Windows 8.1 unveiled: new apps, new features and the return of the Start button

How big of an upgrade is Windows 8.1? Put it this way: we just might need to review the OS all over again. Microsoft just unveiled the first major update to Windows 8, and it includes tweaks to nearly every aspect of the operating system: the lock screen, Start menu, Windows Store and onscreen keyboard. As we saw in some leaked screenshots, Microsoft also updated its native apps and added some new ones, including a stopwatch and fresh calculator. In some cases, the update even changes the way you interact with the OS. Yes, that means the Start button is back (sort of). You can now snap more than two windows into place, depending on your screen resolution, and also adjust the width of those columns so that it's not necessarily an 80 / 20 split. Additionally, Microsoft revamped the way built-in search works so that it's now more of a universal search engine, serving up apps, files, settings options and web suggestions.

As you might have guessed, some of these revisions are a response to feedback Microsoft has received in the past seven months. In other cases, like with the new settings menu, they were part of Microsoft's plan all along -- the engineering team just didn't get to them before it was time to ship the first version of Win 8. As we reported earlier, Windows 8.1 will be available as a free update (in preview) starting June 26th, the day Microsoft's Build developer conference kicks off. We'd still encourage you to follow our Build coverage, however, as Microsoft will be making additional announcements then, particularly with regard to its first-party apps. Also, Microsoft is only sharing a handful of screenshots today, so we'll have to wait until June 26th to give you the full visual tour. For now, though, join us after the break as we walk you through all the major (and not-so-major) changes.

Windows 8.1 screenshots

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UI changes

Did Microsoft really bring back the Start button? Yes, but probably not in the way you expected.

Why bother burying the lede? Better to start off by answering the question everyone is most interested in: did Microsoft really bring back the Start button? Yes, but probably not in the way you expected. With this update, the Start button sits in the lower-left corner and is always visible, so you no longer need to hover with your mouse to make it appear. (To be clear, you can't disable the Start button.) In an interview, a Microsoft rep pointed out that this brings a little extra visual continuity, as the Start button has the same flag logo you'll find on your tablet, keyboard, etc. But Microsoft also admits this new setup will feel more familiar to users, many of whom have complained about the loss of the Start button. Still, if you were hoping for a return to fly-out menu trees, you're going to be disappointed.

Windows 81 unveiled new apps, new features and the return of the Start button

Microsoft seems to understand, too, that some users have found it jarring to constantly switch between the traditional desktop and the modern Start Screen. To help make the whole experience feel more cohesive, the company is also allowing users to have the same background photo for both the desktop and Start Screen. So, when you hit the Start button, it doesn't feel like you're being whisked into a completely different part of the OS; instead, it looks more like the Live Tiles are popping up on top of the desktop. We know, we know: that's not technically what's happening, but you get what we mean: the transition feels seamless.

Lock screen

From the moment you boot up your PC, you'll notice something different about Windows. With this latest update, you can have a slideshow running in the background, so that you're not limited to just one photo. In particular, those photos can be locally stored, but they might also come from SkyDrive (and by extension, whatever Windows Phone handset you happen to be using). Also, Microsoft is able to create seasonal slideshows based on when your photos were taken, so if your spouse's birthday is in January, you might see photos from earlier birthdays come the first of the year.

Additionally, you can do quite a bit more now from the lock screen. For starters, you can accept Skype voice and video calls, similar to the way you can already answer your phone without having to punch in a password first. You can also take photos too, which will probably come in handiest on tablet-type devices. To do this, just swipe down to reveal the camera UI. And no, to answer the question you're about to ask, you can't use that as a backdoor way of getting into the photo library. Meaning, if you hand your tablet to a friend to take a shot, he won't be able to see all your previous pics; just the shot he took a few seconds before. Long story short: your selfies are safe.

Start Menu

Microsoft Windows 81 unveiled new apps, new features and the return of the Start button

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise -- the cat's already out of the bag -- but Microsoft updated the Start Screen with two additional tile sizes. You'll probably notice the supersized ones first; these take up about as much space as four regular ones, and are especially well-suited to email or weather updates -- things where there's a lot of information to see. Additionally, Microsoft added some extra-small tiles, which take up a quarter of the space of a standard tile. Maybe you want to use that option with apps you rarely access. In any case, when you're ready to customize your setup, just press and hold an app, then select the resize option.

