If you've spent any hands-on time with the Windows 8.1 Preview, you already have a good idea what to expect in this update, which is free to anyone running Windows 8. (If you missed it, you can catch up here: Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview.)
There were some important changes between the public Preview release and RTM. See What's changed in the Windows 8.1 RTM release? for details.) The public release adds only a few minor changes to the code that MSDN and TechNet subscribers and Volume License customers have had for months. But today's release kicks off a wave of updates on the back end, meaning you'll see changes in services and a wave of new apps designed for Windows 8.1.
Windows 8 introduced the bare bones of automatic syncing, with many system settings and preferences syncing between devices when you sign in with a Microsoft account.
Windows 8.1 adds significant improvements to that infrastructure, including the option to sync apps and Start screen layouts across devices. When you sign in using a Microsoft account for the first time on a new device, this screen lets you choose another PC as the template for your new installation.
One of the biggest objections to Windows 8 was the way it unceremoniously dumped new users into an unfamiliar interface without a compass or a roadmap. Windows 8.1 tries to make up for that shortcoming with some hints like the one shown here, which points out how to access the charms menu. There's also a useful set of tutorials that are available on the Start screen.
A common complaint about those "chromeless" Windows apps is that they couldn't easily be arranged on the screen. That's a special source of frustration for anyone with a large desktop display. Windows 8.1 completely overhauls the way immersive (aka Metro) apps can be arranged. More importantly, it gives app developers a way to automatically open a new window alongside an existing one. So if you click a link in an email message (as shown on the left here) the window shrinks to occupy half the screen and a browser window opens alongside.
The new snap behavior also makes it possible to open separate instances of Internet Explorer or mail, so you can have two web pages or mail messages open side by side using the touch-friendly immersive Internet Explorer or Mail app.
The bright tiles introduced in Windows 8 are still there, but the Windows 8.1 Start screen packs a lot of changes, many of them shown here:
And as you'll see on the next page, there's an alternative to the Start screen.
(PS: If you use desktop apps exclusively and hate the new-style Start screen, a few small tweaks can change your experience for the better. See The Metro hater's guide to Windows 8.1 for details.)
This Apps view is all new in Windows 8.1. By default it shows your Windows Store apps and pinned Start screen items in a group on the left, with desktop programs arranged in groups equivalent to Start menu folders on the right. A few changes are noteworthy:
And if you prefer this view to the regular Start screen, you can configure Windows 8.1 so that clicking Start on the desktop or tapping the Windows key takes you here directly.
When you sign in with a Microsoft account, SkyDrive is set as the default storage location. (You can change this default easily if you're cloud-phobic.) Any file you open from SKyDrive is automatically synchronized with your local files so you can open it again even if you're offline. In addition, from File Explorer or from the SkyDrive app you can designate individual files and folders, or your entire SkyDrive collection, to be available offline.
The search box in the upper right corner is new, as are many of the more fine-grained management tools in the app bar below the window.
Synchronizing with SkyDrive doesn't require installing a separate desktop utility as it did in Windows 8. Control freaks might be dismayed to learn that the built-in Windows 8.1 SkyDrive utility offers no easy status indicators and no way to move the default local storage folder.
The SkyDrive app isn't just for cloud-based files. The navigation control at the top of the window also includes the option to browse and manage local files as well as those stored on a network. In essence, the SkyDrive app is a stealthy, touch-friendly replacement for File Explorer on tablets.
One of the most common complaints about Windows 8, especially on tablets, is the way it forced you to switch to the desktop for many common configuration tasks. In Windows 8.1, the touch-friendly PC Settings selection is greatly expanded. For most of the tasks you're likely to tackly, you can take your choice of the desktop Control Panel or the new-style alternative. This example shows these alternate views of Display settings.
You'd be amazed how quickly you can run into the five-device limit that applies to Windows Store apps. In Windows 8, the only fix was to remove one of your five authorized PCs from the list. Windows 8.1 eliminates this frustration by upping the limit for app installations to 81 devices.
(Prediction: at least three people will hit this limit and tell the world about it in the Talkback section of this gallery.)
The Reading List app, new in Windows 8.1, might be the most useful of the new features introduced with this update. From any Windows Store app (including the built-in Windows 8.1 apps) you can click or tap the Share charm to slide open the pane shown here. Tap Reading List to save the headline and a snippet from the item, for easy reference later from the Reading List app. Your saved items are synced across devices as well, so you can save a flurry of web pages, news items, and even links to apps in the Windows Store, then catch up with the entire collection on a different device.
Note that you can't share anything from the desktop or from desktop apps. One small change in the Windows 8.1 RTM code is relevant here, though. If you open a page in the desktop version of Internet Explorer, you can right-click its tab to reveal an Open In Immersive Browser menu choice (that option wasn't in the Windows 8.1 Preview). Click that option to open the page in the Metro-style Internet Explorer and save it to the Reading List.
The Mail app included with Windows 8 was embarrassingly incomplete. Its Windows 8.1 successor is a strong candidate for Most Improved App, with a slew of big changes. Among them:
There's a search box above the message list as well, making it easier to find exactly the message you're looking for.
Last year, shortly after Windows 8 was released, Google abruptly discontinued support for Exchange ActiveSync (except for paying Google Apps customers). As a result, the Windows 8.1 Mail app uses IMAP to sync messages but doesn't offer the same sync support for contacts and calendar items as it does for Outlook.com (Hotmail), Office 365, and other Exchange-compatible accounts.
One of the signature features in Windows 8.1 is a major expansion of the built-in search capabilities. Click the Search charm to open a search pane on the right. Enter a search term and some results appear immediately beneath your input. If you don't find what you're looking for, click the search button (or press Enter) to see a complete list of results, including installed apps, settings, and results from the web.
If you're firmly convinced that Google is better than Bing, you can disable the Bing results and just use the search tool for local files, apps, and settings. But I've found the results generally excellent, and pressing the new system shortcut for Search, Windows key+S, is now second nature for me.
Windows 8's support for multi-monitor configurations was severly limited, with no ability to mix immersive apps and desktop apps on a display. Windows 8.1 vastly improves this capability. You can now snap immersive apps (a Twitter feed, tracks in a music playlist, your email message list) alongside desktop apps on any monitor, with the ability to show the Start screen on either display.
One common rap on Windows 8 was that its features were aimed at consumers, with little to appeal to the traditional Microsoft base of enterprise customers. That changes in a big way with Windows 8.1, which introduces several new features designed for use with Windows-based corporate networks.
One of the most interesting new features is Workplace Join, which allows users to register personal devices on the corporate network using Active Directory, without having to join the domain. (In fact, Workplace Join can be used on the standard edition of Windows 8.1, which doesn't support domain join. It also works with iOS devices.) Think of Workplace Join as a form of two-factor authentication. Users can access sensitive corporate resources, but only from a device that's been registered with the network and is subject to some basic device management policies.