Microsoft have officially taken the wraps off the Windows 8.1 update ahead of the Build Developer Conference as they move towards regular update cycles across their product range. The update, formerly know under the codename Blue, is in many ways a concession to the criticisms of its touch centric “re-envisioning” of the PC industry, but also includes numerous improvements for everyone to look forward to.
Microsoft launched Windows 8 on October 26th, with a slew of new touch screen devices, including the first Microsoft developed computer in the Surface tablet. However, consumer reaction has been lukewarm and consumers have failed to “click” with Microsoft’s changes to the worlds most popular operating system. Microsoft have stated previously that they were listening closely to consumer feedback and previous leaks hinted at many of the changes that were in store. Perhaps the most pleasing to some, is the news that the Start button will be making a return, along with an option to boot directly to the desktop. Now that is out the way, we can get to some of the good stuff.
the Start button will be making a return along with an option to boot directly to the desktop
Apparently, Microsoft noticed that people like to personalise their devices and many of the changes in the update give users greater flexibility in this regard. Users can now set the lock screen to display slideshows of their favourite images from either the hard drive or SkyDrive, you can now accept Skype calls while the PC is locked, or trigger the camera to take photos. The Start screen has seen a revamp of its live tiles, which are now similar to Windows Phone and can be resized to smaller or larger variants. The large tiles will display more detail, but all will still update and keep you informed of the latest happenings on Twitter or Facebook.
Microsoft have added the ability to set a wallpaper as the background for the start screen, giving greater familiarity for people jumping between the screen and desktop view frequently. Installed applications will no longer be automatically added to the Start screen as Microsoft want the Start screen to be about all the things you love. Because of this they have added the ability to filter your apps by name, date installed, most used, or category. Any applications that are installed or pinned to the Start Screen are now automatically synced to all other Windows 8.1 PCs under that Microsoft account. This has been designed to make the Start Screen remain the same everywhere you use it with the same applications, adding to the pick up ease of access for which Windows 8 already excels. Applications will also be automatically updated, no longer requiring you to do so manually.
Windows 8.1 brings a comprehensive search experience with deeper Bing integration which Microsoft boldly claim “will really change the way you interact with the Web”. Hopefully it will perform well at their other claim first and foremost, however, in that it will make it quicker and easier to get things done. This should be helped through the addition of Quick actions. These allow you to perform actions directly from the search such as play a song or video. Results from local files, apps, and settings are all easily accessible from this improved search view which pulls content from the web.
The default applications that launched with vanilla Windows 8 quite simply sucked. They have seen various updates to improve functionality and add features since launch, but Microsoft will also be improving them further with 8.1. For example, the Music app has been completely redesigned while photo editing capabilities have been added to the Photos app. New applications will also make their debut, such as touch friendly calculator and alarm clock applications.
Windows 8.1 brings improvements to the “snap view,” which allows for apps to be displayed alongside each other. Users can now use any size they want as opposed to just 80-20 in 8. More apps can be displayed alongside each other (up to four), and multi-monitor users can now use these apps across any screen. You can even snap two windows of the same application, such as different Internet Explorer tabs to the screen. This should greatly improve multi-tasking capabilities of Windows 8 and should make the metro apps more appealing for traditional desktop users.
SkyDrive and the web
Similar to the way Office 2013 works, files are now saved to the cloud by default, meaning they are with you wherever you go. SkyDrive has been integrated into every facet of the OS, with SkyDrive storage showing up in Window Explorer. Developers will have access to SkyDrive functionality, so expect to see applications making good use of the cloud in the near future. Your files will of course be accessible offline should you be on the go with spotty connection.
Internet Explorer 11 will ship alongside 8.1 and includes tab syncing across devices, with even the promise of Windows Phone in the future. IE11 promises to build upon the previous iteration, offering even better touch performance and faster page load times. You can now adjust the appearance of modern IE11 to always show the address bar and you can have as many open tabs as you like.
It is clear that Microsoft have been working hard on improving Windows 8 for touch users, but traditional mouse and keyboard users have not been left behind either. Microsoft have made a number of changes to make navigation with these devices easier, allowing you to change the hot corners and of course the bringing back of the Start button. This might just be enough to encourage those who crave the performance Windows 8 offers to upgrade.
Windows 8.1 looks to be shaping up nicely, but one has to wonder whether it is the Operating System that Windows 8 should have been in the first place. Microsoft’s desperate attempt to make some headway into the mobile space alienated a lot of their core users and led to negative perceptions around the software. Fortunately, Microsoft’s mantra has now changed, from people want touch to now we are listening to what people want.
Antoine Leblond, Corporate Vice President, Windows Program Management states that more is to come and this reveal is only the beginning. Microsoft have been watching and listening; “Windows 8.1 will continue to build on what you love bringing the latest advancements in hardware, apps, cloud services and the OS to enable a unique experience in everything you do.” On this evidence, he may just be right.
Thanks for reading,