Just 8 months after it launched Windows 8, Microsoft has released a fully-functional preview version of its next-operating system, Windows 8.1. Though more of an evolutionary upgrade to Windows 8 than a new OS version, 8.1 provides a number of key features that dramatically improve the user experience, including enhanced multitasking, universal search, virtual keyboard improvements and a new-look Windows Store.
We’ve spent some quality time with preview build of Windows 8.1 and come away pleased with many of its new capabilities, particularly its new split-screen mode and gesture-enhanced typing. Other key features, such as the revamped PC Settings menu, still leave a lot of room for improvement.
One of our biggest complaints about Windows 8′s new “Modern” UI is a weak multitasking function that allows you to show only one main app and one docked app, with the latter taking up a third of the screen and not providing full functionality. With Windows 8.1, you can show two or more full-sized apps at a time in Modern UI, depending on your screen resolution and how many displays you have.
Unlike in desktop mode, where you can split the screen up between as many windows as you want, even if they are all on top of each other, Windows 8.1′s Modern mode allows you to have one app open per 500 pixels of screen width. So, if you have a 1366 x 768 display, that’s two apps at a time, but it’s three at a time if you have 1080p. However, there’s a caveat in that Windows 8.1 uses your effective resolution, not your actual one. So, if you are on a tablet like the Surface Pro, which has a 1080p screen but enlarges the images to make icons and text easier to see, you’ll only be able to put two windows on the screen at once.
Using Windows 8.1 on our Surface Pro tablet, we were able to easily place two screens next to each other in a couple of different ways. The first way to split the screen is to use an app, which itself spawns a new window. When we were in the Modern version of IE 11, we visite CNN.com, and were able to spawn a second window simply by right clicking on a link and selecting “Open link in new Window.” The screen split evenly between both browser windows, with each showing a different web page, scaled to fit within its window without horizontal scrolling.
When we dragged the divider bar between the two windows to the left or right, we were able to adjust the split between windows from 50/50 to 60/40 or even 70/30. At all of these splits, the IE windows zoomed in or out to ensure that the web pages would still fit.
The other way to split the screen is to simply drag an open app over from the task menu onto another app that’s open full screen. With Bing News open full screen and Bing sports running in the background, we simply flipped open the task menu and dragged Bing Sports over until we saw the dividing line appear. After the screen was already split 50/50, any app we launched would appear as an icon on top of the screen and not dock until we dragged it on top of one of the other two foreground apps.
This new feature is easily our favorite improvement in Windows 8.1, because it makes the entire OS imminently better for multitasking. We wish, however, that the operating system did not group all desktop apps into a single window so that we could use this new split screen capability on them as well. Windows 8.1 also allows users to put additional split screens on second and third displays, but we were unable to test this feature in time for this preview.
Microsoft took a lot of heat for removing the Start button from Windows in Windows 8 and, with Windows 8.1, there is now a Start button but it doesn’t do what you might expect. When you’re in desktop mode, there is a Windows logo in the lower left corner of the screen, but if you click it, it takes you to the Start Screen, not the old-fashioned Start Menu, which appears to be gone for good. When you’re in Modern UI, the Start button isn’t visible, unless you hover over the lower left corner with your mouse.
Considering that Windows 8 also has a Start button, just one that’s invisible in all modes until you hover over the left corner, this new button doesn’t really change much. However, we did find it comforting to see it there, even though we wish it would provide a Start menu that appears as an overlay rather than taking you to the start screen.
You can make the transition between desktop mode and Start screen a bit less jarring by setting the Start screen to use the same wallpaper as the desktop. However, it’s obvious that you are in a different environment from the second that you hit that Start button, because your desktop windows and icons are no longer visible, just the tiles on the Start screen.
Users who really like the desktop can now boot directly to it, by changing a simple setting in taskbar properties. You can also configure the Start button to take you to the “all apps” screen, which shows icons for everything you have installed instead of live tiles for just your favorite apps.
Users who still want an old-fashioned start menu can still download a Windows 8 Start menu replacement utility and expect it to work. When we installed Classic Shell, it immediately took the place of the new Windows Start button and gave us the Windows 7-style overlay we wanted.