What's especially nice about Windows 8.1 is that you can cut down on the tile clutter.

What's especially nice about Windows 8.1, though, is that you can cut down on the tile clutter altogether. Now, when you download an app, it doesn't go straight to the Start Screen; instead, it lives in the app menu. That should come as a relief to anybody who impulsively downloaded a bunch of freebies from the Windows Store, only to let them sit there. Also, if you do have a big selection of apps, finding the one you want should be a little easier going forward. First off, Microsoft added a gesture wherein you can swipe upward on the Start Screen to reveal the app menu. (There will also be an onscreen arrow button you can click if you're using a mouse.) Once you're there, you can sort your apps not just alphabetically, but also by category, date installed and most used.

And say you do want an app to live on the Start Screen. From the app menu, you can press and hold an app and then follow the onscreen instructions to create a Live Tile. What's neat is that you can also make all these adjustments in batches: just press and hold as many apps as you like, and then give them all the same tile size, or move them into a group. It's a more convenient way of creating groups, for sure, but Microsoft is actually hoping the benefits will be two-fold: by interacting with the Live Tiles this way, you're unlikely to accidentally move apps around simply by swiping the Start Screen, which is something a lot of people have complained about, according to Microsoft.

Finally, the Start Screen is getting some new personalization options. Now, when you select a background, you get to choose from a sliding scale, so the options are much more nuanced than they were before. Also, Microsoft is introducing some moving backgrounds -- things like floating robots and a dragon with a wagging tail. All told, they're sort of like the live backgrounds on Android, just a bit more subtle.

Search

Microsoft Windows 81 unveiled new apps, new features and the return of the Start button

Before we talk about what's new in search, it might help if we recap the way it works now. Currently, if you were to search for, say, Angry Birds, you'd see a list in the right-hand pane with links for relevant apps, files and settings. So, if you were looking to launch the game Angry Birds, you'd hit "apps." If you wanted to bring up a draft essay on the history of Angry Birds, you'd select "files." If there were an Angry Birds-related setting in the Control Panel, well, you get the idea.

That's how we search for things today. But come June 26th, Windows will serve up direct links to apps, files, settings and web suggestions. That means no more clicking "apps"; you can just get to the Angry Birds app with one less tap. Additionally, you can play music from search, and it'll bring up either songs you already have in your library, or tracks you've added to your collection in Xbox Music. So, for example, you can type "play Janis Joplin" in the search bar, and then you're one tap away from listening to Janis, so long as you have some of her music already or already added her to your list in Xbox Music.

It's more than just a revision of the way Windows displays search results.

But there's still a big piece of the story left, and it's more than just a revision of the way Windows displays search results. Say you search for something the way you would on Bing. Maybe you type in "Kate Upton" because you want to see her Sports Illustrated cover, or know how old she is. As ever, Windows will scan your files, apps, etc. for mentions of Kate. But it might also provide a link inviting you to learn more about Kate Upton. Click that and you'll get what's called a "Search Hero," which can only be described as a curated app with content related to whatever it is you just searched for (note: not all search queries will yield Search Heroes).

In terms of the layout, it actually looks very similar to the Bing News app, where you can already see a mix of stories, photos and videos. Except in this case, it's an app with just Kate Upton tidbits. As you click around, you may get tossed over to other programs; if you hit "read more about Kate Upton," for instance, Windows will open your Wikipedia application. It's a very rich experience, as you can see, and customizable, too: you can even sort photos by color. Want to see a photo of J. Lo that time she wore a dress with a neckline down to her belly button? Just filter for the color green and you should be set.

Multitasking

As we noticed even in those leaked screenshots, Windows 8.1 takes a looser approach to multitasking. For one thing, you can snap more than two windows in alongside each other, depending on your dpi and screen resolution. For instance, the Microsoft rep leading our demo was using a new Toshiba Kirabook with a 220-ppi, 2,560 x 1,440 screen, and that was enough to support four side-by-side programs. In addition to supporting more windows, though, the new OS also allows you to adjust the sizing of each windowpane so that you're not forced to put them in an 80 / 20 split. Now you can go 50 / 50 if you like, or maybe 60 / 40.

