All The New Stuff In Windows 8.1

The preview release of Windows 8.1 officially arrived today, debuting a range of new options that change much of the Windows experience. Here are the key new features you'll find in the next version of Windows.

We knew about many of the key changes to Windows 8.1 in advance, including the adjustments to the interface to allow different-sized tiles, the very partial return of the Start button and the integration of Bing results into search. However, Microsoft still managed to sneak in a few new surprises, including new keyboard typing gestures and support for 3D printing. We were also promised native Facebook and Flipboard apps, though there's no release date for those yet.

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While the Start button does represent a change to the classic Desktop mode, most of the alterations relate to the Modern interface. Here's an overview of the main changes.

The Revamped Start Screen

The Start screen has a few improvements. There are two new tile sizes: one small square one and one large one, so you can configure the Start screen a bit more like Windows Phone 8. You can select multiple tiles and put them into a named group.

Using an upwards swipe gesture, you can switch to the All Apps view so you can see everything. Unlike Windows 8, newly-installed apps aren't automatically pinned to your main Start screen — you make that choice in All Apps. Within that view, you can see apps by name, by category, by most used and by date installed.

The new Start screen has more colours to choose from, and you can put your desktop wallpaper behind the Start screen as well. You can also turn the lock screen into a photo slideshow, sourced from your PC or SkyDrive. While you're on the lock screen, you can launch the camera or answer Skype calls without logging in.

More Powerful Multitasking

One of Windows 8's coolest features is the side-by-side window snapping, and Microsoft has made a big improvement to this feature: now you can resize those snapped windows however you want. Before, you could only have Windows split 50/50, or into thirds. Now, you can actually drag the slider to make each app take up as much or as little space as you want. Launching links within native apps automatically snaps and opens a new browser window.

Furthermore, you can have more than two apps or windows on-screen at once — in fact, you can have up to four, as long as your monitor is big enough. You can also move them between monitors, if you have more than one. If your monitors have different resolutions, apps will automatically adjust and resize as they move between screens.

The Windows Store

Windows 8.1 also comes with some handy improvements to the Windows Store and its built-in apps. The whole store has been given a facelift. While Microsoft's keynote emphasised the new lists of apps, including other releases from the same developer, to our mind a bigger switch is that the Store now has a search dialogue included. While you can still use the Search charm, we've noted before that it's very unintuitive for most people not to be able to search directly in the store. Last year, Microsoft argued that no-one wanted to search that way; clearly there has been a welcome change of heart.

Another useful change: you no longer have to manually update apps (so there's no Update count on the Store tile). Apps update automatically, though updates won't be downloaded if you're on a 3G or other metered connection.

System App Changes

Apparently every native app within Windows has been updated, so it might take a while to learn the full set of options. Among the changes highlighted: Internet Explorer 11 now has unlimited tabs, the camera has a panorama feature, and the picture viewing app has editing controls.

The updated Mail app will offer a "sweep" feature that deletes multiple emails of the same type, similar to the options that exist on Outlook.com, although this option isn't in the preview release. One interesting feature is 'hands-free mode', which lets you control the device via the camera. If you're using a cooking app, rather than putting messy hands on the keyboard, you can switch to hands-free mode and move through instructions by moving your head.

3D Printing Support

Windows 8.1 has built-in 3D printer support; if a 3D printer is connected, you can print in the same way you would to a conventional printer.

Search Changes

As we already knew, Microsoft has also made a big update to search in 8.1 If you open the search charm, you'll see that all your search results are grouped into one place: no more switching between files, settings, apps and the web. You can also view your results in a full-screen app-like view called "Search Heroes", with intelligent results similar to Google's Knowledge Graph, that offers photos, videos, and relevant facts all on one page.

Bing is integrated in other ways; for instance, you can automatically build a playlist for Xbox Music streaming by using the Share charm on a web page which mentions the names of songs. (How well all this will work in Australia, where Bing lacks the same depth of search relevance, remains an open question.)

