Microsoft's Windows 8.1 upgrade is way more than a service pack, even though it's a free update for Windows 8 users through the Windows Store (available as a preview today). And, let's be frank, even the operating system's most vocal supporters will probably agree that Microsoft needs an update bigger than a service pack to change Windows 8's somewhat rocky narrative. Yes, a lot of the changes are tweaks and streamlining, but there are also plenty of new capabilities like built-in support for 3D printing, Miracast display sharing, and a new web radio feature in the included Xbox Music app.
Windows 8.1 brings literally hundreds of updates, fixes, and tweaks for both home and business users, as well as for form factors from small tablets to large screen workstations – more than is possible to cover even in a long-format review, let alone in a quick cheat sheet of top new features. That said, below we’ve highlighted the handful of new features that we think will affect the largest number of Windows 8 users.
Will this 0.1 update be enough to convince the doubters when it's finally released this autumn? Only time will tell, but this preview looks like a good start. Be sure to let us know what you think of Windows 8, and the Windows 8.1 update in the comments section below.
For more on the update to Windows, see our Windows 8.1 hands-on preview. And for our take on the Build Keynote, see our article entitled Microsoft's Ballmer offers Windows 8.1 preview and admits past mistakes.
1. Start Button
This was a popular war-cry among those who lamented the interface changes in Windows 8. And yes, the desktop does now have a Start button, sporting the new Windows logo, but it doesn't do what the veteran power users probably wished for: It launches the new-style Start page. But really, that's okay, since you can think of that as simply a full-screen start button panel – just start typing a program's name to launch it or look for a file or setting.
2. Boot to Desktop
Another vehement request of long-time Windows users was that you should be able to bypass the modern-style Start screen entirely, and with Windows 8.1 this becomes possible. So if you've got desktop icons for all the programs you ever use or have them pinned to the Taskbar, you'll never have to see that tiled screen again. Unless you mistakenly press the new Start button! To turn on boot-to-desktop, right click the Taskbar and choose Properties, and then Navigation. Finally, under Start screen, check the "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in."
3. Search Heroes
Microsoft has done a lot of work on the operating system’s built-in search with Windows 8.1. A highlight of search's new capabilities is what the company calls "Search Heroes," designed result pages that offer more than just app, file, or web results, but instead offer actions.
A couple of good examples of Search Heroes show up when you search for a popular musician or for a city. Searching "Rihanna" lets you immediately play the artist's top tracks and videos via Xbox Music, as well as see biographical and web info. Searching for "London" results in a page showing a map, the current weather, and top attractions of the city.
4. More windowing options for new-style apps
While the ability to show more than one app on the screen at a time was already unique among popular tablet operating systems, Windows 8.1 extends new-style app windowing options. In Windows 8, you could only run a second app in a narrow sidebar window, but with 8.1 you can horizontally size the windows however you want, as long as the developer has allowed this for the app.
You can also display more than two apps – in fact, you can show up to four, as long as your display resolution is adequate. You can also have multiple apps showing on multiple monitors, so if you have a two monitor setup, you can view up to eight apps!
5. New Store
Not only has the Windows Store undergone a radical redesign that's a distinct improvement over its Windows 8 predecessor, but it benefits from some operational improvements as well. Apps are now automatically updated, so you'll never see the little number in the Store tile indicating how many of your apps need attention. You can also install purchased apps on as many PCs as you like, though remote monitoring by Microsoft will quash abuse.
But the Store's new and improved interface is the real highlight here. Instead of a lot of scrolling through categories, you now see one large highlighted app that alternates between a few choices: Picks For You, Popular Now, and then the usual Top Paid and Top Free apps. Also, individual app pages let you see the description, large screenshots, and reviews and comments without having to look behind tabs. We're still waiting for a web-based presence for the store, but Microsoft insiders assure me that this is coming.
6. More robust settings in modern interface
In Windows 8, you could do a few things on the modern Settings page accessible from the Charms, but too often you had to head to the desktop mode's traditional Control Panel to make the adjustment you wanted. With Windows 8.1, the number of options in the new-style Settings page has blossomed to nearly quadruple the number in Windows 8. Basic things like Display settings, Devices, mouse and keyboard, AutoPlay, and more are now readily accessible there. You can also see your PC info such as processor and memory without a trip to the desktop's Control Panel.