Really, though, Microsoft hopes you don't have to do that much fiddling with the window size: the company's engineers have coded the new OS so that it intelligently chooses the ratio for you, depending on what you're doing. For instance, if you open a photo from an email it'll open as a 60 / 40 split, with the photo getting more screen real estate. If you click on a link in a message, however, it'll be a 50 / 50 layout by default.

Windows Store

The Windows Store has also been overhauled, with larger tiles and more info under each app listing (for things like the rating, et cetera). It's a little easier to find the top paid / top free charts, which you can get to by swiping left. You can also swipe down from the top to see a list of all the categories, if that's how you'd rather search. To that end, Microsoft's introducing a new recommendation engine to make it easier to discover apps you haven't heard of yet. Based on a variety of factors (what apps you have, what's highly rated), the Windows Store will show related apps every time you're on a download page, considering whether or not to buy something. That's nice for consumers, of course, but it's good for developers too, who now have a better chance of their apps getting noticed. And we all know how Ballmer feels about developers.

Lastly, and this isn't really a design change so much as a behind-the-scenes one, apps will now automatically update in the background. So it's unlikely you'll ever fire up the Netflix app again only to realize you need to update it first.

Touch keyboard

As we hinted in the intro, the onscreen keyboard in Windows 8 has received a serious makeover. Starting with the most significant update (in our humble opinion), you can now long-press a key to get to certain secondary functions. In this layout, for instance, the "T" key doubles as the "5" button, so if it's that number you're after, you can long-press "T" and then tap a little pop-up with "5" on it. This works for entering punctuation symbols, too, as well as special characters like an umlaut. And by the way, you don't need a German keyboard to get an umlaut; regardless of what language you have set up, you can get at all sorts of special characters, even ones that aren't common in your native tongue. Speaking of which, these new keyboard features will be available for all of the 109 languages that Microsoft fully supports in Windows 8, though so-called language packs don't count.

As it turns out, once you get the hang of this new keyboard, you don't even need to do a long-press when you want to enter special characters. For instance, once you learn that the exclamation mark pop-up is due north of the question mark button, you can just swipe your finger up on the question mark key and the keyboard will understand you meant to add an exclamation mark. So far as we can tell, it works reliably: the Microsoft rep doing the demo never accidentally hit the Enter key while swiping up. Still, we'd prefer to reserve full judgment until we can test this ourselves -- it's not like the Microsoft team has had time to practice or anything, right?

Additionally, the new keyboard has pop-up spelling suggestions -- three in total, every time. As a time-saver, you can hit the space key to cycle through suggestions so that you don't have to take your hands off the keyboard. Finally, Microsoft revised its algorithms so that accuracy is now rated at about 90 percent, up from around 60.

SkyDrive

Microsoft Windows 81 unveiled new apps, new features and the return of the Start button

Windows 8 has always had a SkyDrive app, but with this latest update, Microsoft's cloud service is built much more deeply into the OS itself. Basically, until now the app has been just a mirror into what you had stored on SkyDrive.com. It didn't sync automatically; you had to manually upload files to the site before anything new showed up in the Windows app. Now, it's constantly syncing in the background, regardless of whether you have the app open or not. Specifically, what you'll see when you launch the application are so-called stubs -- previews just detailed enough to remind you what the file actually contains. Once you click on it, though, you'll need to wait for your computer to download the full document, which hopefully shouldn't take long. As time goes on, too, you can specify what kinds of content SkyDrive syncs in the background; if you don't want to automatically bring Word docs onto your PC, that's your call.

PC settings

This is one of those things Microsoft just didn't get around to completing before the deadline for shipping Windows 8. In the current version, the Modern-styled settings menu only has a handful of options -- relatively few compared to what you'll find on the traditional Control Panel. Now, though, Microsoft's ported over all those advanced settings so that the PC settings menu mirrors the Control Panel. (Just with a prettier interface.) As a result, there's no longer a "Miscellaneous" category, since every setting now has a proper home.

Apps

IE

Internet Explorer generally looks the same, except for one big difference: the tabs now sit at the bottom of the page, just above the address bar. In addition, you can now open an unlimited number of tabs in the Modern version of IE, which gives it more parity with the desktop version of the browser.

Photos

For those of you who thought the built-in Photos app was a tad perfunctory, Microsoft's updating it with all sorts of editing tools, including auto fix, temperature, tint, saturation, color and "Basic Fixes," which is exactly what it sounds like. Also included: various effects and photo filters, similar to what you'd already expect on a typical phone or tablet. A partial list includes: retouching, redeye, crop, selective focus and vignetting.