Enhanced Keyboard

Gesture support has been added to the Windows on-screen keyboard. You can swipe upwards on a letter to type the associated number without having to switch keyboard, you can access related punctuation marks with a gesture, and you can auto-complete suggestions by swiping across the space bar.

Desktop Changes

The desktop didn't get as much love as we would have liked, but there are two features desktop enthusiasts have been asking for: boot to desktop and a Start button.

Boot to desktop does exactly what it sounds like: You can tell Windows 8 to boot straight to the desktop instead of going to the Start screen first.

The Start button won't show you the Start menu from Windows 7; it just brings up the Start screen. It's minor, but nice if you're used to clicking that button in the bottom left-hand corner. Of course, if you want a full-blown and keyboard navigable Start menu, there are plenty of ways to do that.

If you want to try out some of the new features yourself, download the Windows 8.1 preview and take it for a spin. The final version will be out later this year as a free upgrade for Windows 8 users.


Comments

    Thank god for the search changes. That was the "feature" in Windows 8 that caused me to download a Windows 7 emulator.

    boot to desktop and start button both seems useless.
    since if you just SLEEP the machine in desktop screen, it resumes to the desktop anyway.
    Also, start button is just the same as the left bottom corner in win 8. waste of space now.

      my computer boots fast enough that I prefer to know it's off when I turn it off, so boot to desktop is extremely useful to me, and while I agree about the start button from a minimalist design perspective it's a concession I'm happy to deal with if it means I don't have to explain the alternatives to others all the time

    All good news. Seems most of the lobotomy given to Win7 by Win8 in desktop mode has gone.
    Now we just need to see the end of the four window &/or app limit per monitor.
    Until then Win 8 will remain a tablet / smartphone OS, for which it is fine.

    Oh man, 3D printing support would be awesome. I'm thinking of buying a Buccaneer, and if this can talk to the printer, so much the better!

    i really hate how their trying to make the metro interface the main interface, its shit and not made for desktop, and before people saying "you hate it because you don't know how to use it or whatever" i know how to use it completely, it just ruins my desktop experience, i dont want these applications that are supposed to be designed towards tablets and phones

      I like it. I hate having crap on my desktop. With the Metro screen I got it curated for Autodesk, Adobe, Office, My steam collection, folders and Misc apps. Saying

      it just ruins my desktop experience, i don't want these applications that are supposed to be designed towards tablets and phones

      Kind of makes me think you don't actually know how to use.

      If you don't like it don't use it...

      I have my desktop running it and the only time I see it is when I use the search to open a app, and as its a desktop app the screen is gone once the app is loading.

      Rarely see it on my desktop unless I need it.

      Good to have as it connects me to the store tho :)

    Hopefully they have the ability to turn off the start button, if you want a start button use Start8 (or the free alternatives), im happy to use the windows key or hot corner to access the start screen and to use that to launch the odd app that isn't pinned to the task bar.

      The start buttons been there all along, just for some reason no one ever thought to move your mouse to where the start button 'was'

        Everyone knows (or should know) about the hot corner for the 'start' i use it all the time, depends if my hands are on kbd or mouse.

          I will say tho I like the extra Right Click options available allows the quick shutdown)
          Was lacking in current right click feature on the start corner

          Last edited 28/06/13 1:03 pm

            I agree, in general they dropped the ball on the shutting down support in Win8, its like all the UX people were on Win8 tablets and not desktops (99% of the time i am sleeping it rather than powering off though), but all in all i don't have much in the "it sucks for non touch based input" basket, i still want the start button gone.

    Fellas, the link in the second last paragraph ("there are plenty of ways to do that") is back to this same article, not some other article which I assume is what you intended.

    Until this can be run in Australia... I just don't care :\

    what you mean? it runs here? i have installed it on 2 machines today already, and its great

    No POP Email still? :(

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