Windows 8.1 is here
After nearly a year's worth of rumors and months of dabbling with the Developer Preview, the much-ballyhooed Windows 8.1 update finally—finally!—lands in the Windows Store Thursday.
Microsoft's Windows 8 do-over is jam-packed with refinements, new apps, and awesome hidden features. In fact, we're still finding tweaks after weeks of playing with the final version of the operating system. So we've compiled the highlights to let you see the biggest changes with your own eyes.
Hit the links sprinkled throughout this slideshow for additional in-depth information about new capabilities, or read our review of Windows 8.1 for the definitive take on Microsoft's bold attempt at compromise.
Improved desktop experience
For many PCWorld readers, Windows 8.1's biggest draw will be the new options that let them inch ever closer to the traditional Windows desktop experience—though Microsoft hides the most useful tools in arcane submenus.
Buried in the Properties > Navigation tab (to reach it, right-click the desktop taskbar) are tools to let you boot straight to the desktop, disable "hot corners," have the Start button launch the All Apps screen, and more. Making these adjustments takes some time, but Windows 8.1 is much friendlier to displaced desktop diehards than Windows 8 ever was.
Bing Smart Search
You'll have to stray from the desktop to find many of Windows 8.1's most impressive changes. Bing Smart Search, a killer addition to the OS, uses the power of Microsoft's search engine to create gorgeous, unified search results that draw information from websites, your own local files, and apps that you can download from the Windows Store.
Pictures, documents, videos, biographical information—Bing Smart Search displays it all. It's seriously impressive, assuming that you don't mind the occasional ad or the prospect of sharing your local search results with Microsoft.
Dynamic 'Snap' multitasking
On a tablet, one of Windows 8's biggest draws is its ability—unlike most Android and Apple tablets—to run multiple apps side-by-side. That ability helps out big-time on a PC, too, which is why Windows 8's original Snap capabilities were so disappointing: You could use no more than two apps at a time, and they were locked into a permanent 75/25 split onscreen.
Snap has grown up in Windows 8.1, greatly improving the OS's user-friendliness on desktops. Larger, pixel-packed displays can now snap three or more apps simultaneously depending on their resolution, and you can dynamically adjust how much of the screen each app occupies.
Same app, different windows
Some Windows 8.1 apps now let you run multiple instances of that app simultaneously—so you could have Internet Explorer 11 or Mail open in two different snapped windows, doing two different things. It's a small change, but a supremely handy one.
Better modern UI PC Settings
Windows 8 did a horrible job of letting users stay in the modern UI. Changing virtually any systems settings required a detour to the desktop Control Panel—often a frustrating experience on tablets, since desktop menus aren't designed for touchscreens.
Windows 8.1 lets you fine-tune many aspects of your device—including deep-down options such as display settings—directly from the modern-style PC Settings menu in the charm bar. You'll still need to dive into the desktop for really arcane tweaks, but Windows 8.1's revamped PC Settings menu contains all the everyday features most users will ever need.
One of the biggest complaints about Windows 8 was how it dropped users into a new world of hot corners, Live Tiles, and charm bars without any guidance. Microsoft's lack of help was so glaring that third-party PC makers brewed in-house tutorial apps to install on new PCs.
No more! Shortly after you sign in to the OS for the first time, massive pop-ups will explain the basics of all the modern UI features that are crucial to the Windows 8.1 experience. And if you ever need to brush up on your navigation skills, there's...
The Help+Tips app
PC makers won't need to create tutorial apps to help users learn the Live-Tile ropes anymore. Microsoft has baked into Windows 8.1 a stellar Help+Tips app that teaches you about the OS's new aspects in a clean, straightforward way. There are even short animations showing the new gestures in action. Handy stuff indeed.
New apps galore
Windows 8.1 is bursting at the seams with new apps. Calculator, Scan, Sound Recorder, and Alarms do pretty much what you'd expect. The Food & Drink app dishes out recipe details and more, while Health & Fitness is a borderline sprawling program loaded with info and features that focus on your well-being. Reading List is a Pocket-esque 'read-it-later' program that plays nicely with Internet Explorer 11 and other modern-style apps.
Intrigued? Check out PCWorld's roundup of new and improved Windows 8.1 apps for more details.
Improved apps galore
Virtually every baked-in Windows 8 app, from Mail to Music to the newly panoramarific Camera, has been updated in some way—as we've reported in our Windows 8.1 app roundup.
