How Windows 8.1’s New Search Actually Works

One of the main changes in Windows 8.1 is that Bing is now integrated into search, so you see web results along with apps and files. But how does that actually work, what happened to the Search charm, are Bing’s results any use in Australia, and can you disable them? Find out with our screenshot tour.

How It Was In Windows 8

First, it’s worth reminding ourselves how search works in the original Windows 8. From the Start screen, you can simply start typing. A summary of the relevant results appears under the search term, while the results themselves take up the rest of the screen. By default, you’ll see Apps, but you can also switch to seeing Settings or Files, as well as search results from any Apps which use the in-built Windows search features.

You can also search by bringing up the Search charm, accessed by swiping from the right or using Windows-Q as a shortcut. In this case, the default will be the app you’re in at the time. So if you launch the Search charm from with the Windows Store, the results will be for apps that match your search.

Search is impressively fast, especially with content on your local drive, and does a good job of checking the content of files as well as their names. I use it regularly to dig up research notes and stories. Does all that change once Bing enters the picture?

How Basic Search Changes

If you start typing from the Start screen in Windows 8.1, the results are different. Instead of being sorted into categories, you’ll see whatever Windows judges to be the most relevant results in the right-hand panel. Depending on the search, that could include files, settings or installed applications. Underneath that list, there are a list of potential web search terms, based on Bing’s best guesses and previous searches you have made.

By default, the scope of search is ‘Everything’. You can change this with a drop-down in the search box to only search files, settings, web images or web videos. Oddly, you can’t choose simply to do a basic web search. The scope setting isn’t sticky, unfortunately; whenever you start a new search, it will remain across ‘Everything’. You can still use Windows-Q to access the search dialog, but you can also use Windows-S, which is easier to remember.

Search Heroes

If you hit enter on your query (or select one of the suggested search terms), you’ll enter what has been described as ‘Search Heroes’ mode. This shows results from multiple sources in a panoramic view. Settings and installed apps appear in the first column, then files, then suggested apps from the Store, then web results.

The quality of the Bing results will vary depending on your query. For one or two words, you’ll get a reasonable selection, but highly specific searches don’t do always so well.

The Store: Not So Charmed

Search charms still work in most applications that support Windows search. If you’re in Skype, for example, and bring up a Search charm, it will focus to only cover Skype, and show search results appear in the main pane, just as it did in Windows 8.1.

The big change to charms is in the Store. Rather than having to bring up the Search charm, you can now search the Store from a dialog box within the Store app itself (which we have always said should be an option.

What’s interesting is that the Search charm support has been removed entirely from the Store; if you bring up the Search charm, it just has the default options, with no store-focused search. The only way to search the Store is through the on-screen dialog or by checking within Search Heroes, and the in-app search box doesn’t have a simple keyboard shortcut. This is potentially a nuisance for users who have trained themselves to search the store via the charm; hopefully Microsoft will fix it before the final release.

Overall, the Search experience works fairly well. That’s not to say I think I’ll use it for online search regularly; in that area, I still get better results from Google. However, the new options don’t intrude in a major way on how I want to work.

If the Bing results do bother you, you can easily switch them off. Go to the Settings charm (Windows-I), then choose ‘Change PC settings’ at the bottom of the screen. Choose ‘Search and Apps’, then choose ‘Off’ under ‘Use Bing to search online’.

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