Start screen and a down arrow appears below the tile layout. Clicking that arrow leads to the All Apps screen. Instead of providing a single, sprawling alphabetical list of every installed app, the new All Apps screen can be sorted by name, by date of installation, by category, or by most used.

And if you detest the tile layout, an option allows you to choose All Apps as the default view of the Start screen.

Customizing the Start screen, a tedious chore in Windows 8, will be significantly easier in Windows 8.1. You can press and hold (or right-click) any tile to switch into customization mode. At that point, you can select multiple tiles and move, unpin, or uninstall them. You can also rename groups without the hassles of zooming out and selecting a hidden command.

One of the biggest annoyances in Windows 8 is that your Start screen customizations are machine specific. If you set up a second device using a Microsoft account, you have to reinstall apps and duplicate the layout of tiles and groups. In Windows 8.1, you can duplicate that layout automatically (if you want to start fresh, that option is available too).

In a bid to reduce clutter, tiles for newly installed apps aren't automatically added to the Start screen. Instead, they're saved on the All Apps screen and marked as new, so you can decide whether and where to pin them to Start.

The single most common complaint I hear about Windows 8 involves the jarring shift when you move from the desktop environment to the completely alien environment of the Start screen. A new option in Windows 8.1 addresses this concern by allowing you to use the desktop background on the Start screen. Here's what it looks like:


In the initial release of Windows 8, the new apps are adequate on tablets but often inappropriate on large desktop displays. To deal with that criticism, Windows 8.1 changes the behavior of Metro-style apps significantly. You can snap two or more apps (screen size permitting) alongside one another and adjust their width accordingly. Even on an 8.1-inch tablet, that makes for a usable side-by-side arrangement.  

You won't find the kludgey desktop snap layout in Windows 8.1 either. The minimum width of the desktop is 500 pixels, and multi-monitor support is improved so that you can arrange multiple Metro-style apps and the desktop in any arrangement. (In Windows 8, the desktop is locked to a single monitor.) Another big change: you can open multiple copies of a single Metro-style app.

SkyDrive and the Bing-powered Search are even more tightly integrated into Windows 8.1 than they were in Windows 8.

Installing the Windows 8.1 update will uninstall the existing SkyDrive sync utility for Windows and replace it with a new, built-in sync capability. By default, files stored on SkyDrive won't be copied directly to your device. (That prevents your 100 GB SkyDrive collection from wiping out all free space on a tablet or PC with a small storage capacity.) You can mark any file or folder to be available offline, in which case it will be synced automatically.


 My colleague Mary Jo Foley has a separate look at some of the new ways that Bing is integrated into Windows 8.1's search box, and I'll offer a more detailed analysis of the Windows 8.1 apps in a separate post.

We spent literally two minutes on the redesigned PC settings screen. But that was enough to confirm that the scope of changes here is huge. According to Harris, this feature was "about 10 percent complete in Windows 8, but it's functionally complete now." I was told (but can't yet confirm) that this is the first time in the history of Windows that all Control Panel options and settings have been systematically refreshed to reflect a new design. Apparently a very large spreadsheet was involved in this undertaking.

Overall, this is a surprisingly big update. Whether it's enough to shift the momentum of Windows 8 is the big question, and one we won't be able to answer until this fall, when a host of new devices in a variety of sizes and shapes should be available for sale.

Topics: Windows 8, The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

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        • 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.