Back to the ‘Start’ – Microsoft gives a sneak preview of Windows 8.1

30 May 2013

Microsoft has confirmed that the ‘Start’ button will be restored to the desktop with the arrival of Windows 8.1 in the near future. In a sneak preview, the software giant showed an enhanced lock screen, new ways of managing apps and devices, and an improved search charm.

Microsoft’s vice-president for Web Services Antoine Leblond explained that when Windows 8 first debuted it was directed at a touch-oriented world, but after listening closer to users in the intervening months it has refined and improved a number of things to better reflect what users want.

“Windows 8.1 will advance the bold vision set forward with Windows 8 to deliver the next generation of PCs, tablets, and a range of industry devices, and the experiences customers — both consumers and businesses alike — need and will just expect moving forward,” explained Leblond in the official Windows blog.

“It’s Windows 8 even better. Not only will Windows 8.1 respond to customer feedback, but it will add new features and functionality that advance the touch experience and mobile computing’s potential. Windows 8.1 will deliver improvements and enhancements in key areas like personalisation, search, the built-in apps, Windows Store experience, and cloud connectivity. “

Leblond said Windows 8.1 will also include big bets for business in areas such as management and security.

What’s new with Windows 8.1?search, windows 8.1

One of the first areas of improvement will be the operating systems’ lock screen, which will allow users to include personal pictures as well as use their desktop background and their start screen background.

The software giant has clearly learned key lessons from Windows Phone 8 and is applying them in Windows 8.1, hitherto code-named ‘Windows Blue’. For example, users can manipulate tiles into tiles of various sizes, including a new large and a new small tile.

Users will be able to view all apps by just swiping from the bottom of the screen upwards. When new apps are downloaded they will be sent to this app screen and marked as new rather than directly to the Start screen, leaving it up to the user whether they want to pin the apps to the Start screen.

Search has also been boosted on the updated operating system with the inclusion of Bing results alongside search results from the device including apps, files and Sky Drive.

Improved apps

multitasking app windows 8.1

Microsoft has also revealed that specific apps that come with the OS, such as Photos, will have new features.

The Photos app will come with new editing features, even when you open them in other apps like Mail, SkyDrive and Camera.

The Music app has also been redesigned to make it easier for users to pick and choose songs from their collections.

“We’re also making improvements for using multiple apps at once in Windows 8.1,” Leblond confirmed.

Windows 8.1 will also bring variable, continuous size of snap views and users will have more ways to see multiple apps on the screen at the same time.

“You can resize apps to any size you want, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected, you can have different Windows Store apps running on all the displays at the same time and the Start Screen can stay open on one monitor. This makes multi-tasking even easier. Also in Windows 8.1, you can have multiple windows of the same app snapped together – such as two Internet Explorer windows,” Leblond said.

The Windows Store in 8.1 will also be improved to show more info about the apps, as well as detailed lists on free apps, new releases, and more.

Categories will be listed with other app commands, such as links to your apps and account information.

App updates will install automatically in the background and the store will have a search function on the right-hand corner for searching for apps.

SkyDrive and cloud

sky drive windows 8.1

Leblond said the new SkyDrive app will give users access to files that are on the device or in the cloud and files will be accessible offline.

And if you log on via a Windows 8.1 device with your Microsoft account (Outlook) the device that you are using then becomes personalised with your settings and apps.

As well as an updated PC Setting function that lets you adjust your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop, the new Windows 8.1 will include enhancements to Internet Explorer that will include better touch performance, faster page load times and more.

Also included in the updated OS will be better mouse and keyboard options, including a better way to navigate to Start with the mouse.

In fact, the Start tip that users are familiar with when they move the mouse to the bottom left of the screen will be the logo for Start on the desktop and there will also be options to change what occurs when you tip the mouse to various corners on the screen.

Windows 8.1 public preview

Leblond said that from 26 June, the start of the Build conference in San Francisco, California, a preview of Windows 8.1 will be released.

“At Build, we’ll also be sharing more about Windows Embedded, which will be updated in the same timeframe as Windows 8.1. We’re aligning the platforms even more to bring Windows to form factors of all types, including not only tablets and PCs, but also the growing category of devices such as ATMs, point of service (POS) terminals, and kiosks.

“Windows 8 has been a bold, necessary move towards mobility for the PC industry – pushing ourselves and our industry ahead with a touch-first approach that is redefining the PC as we know it, while offering the best of all worlds across any device at any time.

“Our commitment to that vision – and to always improving – remains the same as we stay the course of the evolution of Windows with Windows 8.1. We’ve been watching, we’ve been listening. Windows 8.1 will continue to build on what you love, bringing the latest advancements in hardware, apps, cloud services and the OS to enable a unique experience in everything you do,” Leblond said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years