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Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview

It's not just a service pack. Windows 8.1 is filled with dozens of significant improvements, large and small, that improve its usability. The built-in apps also get some major upgrades and additions. Is this enough to silence the skeptics?

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Topic: Windows
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The new Start screen

It doesn’t look all that different at first glance, but on closer inspection the Windows 8.1 Start screen reveals multiple changes. The most obvious changes, shown here, are two new tile sizes, making a total of four options for displaying programs and other objects.

Read more from Microsoft's Build conference:

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 public preview: What you need to know

Microsoft delivers new Visual Studio 2013 and .Net 4.5.1 previews

Microsoft: 'Metro-Style' Office not due until 2014

 

 

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Apps at a glance

The Apps screen is a swipe away (or available with the click of an arrow on devices that don’t have a touchscreen). You can arrange apps in any of the four orders shown here, making it easier to find apps without searching.

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Moving tiles into groups

In Windows 8, the process of customizing the Start screen is cumbersome, requiring multiple actions to perform even simple tasks. Windows 8.1 streamlines that process considerably. In this example, I’m moving 6 tiles to a new group with one motion.

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More Start screen customizing options

In Windows 8, changing a tile’s properties is needlessly complicated. The Windows 8.1 update lets you select a group of tiles and resize, move, pin/unpin, or uninstall them with one click. Note that you can also name groups without switching to a separate mode.

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Control Panel, reimagined

One big problem with the modern/Metro Windows 8 Control Panel is that it’s woefully incomplete, forcing you to revisit the desktop to accomplish many simple customization tasks. In Windows 8.1 PC Settings is much richer, with hundreds of new options organized into nine categories and 42 subcategories.

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New look for old functions

The venerable Display dialog box in the Desktop Control Panel has changed little since the 1990s. With this update it finally gets a modern look and feel.

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SkyDrive is built in

During setup for a new user account, you’re given the option to connect to SkyDrive. If you say yes, these options are available in the new PC Settings. No external utility is required; sync is built in and works with Windows RT too.

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The return of the Start button

It’s back. In fact, there’s no way to hide the new Start button. A simple click takes you to the Start screen. One noteworthy change on the right-click power user’s menu is a new set of Shutdown options.

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Changes in File Explorer

If you’re worried that Libraries are gone, you can relax. A right-click reveals this shortcut menu, which lets you restore Libraries (and change This PC back to Computer).

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Desktop options

If you want to configure a Windows 8.1 PC to work as much like Windows 7 as possible, start here. You can bypass the Start screen at startup, show the Apps view automatically when you go to Start, and list desktop apps first so you’re not distracted by unwanted Windows 8 apps.

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Search everywhere

Taps Windows key + S to open this pane on the side and begin searching. Unlike with Windows 8, you don’t have to specify a target. Your search term turns up apps, settings, and web destinations.

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Snap improvements

The new behavior of snapped apps will be especially welcome for anyone with a large display. You can arrange two apps side by side on even small screens, and on large displays you can have up to four modern apps of varying widths.

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A new look for the Windows 8.1 Store

The revamped Store in Windows 8 is almost unrecognizable. Instead of a horizontal scrolling list of categories, you get spotlighted apps and picks, with selections powered by a smarter back end.

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Apps in the spotlight

When you choose an app in the Store, the presentation is decidedly cleaner and flatter than the tabbed, busy Windows 8 version. Swipe to the right for more details.

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Ratings and reviews for apps

It finally dawned on Microsoft that ratings drive app-buying decisions. As a result, the ratings for each app are more prominent in the Windows 8.1 Store, with a summary table that lets you see at a glance how the 1-to-5 star ratings are distributed.

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A “hit driven” approach

Everyone loves top 10 lists. In the Windows 8.1 Store redesign, the top paid and free apps get the spotlight.

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Saving items to read later

In one of those “why wasn’t this there to begin with?” moments, Windows 8.1 gets a new app called Reading List. From a web page or an app that is set up to use the Share charm, you can save a link to the Reading List so you can return to it later without retracing your steps.

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The Reading List in action

I’ve used the Share charm to save a half-dozen items to the Reading List, not just from a web browser but from the Sports and Travel apps and even from the Windows Store.

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Smart snapping

The new snap behavior is especially welcome when you open an attached photo or web link from a mail message. Instead of replacing the current app with another, Windows 8.1 arranges the new app alongside the message.

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Photo-editing tools

The Photos app in Windows 8 is a disappointment. In Windows 8.1, it’s significantly more robust, with tools for cropping, retouching, and editing photos. Note the wheel control here, which is used in several of the new apps.

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Alarms, etc.

The new Alarms app makes a serviceable alarm clock. It also provides stopwatch and countdown functions. The wheel based time controls are an improvement over clunky lists.

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Food and drink, weights and measures

The new Bing Food and Drink app is the kitchen counterpart to previously available apps like Travel. In this screenshot I’ve snapped the new Calculator app to its side and used its converter functions to solve some common problems.

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A sorely needed revamp to Xbox Music

If you uninstalled the original Xbox Music app from Windows 8 out of sheer frustration, you’re not alone. This completely redone app is worth a second look. It’s fast, easy to use, and it focuses on your collection instead of steering you to a store.

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Health and Fitness

The final addition to the Bing toolkit is this app, which has diet, exercise, and health tips available.

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Turn your PC into a mobile hotspot

Internet Connection sharing is back in Windows 8.1. You can set up a PC or tablet so that other devices can share its broadband connection instead of chewing through precious mobile data.

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Biometric authentication

Fingerprint logins have been a part of Windows for years. With Windows 8.1, the capability is built in and gets a spiffy modern UI.

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