In addition to adding the ability to match wallpaper with your desktop, Microsoft has given the Start Screen a handful of useful new capabilities. Users can now make tiles one of four different sizes: small, medium, wide and large while only the medium and wide sizes were supported in Windows 8. We particularly like the small size because it lets you fit four shortcuts in the same space that one tile used in Windows 8.
Moving tiles around, resizing them and removing them in batch was a breeze. When we long pressed on a tile for Microsoft Word, the app bar came up and offered us the opportunity to pin it to taskbar, uninstall, open it in a new Window or resize it. We were also able to select the other Office app tiles by tapping them and then drag all six of them to another part of the start screen with one swipe. As we dragged them we were actually moving just a single tile with the number 6 in its upper left corner to show that we had 6 tiles selected.
With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is trying to eliminate Start Screen clutter by not automatically adding tiles for new programs when you install them. If you want to find a list of all your apps, as on Windows 8, you will have to enter the all apps page, which you can get to by tapping a down arrow that appears on the Start Screen. If you want a particular app to be pinned to Start, you simply long press or right click it and select Pin to Start on the app bar.
Microsoft’s Windows 8 virtual keyboard seemed like it was years behind the highly-functional keyboards on other platforms like Android and iOS. However, the new virtual keyboard in 8.1 has added auto predict and gesture support that should make screen typing a lot easier. When typing in Word 2013, the keyboard provided a small box with three suggested words that appeared right below the cursor, rather than above the keyboard like it does in Android and iOS.
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As we typed the phrase “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country,” we were pleasantly surprised by how many times the system correctly guessed our intended word and suggested it after just two or three characters of input. The keyboard also tried to guess our next word, but wasn’t as good a psychic as we hoped; the predictions didn’t match our intentions most of the time.
Choosing one of the three suggestions is as easy as tapping the suggestion or swiping left to right on the space bar and then hitting the space bar to confirm and enter our choice. Unfortunately, we found ourselves having to be a little more deliberate after we accidentally hit the emoticon key when trying to perform a swipe.
One of the most annoying features of most virtual keyboards is the way they make you switch modes to activate keys such as numbers or certain punctuation marks that don’t appear in the initial view. Though the Windows 8.1 keyboard still allows you to switch to number key mode, you can access numbers or other extended keys just by long pressing on one of the initial keys. Long pressing on the top row of letters brought up small dialog boxes with the numbers that would appear above each letter on a classic physical keyboard. In some cases, such as the w, i and y keys, we were also presented with accented versions of those letters in addition to the numbers.
Long pressing the question mark brought up a menu with some really important characters including both parentheses, the exclamation point, the pound sign and @ symbol. Other letters also had hidden menus that appeared when we long pressed them. We were particularly pleased to see that the n key provides a spanish n with tilda over it when long pressed.
Windows 8 introduced a search feature that lets you query any kind of data in the OS, from apps to files to stocks, but it forced you to choose what type of result you want. For example, if you searched for “def leppard,” you had to decide whether you want to search the hard drive, the web or your list of apps. When we searched for that phrase in Windows 8.1, we were presented not only with a word doc about Def Leppard on our hard drive, but a rich “search hero” with a photo of the band, a list of playable songs which launch in Xbox music, a link to an entry on the Wikipedia app and news results from search. Panning to the right showed even more content, including thumbnail previews of related web pages.
The search hero pages look attractive and reminded us a bit of similar combined search pages we saw in Firefox OS, which also combines results from the web, apps and files. However, the search hero pages don’t offer any kind of disambiguation as we found out when we searched for “Voltaire” wanting information about the folk singer, but ending up with a hero page about the French author.
It’s unclear exactly how many search hero pages there are, what gets a hero page and what doesn’t, but the hero pages seem to mirror the knowledge graph call outs you’d get for the same search queries on bing.com. When we conducted a search for our own name, we simply got thumbnail previews of web pages on which our name appears, not a hero page.
However, with or without hero pages, the combined search results are a very welcome change from Windows 8′s siloed approach. If you want to restrict your search to one type of content, you can still do that using a pulldown above the search box.
Interestingly, when we had our Def Leppard search hero page open and clicked on one of the top songs, that entire song played in Xbox music even though we hadn’t bought it. Similarly, when we hit the “play top songs” button on the hero page, it launched an entire playlist of the band’s songs and let us jog through it for free, without even asking for a credit card.
