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Windows 8.1: hands-on preview

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft demonstrates that it's heard the criticisms, and has responded with impressive improvements for desktop and touch tablet users. The Preview version of the updated operating system was launched yesterday at the company's Build conference in San Francisco, and we got an early look at Windows 8.1 installed on a Surface Pro tablet. Not only does the new OS make helpful changes to the user interface, but it also drastically improves built-in search, SkyDrive cloud syncing, and the Windows app store.

The included set of modern apps also get refreshes, and business and security features have been bolstered. Despite the extensive enhancements, any current Windows 8 user can upgrade to 8.1 for free through the Windows Store on Windows 8's Start Screen.

A couple of the biggest asks from traditional PC users have been granted: The return of the Start button and the ability to boot directly to the desktop, which resembles the Windows 7 interface.

However, Microsoft hasn't given up on making the new-style tile and full-screen, touch-friendly apps and Start Page more usable for all users, whether they're using touch screens or the mouse and keyboard — which is critical to the operating system's goal of being just as at home on tablets (even mini-tablets) as on traditional PCs.

The tile-based Start screen (which is actually where that new Start button leads to) has become more flexible, with new smaller and larger tile options. And more than two modern (new-style/Metro) apps can now share the new interface's screen. You're no longer restricted to a large window and one slender side panel, but two apps can each take half of the screen, or, depending on what the app's developer has allowed, any portion you choose. The number of apps depends on how large the screen is and its pixel density. With multiple monitors, you can further augment multiple windows. Speaking of external monitors, Windows 8.1 supports Miracast, which lets you send video over Wi-Fi to large HDTVs and the like.

More new user interface features

In Windows 8.1, several interface tweaks make performing common tasks that much simpler. For starters, take the on-screen keyboard. You no longer have to move your fingers from the keyboard to select a spelling suggestion — you just tap the spacebar. You can also enter numbers without explicitly switching to the numeric mode — just hold down a top-row key and the number that would be above it on a standard keyboard appears as a choice you can tap.

For mouse and keyboard users, a couple of small touches improve things like working with the Charms (those basic options that pop up along the right, for Search, Share, Settings, and so on). In Windows 8.1, if you place the cursor in the top-right corner of the screen, the Charms show up higher, closer to your cursor. Moving new-style app windows around is also easier with the mouse now. For example, to dismiss a modern app, you don't have to drag it all the way to the bottom of the screen the way you do on a touchscreen, because doing so with a mouse takes more effort.

The Start screen gets more than just new tile sizes. It also can now display animated backgrounds, or use the same background as the desktop wallpaper, for a more unified interface experience. To prevent the Start screen becoming overwhelmingly cluttered with app tiles, apps are automatically added to just the All App screen, not to the Start screen, but in Windows 8.1, you can get to this All Apps list simply by swiping up on the Start screen.

The Lock screen also has new tricks: It can act as a slideshow display of your photos, rather than just showing a static picture. The slides are chosen with some intelligence, too, rather than simply rotating through all your photos; for example, you may see photos from around the same time of year in previous years. Another big help, especially for small tablets, is access to the camera without the need to log in. The same goes for answering Skype calls — just tap on the notification to start video-chatting with grandma.

A big bugbear of mine for Windows 8 was that you have two Settings tools — the new-style one and the traditional Control Panel on the desktop. Windows 8.1 still maintains this duality, but the modern UI settings have become far more robust, eliminating the need to head to the massive number of choices in the desktop Control Panel. For example, now you can configure display settings, change mouse and typing options, and see PC info. You can even make new adjustments, like changing the app-switching behaviour in the Corners and Edges section.

Another peeve of mine was that in order to sync documents with SkyDrive, you had to have two SkyDrive apps running on Windows 8, the modern and the desktop version. Now SkyDrive document syncing is a built-in capability of the OS.

When you invoke the Search charm and enter a query, nay, even before you enter it, you'll see significant changes in Windows 8.1. First, after typing just a couple of letters, you'll see suggestions for apps, but also for popular web searches and more. Even before your query, you can change the scope of your search from Everywhere to Settings, Files, Web Images, and Web Videos. But the results page holds the biggest changes. If you search on any popular musician, you can play their top songs, watch their videos, and scroll through pages of website info. If you search for "Chicago" for example, you'll see a Bing Map, the current weather for that city, and attractions.

New and updated apps

The biggest new changes in Windows 8.1's included apps have been implemented with Photos and Mail, and Xbox Music. First, Photos. Editing! Yay, you can now actually edit the photos in this included app. That means things like applying Instagram-esque filters as well as doing lighting and colour corrections and cropping. The Windows 8 Photos app was pretty useless for anything but viewing the picture, so these are very welcome additions. To adjust things like brightness, contrast, shadows, and highlights, you twirl a circular dial control. One cool option is to select a colour with a dropper and intensify that colour throughout the image — nice for green lawns and blue skies. You also get vignette and selective focus effects. And you can save a copy, so that the original stays pristine.

