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A closer look at the upcoming Windows 8.1

Sure, Windows 8 has sold 100 million copies in its 7 months of existence, and for most products, that would be quite a triumph. But for Windows, which is software used by over a billion machines, it's viewed as something of a disappointment. Whether Microsoft's big bet of a desktop-plus-tablet operating system will prove as big a disappointment as Vista, or going back even further, Windows ME — only time will tell.

Microsoft resurrected itself from those flubs with Windows XP and Windows 7, and the company, hardly unaware of the widespread criticisms being levelled at its new baby, is acting even faster to right the ship than in the past, with Windows 8.1 — formerly known by the codename Windows Blue.

I remain a steadfast fan of the new OS — I definitely prefer it to Windows 7, which I run on the same PC in a dual-boot setup. It's much faster, better looking, and adds some great new tools and capabilities. But even I concede that there's definitely room for improvement in a few areas.

As I see it, one of the main problems with Windows 8 is that there are hidden interface features. Things you need are not shown on the screen — such as the "charms," those buttons on the right panel that only appear after a touch or mouse gesture (which hopefully you might have picked up on via the quick start tips shown during installation).

Another problem in Windows 8 is duplication of features: You have the new-style, full-screen version of things (formerly called "Metro") and the "classic" Windows 7 desktop-style set of apps and tools. For example, there are two Internet Explorers, two Settings interfaces, and two SkyDrive applications for cloud storage. This duality stems from Windows 8's goal to be both a mobile and desktop operating system — a daunting mission to be sure.

Microsoft has already partially lifted the veil on Windows 8.1 in blog posts and conference keynotes, and the company seems to be listening and addressing at least some of these criticisms. In this article, we've summarised what we know so far about the upcoming version 8.1. But keep in mind that Microsoft is saving some surprises for its Build Conference later this month, having stated that the updated OS isn't just about addressing user feedback, but actually adding brand new features.

Some commentators have likened Windows 8.1 to a service pack, especially since it's a free update. But Windows 8.1 is a more drastic rethinking of the interface than any service pack I've seen. They usually just add support for new hardware along with performance and stability updates. However, I take the bump in version number to be a clear sign from Microsoft that this update is more than a mere service pack.

Before we dig into the new features, here's what we know so far about Windows 8.1's availability: It will be a free update, and will run on any hardware that the current version does, and all existing Windows Store apps will remain compatible. A preview version will be made available on 26 June, to coincide with the Build Conference. Without further ado, here's what we know about new Windows 8.1 features at this point:

The Start button is back (sort of)

Long-time Windows power users bemoaned the excision of this old friend that dates way back to Windows 95. Amusingly, when the feature launched, power users (maybe even the same ones?) belittled it as dumbing down the operating system. And don't get too excited about its re-emergence in Windows 8.1: It's not turning back the clock entirely. In fact, Microsoft's announcements don't even call it a Start button, but rather a "Start tip."

This new Start button will open the new-style Windows 8 Start screen — you know, all those tiles. It's the same function you'd get by moving the cursor to the lower left corner of the screen in Windows 8. This isn't really such a bad thing; just think of it as a full-screen start menu. You can still just start typing a program name to run it, and you can place your most frequently needed apps' tiles on the front page of the Start screen. If you really want something more reminiscent of the old Start button, check out some third-party Start button utilities.

More boot choices

Another reversion to past Windows operation that long-time desktop Windows users have clamoured for is the ability to boot to the desktop. Although Microsoft's first blog post on Windows 8.1 didn't spell out that you'd be able to do this with Windows 8.1, it didn't rule it out. What we were told is that there would be "options to boot into alternate screens." But a subsequent business-targeted announcement at TechEd came clean with the unambiguous: "This update also includes features like boot to desktop…"

It's not 100 per cent clear whether that capability will extend to all or just the business versions of Windows 8, but my hunch is that boot to desktop will be a choice for all Windows 8 users.

New tile sizes

Windows 8 came with just two Start screen tile sizes — square and double-wide. That doesn't really offer enough differentiation between your go-to apps and those you hardly ever use. Windows 8.1 will add two more choices, a BIG square for apps you really want to stand out, and a tiny square that takes up just a quarter of the original square tile size, for those apps you hardly ever use. These new choices should make the Start screen a lot less generic, and will help greatly when it comes to organising it for optimal access. The new smallest size in particular means less scrolling through full-size tile pages.

