Microsoft launched Windows 8 on October 26th, with a volley of new hardware designed for the touch-based interface. Just 12 months after an early Windows 8 Release Preview, Microsoft is now keen to talk about some upcoming changes in an update named Windows 8.1. Originally codenamed Blue, Windows 8.1 sets the pace for changes to Microsoft's software that will continue in the future for both the ARM (RT) and x86 versions of the OS.
We've seen hints thanks to some leaks, but there are a whole host of additions and improvements that make some fundamental changes to Windows 8. The Start button makes its rumored return, as Microsoft has responded to clear feedback. Is it enough? Are things moving quickly over in Redmond? Let's find out.
UI and personalization
One of the first things you'll notice with Windows 8.1 is an improved lock screen. You can now accept Skype calls while the PC is locked, or trigger the camera and take photos. There is also an option to use a Photo Frame mode that takes pictures from your computer, SkyDrive, and Windows Phone to display a collage of images.
Microsoft is also borrowing some more ideas from Windows Phone 8, introducing new large and small Live Tiles — the animated app icons that appear on the Start Screen — in Windows 8.1. On the Weather Tile you can now see the weather in three different cities and three days of forecasts displayed at the same time. For apps like Calendar, it will display your entire calendar for the day, and third-party apps like Twitter will be able to display additional information. "You still get notifications, you still get posts, you still get counts on them, but they take up one-quarter of the space of the tiles we had with Windows 8," explains Jensen Harris, a director of the Windows User Experience Team at Microsoft. Desktop apps will also use colorful tiles by default, and developers will have the option to create richer versions.
These improvements extend elsewhere on the Start Screen. Apps in Windows 8 automatically pin to the Start Screen and Harris admits "it wasn't what we imagined," as a place for the apps and things you care about. In 8.1 Microsoft doesn't pin apps to the Start Screen by default; instead it puts them in the All Apps view. This view includes filters to sort apps by how frequently they're used or by designated group, and the option to find applications by name.
Microsoft is also changing how the Start Screen looks somewhat, with new personalization options with additional colors and shades, as well as the ability to have Start Screen backgrounds that include motion. This personalization extends to allowing a desktop background to be used behind the Start Screen, easing the jarring transition between the two modes. Rearranging apps on the Start Screen is also easier in Windows 8.1: Users will now be able to select and arrange multiple apps at the same time.
Expanded Snap Views make Metro more appealing
Perhaps the biggest change, at least visually, is the new way to organize Windows 8-style apps in snapped views. By default, if you click a link from an app, like Mail, in Windows 8.1 you'll be thrown into a 50 / 50 view that snaps Internet Explorer next to Mail. If you open a picture from an email or elsewhere, the view will open as 40 / 60 with more space dedicated to the photo application. Any app can also have multiple windows, letting you open two websites side-by-side, for example, and extend them across multiple monitors.
These new views, which let Windows 8.1 users select how much of an app takes up a snapped part of the entire view, include a change to let more applications snap alongside each other. On high-resolution screens, the number of apps you can snap alongside one another increases with the monitor's resolution — we saw four apps snapped on a 27-inch screen. On the low resolution side of things, Microsoft has removed a limit it had in place for Windows 8 to use Snap View, letting devices with 1024 x 768 pixels utilize the 50 / 50 view. This is partly in preparation for upcoming 7- and 8-inch form factors.
Any applications that are installed or pinned to the Start Screen, along with any arrangement settings, are automatically synced to all other Windows 8.1 PCs under a single Microsoft account. Individual PCs can opt out of this process, or across the whole system, but it's designed to make the Start Screen remain the same everywhere you use it with the same applications. These applications will all be automatically updated in Windows 8.1, complete with a new Store interface that makes it a lot easier to discover the top paid and free applications.
Microsoft is also bringing back the Start button in Windows 8.1, which should please many desktop users. We've broken down the new functionality in a separate report on the Windows 8.1 Start button.
"The boldest totally new feature that we've done in 8.1 is the Search feature," says Harris. Microsoft claims that Search is the most-used "charm," with over 90 percent of Windows 8 users activating it. "We've taken the Search feature and made Search to be the one box you can use for your PC, files, settings, and also for the web and information within apps on your PC." Put simply, Microsoft is making Search a lot more powerful in Windows 8.1. A standard web query, like Marilyn Monroe, will produce a "Search Hero" of information and data from across the web and local to the PC. Information will be surfaced from Wikipedia for example, but clicking on that data will push users into the Wikipedia Windows 8.1 app instead of a web page.
Bing gets deeply integrated into Windows 8.1
If it's a search that involves a movie then you'll be able to watch the trailer or find that particular content within applications like Netflix or Hulu. It works the same way with music and images, surfacing songs from Xbox Music with a play button or data from Bing images. Like the existing search option, you can trigger it by simply typing on the Start Screen. New to Windows 8.1 is a Windows key + S combination that will trigger the search panel across the OS regardless of whether you're in an app or desktop mode.
By default the list in the side bar starts with apps, then music, settings, files, pictures, and web suggestions all collated from content local to your PC or in SkyDrive. "You end up with this single way to command, find, and do across the entire PC," says Harris. In concept it's fairly powerful, letting you simply search for "Space Needle" and find photos you may have shot at that location and other data that's related to it. A lot of the search functionality is powered by Bing, and Microsoft isn't letting users change this particular search option over to Google. "We don't support changing the providers for that search experience," explains Harris, noting it uses Microsoft services for Windows search.