Maybe the most welcome app updates are coming to the Mail app, but unfortunately, these won't appear simultaneously with the release of 8.1 Preview. We got a sneak peek of what's coming with the general release later this year. The app takes a few pages from Microsoft's excellent webmail service, such as Sweep, which is used to shunt newsletters and other low priority messages to subfolders, and flag important messages. What's more, you can now drag-and-drop emails between folders. You can also view just the messages from your most important contacts — very useful if you want to make sure you don't miss an email from your boss among all the dross emails.

Xbox Music has been redesigned so that it's more about your music than about discovering what's in the store. The main choices are now Collection, Radio, and Explore. That's right, it now includes a Radio feature like the one announced by Apple for iOS 7. But it's also now possible to filter your songs by Album, Artist, Title, and sort by Date Added, Artist, and Genre. It's a far more useful and modern app than its primitive Windows 8 predecessor, though it's still no iTunes.

One completely new included app – well, it's more of a utility – is Reading List. With this, you can use the Share charm to send any web page or other document to the app for perusal later on. This app is well suited to the small sidebar placement in a multi-app view.

New Internet Explorer

We'll be doing a full hands-on with Internet Explorer 11 in a later article, but for now, a couple of key interface updates stand out as worthy of mentioning, especially in the browser's new-style, full-screen incarnation. You can now use as many tabs as you want, and these tiles scroll along the bottom, nearer to the address bar for easier access, rather than at the top. HTML5 support improves, and surprisingly, the browser now supports WebGL, something Microsoft had previously resisted! It's kind of mind-blowing to see Chrome WebGL Experiments such as Yi-Wen Lin's Blossom running in IE. Still lacking, though, is support for WebRTC's getUserMedia command, which gives web pages access to your webcam and microphone.

New Store

The Windows Store, where you get new modern apps, gets a much needed redesign in Windows 8.1. Now you'll see one large featured app, which alternates among several curated app choices. Next, you'll see Picks For You, based on your previous choices. Swiping or scrolling right reveals large thumbnails for Popular Now and New Release apps, then the standard Top Paid and Top Free sections. No longer are there over a dozen categories to scroll through, but instead, you can invoke the list of categories by swiping in from the top or bottom to display the app bar. This bar also shows tiles for Your Apps, including those you've installed on other PCs, and Your Account, where you edit billing info.

The individual app page has also been redesigned for the better. Now you'll see a three panel view, with the description on the left, a large image area for app screenshots in the middle, and ratings and reviews on the right. Before Windows 8.1 you had to select tabs to get at all that info. One thing I still miss is the ability to simply launch an app from the store right after I've installed it, as is possible from the iPad's App Store.

There are a lot of new benefits to app developers with this redesigned store; for one thing, they'll now be able to offer in-app purchases. And users will now be able to install apps they've bought on as many devices as they like, which actually benefits developers with ad-based revenue models or in-app purchases. The new apps won't be available until the full release of Windows 8.1, to give developers time with the new capabilities, but the new store interface goes live with Preview.

New ways to print

Printing sounds so outdated these days, but there are still times when I've wandered the office looking for a printer that works for me. New NFC support in Windows 8.1 will mean that your PC can just recognise the nearest working printer and print to it. Another hot topic is 3D printing, which Windows 8.1 will support natively. So you'll be able to print from any app that supports 3D printing, with drivers automatically downloaded and installed just as they are for paper printers.

Business and security improvements

Windows has a strong business case, with the ability for IT pros to manage huge numbers of machines, controlling their access to corporate resources. Windows 8.1 furthers the case, with better BYOD mobile controls and better security. With 8.1, all versions of Windows get BitLocker encryption, and Defender has been improved. Built-in VPN connection should just work, and an "auto-triggered" VPN option will connect when, for example, an inside-the-firewall website is accessed.

A new Workplace networking option will grant mobile workers access to internal apps and websites. If an employee leaves the company, IT will be able to remove just the business assets, so the whole device doesn't have to be wiped. All this applies to Windows RT as well as x86-based PCs.

Getting better fast

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is playing to its strength, not only with the improved business features, but in making the desktop a more equal member of the family. At Windows 8's launch, the story was all about touch input and use on tablets; since that was the new part of the OS, that made sense. This time, Windows 8.1 brings more harmony to its dual modes. Keep in mind, too, that this is a Preview version; though most of the new stuff is now known, there will be further improvements at full release later this year. Windows 8.1 may not win over all of Windows 8's critics, but it takes many important steps towards achieving its goal of being both a first-class tablet and a full-power desktop operating system.