A couple more tile organising improvements will show up in Windows 8.1: You'll be able to select multiple tiles for resizing, moving, or deleting, and you'll need to right click or touch-and-hold to move a tile, so that you don't rearrange them by accident.

New window sizes for multiple running new-style apps

With Windows 8.1, you won't be restricted to snapping a currently running second new-style app in a sidebar: You'll be able to resize each app's screen real estate to taste. You'll also be able to run two instances of the same app side-by-side. Apps will be able to take up half the screen each.

Lock screen slideshows

At startup, Windows 8 employs a lock screen, something familiar to any smartphone user. You can choose any picture for this screen, but with Windows 8.1, you'll be able to use the lock screen to play a slideshow of your photos, similar to what you can do with an iPad. You'll even be able to use images stored on SkyDrive for the slideshow. Also, as is possible with iOS devices, Windows 8.1 will let you take photos from the lock screen without the need to sign in.

More Start screen background options

If you use Windows 8, you'll be looking at the Start screen a bit, so the more pleasant you can make it look, the better. Prior to the 8.1 update, you could choose from a set of 20 predesigned "tattooed" backgrounds and 25 colour combinations. With Windows 8.1, you'll get new choices, including animated backgrounds and more colours. You'll also be able to use the same background for the desktop as with the Start screen, for a more coherent interface.

New search capabilities

Using the Search charm in Windows 8 brought up just three result sets: Apps, Files, and Settings. With Windows 8.1, results will be augmented to include web results. There will also be "action" results, such as playing a song or video. I do hope that the new search doesn't require users to switch between Apps, Settings, Store, Mail and so on. I think most users just want to see the most likely result regardless of whether it's a setting or an app, for example.

A new Windows Store

The Windows Store is Microsoft's take on the iTunes App Store, giving developers a single place to sell their wares, and users a single point of interaction for app shopping. It offers easy installation of apps, and enables running the same app on multiple devices you sign into. With Windows 8.1, the store will be given a makeover, search will be improved, and app updates will be applied automatically as the developer releases them.

Integrated Control Panel

This resolves one of my biggest peeves with Windows 8. Having two separate Settings interfaces that don't know about each other just didn't make sense. If I can't do something in the new-style Settings page, it should at least offer a More Settings link to take me to the Control Panel's full set of options. With Windows 8.1, a whole lot more settings unity is in the offing: In fact you'll be able to adjust just about everything from the newfangled PC Settings page, without the need for a trip to the desktop's Control Panel.

Internet Explorer 11

Internet Explorer 10 was a huge leap ahead of IE9, and while IE10 didn't look much different from its predecessor, internally it represented a very large step forward, with more than twice the support for new HTML5 standards and even faster operation. IE11 promises to ratchet up that progress even more, with still faster performance and wider HTML5 support.

Version 11 will add tab-syncing between devices, and the option to always show the address bar in the new-style, full-screen flavour of IE. Currently, you only see the address bar after a right click or swipe up from the bottom edge. Microsoft has also been dropping hints about WebGL support making its debut in IE11, for compatibility with browser-based 3D gaming.

More cloud connections

Windows 8 already makes effective use of SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage and syncing service. But 8.1 will let you save files directly to the cloud, and an updated new-style SkyDrive app will let you access files even while offline. Before, you had to separately install a desktop version of SkyDrive for this. Finally, signing into a Microsoft account will apply all of your customisations and app setup to the new PC you just signed into.

Business features

Windows 8.1 adds a lot of new goodies for business customers — a traditional stronghold for Microsoft's software. A few of the more interesting added capabilities include NFC tap-to-pair printing, Wi-Fi Direct printing, native Miracast wireless display, broadband tethering, and auto-triggered VPN. It also adds some cool management and security options, such as locking down the Windows Store to specific app types, and fingerprint biometric and multi-factor authentication. Finally, locked down kiosk use of Windows 8.1 is enabled with the Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry version. For more on business features to come in the new OS, read Modern Business in Mind: Windows 8.1 at TechEd 2013.

Improvement, not abandonment

I like what Microsoft has done with these Windows 8.1 updates: They haven't abandoned the vision of a single operating system for both desktops and tablets. Instead, they've addressed some of the mystifying aspects of Windows 8, moving to clearly show essential tools on-screen, like the "Start button" and the browser address bar. Access to all of a PC's settings from the new Settings menu is also a major improvement. As its version number indicates, the Windows 8.1 update is incremental, not an abandonment of the mission of Microsoft's OS, and that's a good thing.