Microsoft outs the new features in Windows 8.1: Here's what you need to know


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Desktop diehards will find a present waiting for them in Windows 8.1, the impending upgrade colloquially dubbed “Windows Blue.” A wonderful, horrible, oh-so-teasing present.

The Start button is back—but the Start menu isn’t.

Instead, clicking the old familar button will dump you into the modern UI Start screen. While the new feature is notable for adding a helpful visual cue to an operating system rife with hidden menus, it isn’t exactly what people begging for the return of the Start button were looking for.

One much-clamored-for, keyboard- and mouse-friendly feature will be making a debut in Windows 8.1, however. The update adds the option to boot directly to the desktop, bypassing the modern UI start screen completely. (Actually, you can boot into several alternate locations, including the All Apps view.)

Another new option adds the ability to carry your desktop background over to the modern interface, fostering a more unified feel across the OS. If that doesn’t float your boat, new Start screen colors and backgrounds will also be available, including some animated elements. You can also choose to use a slideshow of your pictures for your lock screen, in effect having your PC double as a really expensive digital picture frame when you’re not actively using it.

Moving into modern times

The new Snap view in action. Yay split screen!

All that said, most of Windows 8.1’s enhancements are made to bolster the modern environment, not the desktop.

The most welcome improvement is the addition of fully customizable Snap views. No longer will you be locked into the two app, quarter-screen Snap limitations of Windows 8 vanilla. Windows 8.1 adds the ability to resize Snap apps to any ratio you’d like, and includes an option to Snap three apps side-by-side-by-side. You’ll also be able to have multiple instances of an app open and Snapped; Microsoft’s blog post lists two Internet Explorer Windows as an example.

Hate the way that every newly installed app gets plopped on your Start screen? You won’t once Windows 8.1 hits, because that annoying “feature” is going the way of the dodo. Instead, any apps installed from the Windows Store will appear under a new “New” filter in the All Apps view, from which you can chose to pin apps to the Start screen if you so desire. Yay self-determination!

The new SkyDrive interface

Windows RT users will be happy to hear that the modern SkyDrive app is gaining the ability to save locally. Currently, you can only use the SkyDrive app to view files already stored in the cloud.

The modern-style PC setting options is also getting a big boost. One of the biggest complaints about Windows 8 is the way it constantly swaps you back and forth between the desktop and modern interfaces, a problem exacerbated by the fact that you have to dive into the desktop control panel to tinker with under-the-hood stuff. No more.

”The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop,” Microsoft’s introductory blog post explains.

Internet Explorer 11 will make its debut in Windows 8.1, as well. While most of the tweaks sounds fairly basic—faster page loads, better touch performance—it’s also adding the tab syncing feature seen in leaked builds of Blue, allowing you to open tabs across multiple Windows 8.1 PCs and tablets.

Speaking of, Windows 8.1 also adds the ability to sync your settings and Start screen apps across multiple devices, assuming you sign in to those devices using an online-connected Microsoft account.

The Windows Store and the default Microsoft apps are also being tweaked, per Microsoft’s new continuous improvement push. The Search charm, meanwhile, is being overhauled to “provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources.” It sounds like it could be either awesome or horrible; I can’t wait to try it.

An itty bitty view of the new Bing search. (Click to enlarge slightly.)

More minute improvements include more Live Tile sizing options, additional category filters in the All Apps screen, and a plethora of Start screen tile shuffling options.

So, do these tweaks equate to blue skies or Windows Blah? You’ll be able to judge for yourself on June 26, when Microsoft releases a developer preview of Windows 8.1 to coincide with the BUILD conference.

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