Microsoft gave most apps only minor tweaks, but Windows 8's Mail app has received a particularly impressive overhaul. The Windows 8.1 version sports a new toolbar to help sort your messages intelligently, upgraded Outlook.com integration, improved responsiveness to both touchscreens and traditional PC controls, much-needed drag-and-drop support, and scads more. Oh, and did I mention it's much faster now?
Windows shopping grows up
The Windows Store looks completely different in Windows 8.1, and that's a good thing. The original Windows 8 Windows Store provided little at-a-glance information about apps on the main screen, and virtually no personalized recommendations.
The revamped Windows 8.1 Windows Store gives apps a bit more room to breathe, along with short text details about each. Personalized recommendations, more-obvious information about new releases, and a focus on top and trending apps make the new-look Windows Store much easier to navigate, and the overhauled listings for individual apps do a far better job of conveying the info you want to know. Two thumbs up.
Internet Explorer 11
The modern version of Internet Explorer 11 rocks in Windows 8.1, and its sleek interface hides fresh tricks that go beyond tab syncing. On the surface, Microsoft tweaked IE 11's oft-hidden navigational controls to merge the tab menu and address bar into a single interface at the bottom of the screen—a welcome change.
The modern version of IE 11 also supports Windows 8.1's new Reading List app, and it can open links in new windows. Under the hood, IE 11 adds WebGL 3D, hardware acceleration capabilities, and numerous technical tweaks that help make the browser run like greased lightning, even while handling intense websites. A new reading view makes settling down with long articles a pleasure, and new functionality treats (some) pinned websites as Live Tiles, displaying up-to-date article information.
SkyDrive's tentacles work their way even deeper into Windows 8.1. The enhanced SkyDrive integration lets you sync more content—including Internet Explorer tabs and your full modern app library—between PCs. You can also save all your Camera-snapped pictures and all your files to SkyDrive automatically, so they'll be accessible on any device. And a new feature dubbed Smart Files prevents all that data from clogging your hard drive.
A modern UI File Explorer (kind of)
Beyond all those cloud enhancements lies a change that touchscreen users could find even more valuable: Opening the modern-style SkyDrive app and selecting 'This PC' from the drop-down menu (as shown at left) lets you browse through your local files. Yes, the new version of SkyDrive is the Metro File Explorer we've been clamoring for. Hallelujah!
Better app filters and controls
The All Apps screen in Windows 8 was vital, yet kind of broken. To find it, you had to right-click in the modern Start screen and click the All Apps icon in the corner—and it didn't do a great job of sorting files.
With Windows 8.1, you can find the screen by swiping up or by clicking a new arrow in the Start screen, or by using the aforementioned (optional) Start button tweak. The All Apps screen packs many new sorting options—including the ability to show desktop apps first.
Even better, Windows 8.1 makes it easier to manage your modern apps. A new 'Search and Apps' section in the PC Settings menu lets you see how much space each program consumes, and it presents a single interface for uninstalling apps in bulk.
Clean Start screen, clean mind
One major irritation in Windows 8 was the way every newly installed app dumped a Live Tile on the modern Start screen. Some desktop software installations unleashed a shotgun blast of tiles across Microsoft's new-look home page.
In Windows 8.1, that's no longer the case. By default, you have to wade into the redone All Apps interface and manually select the apps you'd like to pin to the Start screen, beyond the baked-in Microsoft apps. I've never been so happy to add a step to a process, but the new setup works wonders for keeping your Start screen organized and relevant.
Windows 8.1 also includes new itty-bitty and supersize Tile options, so you can tweak the look of your Start screen a bit more.
3D printing support and other hidden gems
With Windows 8.1, Microsoft tries to make 3D printing as seamless as traditional paper printing. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Check out our coverage of Windows 8.1's hidden features for other interesting capabilities Microsoft has discreetly ensconced in the update.
Last, but far from least, Windows 8.1 lets you drag your desktop wallpaper over to the Start screen. This nifty extra helps break down the wall dividing its feuding interfaces, and makes Windows 8.1 feel much more unified and complete than its predecessor. Sometimes, little things make all the difference.
Windows 8.1 still isn't perfect, but Microsoft's OS makeover isn't some surface remodel. Check out our review of the Windows 8.1 update for further details and for our final verdict on the operating system. And stay tuned over the coming days for additional tips, tricks, and insights as we peel back the layers of Windows 8.1.
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