With Windows 8.1, Microsoft demonstrates that it's heard the criticisms, and has responded with impressive improvements for desktop and touch tablet users. The Preview version of the updated operating system was launched today at the company's Build conference in San Francisco, and PCMag got an early look at it installed on a Surface Pro tablet$925.99 at Amazon. Not only does the new OS make helpful changes to the user interface, but it also drastically improves built-in search, SkyDrive cloud syncing, and the Windows app store. The included set of modern apps also get refreshes, and business and security features get bolstered. Despite the extensive enhancements, any current Windows 8$75.98 at Discount Mountain user can upgrade to 8.1 for free through the Windows Store on Windows 8's Start Screen.
A couple of the biggest asks from traditional PC users have been granted: the return of the Start button and the ability to boot directly to the desktop, which resembles the Windows 7 interface. But Microsoft hasn't given up on making the new-style tile and full-screen, touch-friendly apps and Start Page more usable for all users, whether using touch screens or mouse and keyboard—critical to the OS's goal of being just as at home on tablets (even mini-tablets) as on traditional PCs.
The tile-based Start screen (which is actually where that new Start button leads to), has gotten more flexible, with new smaller and larger tile options. And more than two modern apps can now share the new interface's screen. No longer are you restricted to a large window and one slender side panel, but two apps can each take of half the screen, or, depending on what the app's developer has allowed, any portion you choose. The number of apps depends on how large the screen is and its pixel density. With multiple monitors, you can further augment multiple windows. Speaking of external monitors, Windows 8.1 supports Miracast, which lets you send video over Wi-Fi to large HDTVs and the like.
More New User Interface Features
Several interface tweaks in Windows 8.1 make doing common tasks that much simpler. For starters, take the on-screen keyboard. You no longer have to move your fingers from the keyboard to select a spelling suggestion—just tap the spacebar. You can also enter numbers without explicitly switching to the numeric mode—just hold down a top-row key and the number that would be above it on a standard keyboard appears as a choice you can tap.
For mouse and keyboard users, a couple of small touches improve things like working with the Charms (those basic options that pop up along the right, for Search, Share, Settings, and so on). In Windows 8.1, if you place the cursor in the top-right corner of the screen, the Charms show up higher, closer to your cursor. Moving new-style app windows around is also easier now with the mouse. For example, to dismiss a modern app, you don't have to drag itall the way to the bottom of the screen the way you do on a touch screen, because doing so with a mouse takes more effort.
The Start screen gets more than just new tile sizes. It also can now display animated backgrounds, or use the same background as the desktop wallpaper, for a more unified interface experience. So that the Start screen doesn't get overwhelmingly cluttered with app tiles, now apps only are automatically added to the All App screen, not to the Start screen, but in Windows 8.1, you can get to this All Apps list simply by swiping up on the Start screen.
The Lock screen also has new tricks: It can act as a slideshow display of your photos, rather than just showing a static picture. The slides are chosen with some intelligence, too, rather than simply rotating through all your photos; for example, you may see photos from around the same time of year in previous years. Another big help, especially for small tablets, is access to the camera without the need to log in. The same goes for answering Skype calls—just tap on the notification to start videochatting with grandma.
A big bugaboo of mine for Windows 8 was that you have two Settings tools—the new-style one and the traditional Control Panel on the desktop. Windows 8.1 still maintains this duality, but the modern UI settings have gotten far more robust, eliminating the need to head to the massive number of choices in desktop Control Panel. For example, now you can configure display settings, change mouse and typing options, and see PC info. You can even make new adjustments, like changing the app-switching behavior in the Corners and Edges section.
Another peeve of mine was that, in order to sync documents with SkyDrive, you had to have two SkyDrive apps running on Windows 8, the modern and the desktop version. Now SkyDrive document syncing is a built-in capability of the OS.