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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.