A year after Windows 8 launched, Microsoft has released the first major update to its reinvented operating system – called Windows 8.1. Available from 18 October as a free download from the Windows Store for existing Windows 8 users, Windows 8.1 addresses many of the criticisms levelled at the first edition and has a whole host of new features besides. So what can you expect when you install Windows 8.1 onto your PC? Read on to find out.
Start button and direct to desktop
Microsoft took some flak for the removal of the Start button from Windows 8, so it’s no surprise to see it reappear in Windows 8.1. However, it’s worth noting that it is just the Start button that’s back – not the Start menu.
Clicking or tapping the Start button on the Windows 8.1 Desktop simply returns you to the tiles-based Start screen (read more about this later). If you do want the traditional Start menu, you can install free software such as Classic Shell.
Windows 8.1 lets users launch directly to the Windows Desktop, rather than the Start screen. If this sounds appealing, click or tap the Desktop tile then right-click on the Windows Taskbar (at the bottom of the screen) and choose Properties. Switch to the Navigation tab, tick the Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in box then click OK.
Windows 8.1 allows users to launch straight into the traditional Windows Desktop
Start screen improvements
On the surface, the Windows 8.1 Start screen looks familiar but a fair bit has changed. For starters there are two extra tile sizes – large and small. To change a tile size, right-click or long press it and then click/tap Resize. You can also select, group and move multiple tiles at once.
The Settings charm has also been tweaked (hold down the [Windows] key and tap [C] to open Charms). There’s a new Personalize option that, unsurprisingly, can be used to personalise the way the Start screen looks with different colours, backgrounds and so forth.
It’s also possible to have the Desktop wallpaper shown behind the Start screen, so the transition between the two is less jarring. If you’d like this, launch the Desktop, right-click the Taskbar , then choose Properties followed by Navigation, tick Show my desktop background on Start and then click OK.
For users of touchscreen PCs, there’s a new Start screen gesture: just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to view a list of all installed desktop apps.
Simpler, wider search
Microsoft has overhauled search in Windows 8.1. Now you search simply by typing from the Start screen. This presents a list of everything found on your PC, which is certainly an improvement on the old categorised presentation.
Pressing [Enter] after typing in a term extends the search online, displaying a variety of result types – from web pages to images. If you want to restrict the search, click or tap the down-pointing arrow alongside Everything and choose a filter.
To search in Windows 8.1, just start typing from the Start screen
The joy of Windows 8.1 is discovering the tweaks that Microsoft has made. In Snap view, for example, where apps are displayed side by side, it is now possible to adjust the proportions simply by dragging and dropping the device bar in the middle (in Windows 8.1, the split size was fixed at a 70/30 ratio).
Snap view has also become more intelligent: the first time you click or tap an email link in Internet Explorer, you’ll be asked what program you’d like to use to compose a message. If you choose the Mail app – for example – it will open alongside Internet Explorer, allowing you to switch back and forth easily between the two.
Windows 8.1 Snap mode now allows you to choose how much space each app uses
Talking of Internet Explorer, Windows 8.1 retains two distinct versions of the web browser – a traditional Desktop program and a new-style app. However, Microsoft has added what it calls a ‘continuous browsing’ experience that works very well in the new-style Internet Explorer 11.
Essentially, it’s possible for the browser to synchronise everything – from open tabs to full browsing history – across multiple devices via SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based (online) storage service. The idea is that if you pause browsing on your Windows 8.1-based desktop PC, you can pick up where you left off on your laptop, tablet or smartphone.
In with the new…
Staying with Internet Explorer 11, you’ll find the option (via the Share charm) to add web pages to something called Reading List. This is a new app that has been specially designed for storing and reading interesting content later. Articles logged with Reading List are similarly synchronised across devices via SkyDrive.
Another new app in Windows 8.1 is Food & Drink, which is essentially a bright and colourful recipe book with a clever twist – it can be controlled hands-free. If you have a device with a front-facing webcam , you can simply wave a sticky hand to turn the page.
Other apps have been improved. The Photos app, for instance, now has a bundle of basic editing tools – so you can apply simple fixes, such as removing red eye or altering the colouring or lighting.
Even the Windows Store has been given a spruce up to give it a cleaner look.
Reading List is a new app in Windows 8.1 whose contents can be synchronised across devices
…and out with the old
Interestingly, for all the new additions Windows 8.1 has also undergone a bit of pruning. Photos has lost the ability to save to SkyDrive or integrate with Facebook and Flickr accounts. Likewise, Calendar users might be disappointed to find that it’s no longer possible to synchronise with a Google account.
Windows 8.1 Photos app now has a variety of simple editing tools