Lastly, there's a neat Color Enhance tool that lets you adjust the color on one specific part of the picture (say, the blue of the ocean). We watched a Microsoft rep demo this, but didn't get to try it ourselves, so this is probably something we want to circle back on when we eventually publish our first hands-on piece.

Xbox Music

We suspect Microsoft is going to do a deeper dive on this at Build, but for now, here's a primer. All you need to know is that the Xbox Music app has gotten a big makeover so that the emphasis is more on your existing collection, rather than discovering new tracks. By default, your music is organized by artists, albums and songs, though you can, of course, still discover new content if you so choose. In particular, Microsoft said Xbox Music is getting a "Radio" feature, which is said to be like Smart DJ, only better. That's all we know for now -- and it's really not much -- which means Microsoft will almost certainly need to follow up at Build with more details.

Reading List

According to Microsoft, many users have been asking for a bookmarking feature -- a way to share things with themselves in addition to other people. Well, for those of you who can't live without services like Instapaper or Pocket, Microsoft is introducing Reading List, an app that saves all the interesting things you found online, but wanted to save for later. When you're ready to clip something, just hit the Share button in the Charms Bar and select the Reading List option. Oh, and your bookmarks will roam from one Windows 8 device to another. Eventually, Microsoft will add support for Windows Phone handsets too, just not at launch.

The app itself is styled in much the same way as Microsoft's other first-party apps, with large tiles you swipe through from left to right. When you open something in the application, the article will take up most of the screen, with Reading List snapped into place along the side, taking up about 20 percent of the screen. Of course, though, now that those side-by-side windows are resizable, you can rejigger the ratio any way you like.

Calculator

It's hard to believe Windows 8 didn't ship with a Modern-style Calculator app, but it's true: until now, we've only had the classic calculator on the desktop. Now, Microsoft is adding a calculator for the Modern UI, which we actually tried out back when an early build of Windows 8.1 got leaked. As we reported at the time, you can use it as either a numeric or scientific calculator. Also, perhaps best of all, it does unit conversions -- everything from length to weight to temperature.

Alarms

Here's another Windows app we sometimes forget we didn't already have. The new version of the OS will bring an alarms application that does triple duty as a stopwatch and countdown timer as well. Admittedly we didn't spend much time with this in our demo, but we can say that setting the time is both fun and easy: just spin your finger around the clock until you have it set to the time you want.

Bing Food & Drink

Now this is pretty cool. As the name suggests, Food & Drink is an app where, among other things, you can find recipes. What makes it noteworthy, though, is that Microsoft added a hands-free mode, allowing you to flip pages in a recipe without touching the screen. Just wave your hand in front of the webcam, and the app will move on to the next page, sparing you from having to touch the screen with your greasy, sauce-covered fingers. And because all you need is a camera, it should work on all sorts of legacy devices, even those without any sort of fancy gesture-control technology baked in.

As for those "other things" we alluded to, you can use the app to plan meals, create shopping lists and learn new skills, like sharpening knives.

Bing Health & Fitness

This, too, is mostly self-explanatory. With Health & Fitness, you can monitor your nutrition habits, exercise routine and even your overall health. Let's focus on that last bit, because it's what makes this unique from other fitness-tracking apps, like Fitbit, et cetera. Using the app, you can tap an onscreen diagram of a body to indicate what sorts of symptoms you're experiencing. From there, Dr. Microsoft attempts to diagnose you, using medical information pulled in from various online sources. In an interview, Microsoft assured us it's only bothering with "reputable" services, but we've yet to see a full list. Even then, common sense still applies: if you normally wouldn't let WebMD diagnose you with a sinus infection, you can take this app with a grain of salt too.

Wrap-up

See what we mean when we say we might have to review Windows 8 all over again? The final word count here is longer than on most product reviews, and this is just a news announcement, not even a hands-on! We'll be back with more detailed coverage next month, when Windows 8.1 becomes available for download and when we get a chance to try it ourselves (as opposed to a guided demo). And be sure to follow our Build coverage, as Microsoft has already promised it will have more news to share, particularly around its various apps.

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Windows 8.1 unveiled: new apps, new features and the return of the Start button