The new search experience is a key example of Microsoft's approach to using Bing across its products. Speaking to The Verge, Microsoft's director of search, Stefan Weitz, explains that Bing is helping power the 8.1 interface, but that it's just the beginning. "8.1 is in no way the end point for all of this, it really is providing us a canvas on which we can figure out how to actually pull all those things in." This new canvas only exists in Windows at the moment, and not elsewhere in Windows Phone or other Microsoft products, but it's going to extend to additional areas. "Windows is now going to scale across more devices, so you'll see this kind of experience in more form factors," explains Weitz. If it works as well as Microsoft promises, then it could be the starting point of a central location for search that's similar to Google Now.
SkyDrive built-in, Internet Explorer and Windows Phone sync
"The entire OS is now powered by the Cloud and powered by SkyDrive," explains Harris. The sync engine of SkyDrive is now built directly into Windows 8.1. By default it doesn't bring down your entire SkyDrive storage to the local PC. Instead it intelligently loads little stubs that look like the file and include the information required to identify it. As you start to open files it will download them as required. You can set folders and files to download fully so they're available offline, or just set an entire SkyDrive instance to remain offline on the PC.
SkyDrive storage will now show up in File Explorer or Windows 8 apps as another method to save and retrieve files alongside This PC (the new name for My Computer). Developers won't need to do any work to integrate with SkyDrive: it's all automatic. The end result is that all your settings, apps, and the history of your apps are stored in SkyDrive. "If you get a new PC and you log in with your Microsoft Account you're going to get your entire experience re-hydrated," says Harris.
On the Internet Explorer side, Microsoft is introducing Internet Explorer 11 with Windows 8.1. Changes include tabs being moved to the bottom with unlimited tabs and subfolders for favorites. Website owners will be able to create their own Live Tiles with IE11 that can be pinned to the Start Screen with access to an RSS stream.
Microsoft will also sync tabs now across Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone, meaning you'll be able to access and load up the tabs that were last used on other devices. It's very similar to Google's Chrome sync option. It will require a "future version of Windows Phone," says Harris, but Microsoft isn't commenting any further.
Other improvements and additional apps
Microsoft is also improving its onscreen keyboard. "If the next Gangnam style or the next political leader becomes popular, we will know that and be able to suggest it and be able to make it easier to type that," explains Harris. You can also swipe across the space bar to select suggested words and then tap again on the space bar to insert them. Swiping up on the QWERTY keys will automatically insert numbers, and swiping up on the question mark will insert an exclamation mark. It's a minor change, but it makes text entry a lot easier on touch-based devices.
Other improvements include a focus on revamping the touch-friendly control panel. In Windows 8 Microsoft had around 10 percent of the settings converted to this mode, with 8.1 that extends a lot further with access to even more settings. "We have gone to great lengths to make PC settings complete in 8.1," says Harris, noting that it should be considered the central place to alter settings now. "We actually think this is the best way to configure your PC."
Additional built-in apps in Windows 8.1 include new touch-friendly calculator and alarm apps. Microsoft has also done some work to improve photo and music experiences on 8.1, with new options to use tools like crop and rotate to edit and touch up photos. Xbox Music is greatly improved with a focus on playing music quickly. "You can play things in two clicks, instead of six clicks," explains Harris. You can also create radio stations out of the artists you're interested in. The updated Xbox Music app will come with Windows 8.1 and it speeds up the often slow and clunky experience with music in Windows 8.
Microsoft is borrowing a page from Instapaper
Microsoft is also building in a Reading List function into the Share charm for Windows 8.1. "Think of it as a place to save rich bookmarks that I want to get back to, for the entire PC," explains Harris. It's basically an extended clipboard for Windows, but it will let 8.1 users save sections within applications across all PCs. This will also eventually be available on Windows Phone.
There are substantial updates to the News, Weather, Sports, Travel, and Maps apps in Windows 8.1, but the company is also introducing some new ones: Health & Fitness and Food & Drink. Health & Fitness provides access to exercises and does weight and calorie tracking in the cloud. Food & Drink includes access to recipes and shopping lists, but it also has a secret feature that's great for tablet users who use their device as a cookbook. "One thing we found … is how much cooking people do with PCs in the kitchen," says Harris. Microsoft has added a "hands-free mode" to its Food & Drink app that lets 8.1 users swipe between recipes by waving their hands in front of a standard webcam.
The Camera app in 8.1 also includes full panoramic support with Photosynth directly built-in, and Microsoft has created a Help & Tips app to help acclimatize users to the new Windows environment. "One thing that we realized was that although Windows 8 was very easy to use, there were a couple of things … you needed to learn and that we didn't do a good job of showing you what those things were," admits Harris.
Microsoft rights its Windows 8 wrongs
This approach of recognizing where Windows 8 needs improvement really underlines Windows 8.1. It's not so much an update with some stand out features and big name changes, but more of a refinement of the existing operating system. All of these minor changes add up to big improvements in the way you can use Windows 8.1 across touch and keyboard / mouse. Microsoft has had time to sit back and witness the reaction to Windows 8 and see exactly how people are using the product. With Windows 8.1 we're seeing very real changes based on that.
"We really have a great sense of where we got the details of these bets right and where we actually maybe missed a little bit," admits Microsoft's Antoine Leblond, who oversees Windows Web Services. The good thing is that Microsoft is correcting some misses after just months on the market, and it's coming as a free update for existing Windows 8 users. If Microsoft can keep this rapid pace of improvement for Windows then it has a real chance of challenging others in the tablet market, providing even more touch-friendly apps are made available. The PC is in decline and tablets are taking over consumer spending, so Microsoft and its OEMs have to ensure tablet offerings are solid.
It's still unclear exactly when Microsoft will ship Windows 8.1, but the company plans to release a preview version on June 26th at its Build developer conference. With Computex on the Horizon and Build approaching soon, this is only the first taste of Windows 8.1, but we expect to see a lot more in the coming weeks with the new types of 7- and 8-inch devices that will ship later this year.
Images and layout by Aaron Souppouris