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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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