Fortunately, you don’t even need to search for a band to start playing its songs. Xbox Music now has a radio feature that lets you create your own stations for free, just by selecting an artist you want the station based on. When we clicked the radio button in Xbox Music and entered Donna Summer as our artist, it immediately launched one of her songs, “Last Dance” in its player and created a station we could listen to and jog through with the forward and back buttons. As on Slacker, our station ended up playing songs from a lot of different artists, including Michael Jackson and K.C. and the Sunshine band, but unlike with Slacker, we didn’t have a like / dislike button to help the service shape our playlist.
The Xbox Music Radio service is ad supported, as we found out when we stopped and started our station and got a 15-second audio commercial for Xbox Music’s paid service. According to Microsoft, a future update to Xbox music will automatically generate a playlist simply by looking at the content of a web page that has artist or song names on it. However, the Windows 8.1 preview doesn’t have this feature yet.
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Even if you love Windows 8′s Modern UI and want to live in it 24/7, today you have to go to the desktop to change many of the settings. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has added a lot more functionality to the Modern UI’s PC Settings menu so that you don’t have to delve into the desktop control panel for most things.
Some of the new settings submenus let you perform such actions as changing your screen resolution, changing default apps for file types and set up a proxy server. We particularly appreciated seeing that the new “add user” feature allows you to designate a user as an administrator, a process that required users to go into the control panel in Windows 8.
However, it’s clear that the new PC settings menu still doesn’t go far enough. To access a number of important and advanced-level features, you still need to go into the old-fashioned control panel. For power settings for example, the PC Settings menu only lets you control the screen timeout, sleep timeout and auto brightness. If you want to create a serious power profile, you must head to the desktop. Y0u’ll also need to head there to perform driver updates in the device manager, control more than just the basic display or tweak the network settings.
Windows 8.1 adds a new panorama feature to the built-in camera app, which makes it relatively easy to shoot 360 degree photos. We were able to shoot a panorama of our hotel room, but the app kept warning us that we were “too far from last image” as we spun around so we had to be more deliberate in our movements. Even so, we had a hard time keeping the camera straight and ended up with an image that had a jagged top and bottom. However, we appreciated the fact that, in photo viewer, these panoramas actually let us rotate around them using our finger to swipe.
The photo viewer also adds some basic editing capabilities such as crop and rotate. We particularly liked the “auto fix” feature; instead of simply changing our photo, Windows 8.1 gave us five different thumbnail views of different possible fixes. The color enhance feature lets users turn up the volume on a particular color like the green in grass, but we were unable to adjust its dial on the dim photos we took of our hotel room.
Speaking of photos, the Windows 8.1 lock screen now shows has an optional slideshow feature that shows pictures from local gallery and Sky Drive. Microsoft says the slideshow is smart enough to pick photos based on date so that pictures from last year at this time will show. However, we didn’t have enough photos loaded to find out.
You can also access the camera directly by sliding down from the lock screen top and answer Skype calls if they come in while the system is locked.
The Windows Store has been redesigned a bit for Windows 8.1, with a greater emphasis on helping you find the best and most interesting apps. Where the Windows 8 store put app categories such as “social,” “productivity” and “gaming” front and center, the new Windows 8.1 store spotlights the newest apps, the most popular apps and the best apps across categories.
The new-look store also has better description pages for apps, as it puts user reviews and other key information right in front of you, rather than making you click through to tabs for more details. The new store also provides automatic updates to all of your apps in the background, without making you take any action. Developers can also segment their downloads into packages so that a game may only send the files you need to play on your device, rather than sending every file for every possible config.
Microsoft has also added some new apps, including Food and Drink, a cooking app which lets you navigate through the different steps of a recipe with the wave of a hand and Windows Alarms, which creates alarm clocks and timers.
If you have Windows 8 right now, Windows 8.1 will feel like quite an improvement, particularly when you start using the multiwindow mode and virtual keyboard. If you’ve stuck with Windows 7 because you like the traditional Start Menu and don’t care for Modern UI, Windows 8.1′s new capabilities may not be enough to sway you. However, even the most diehard desktop user will have to admit that the Windows 8.1 preview is a step in the right direction, even if not every feature goes far enough toward making the new OS power-user friendly.