Fresh from //BUILD/
We’ve been following the leaked Windows 8.1 builds for some time now, but now we finally have a chance to play with the official Windows 8.1 Preview. It was released at Microsoft’s //BUILD/ conference today, and is available as an update to Windows 8 or Windows RT owners through the Windows Store. Of course, a couple days ago the Windows Server 2012 R2 images were posted to MSDN and TechNet ahead of //BUILD/, so we got a sneak preview of what’s coming to Windows 8.1 through that route too.
Anyway, we’ve played with both. Now it’s time to see what all is coming to Windows 8.1, so check after the break.
The Windows 8.1 Preview is, as mentioned before, distributed through the Windows Store rather than the more traditional Windows Update. In any case, I personally have never had good luck doing upgrade installs of any OS; programs or services would break for no reason, the OS would crash and would generally act very slow. So here’s a fresh install of Windows 8.1 and its Start Screen.
Here’s some of the more immediate changes: In addition to the two tile sizes already present in Windows 8, there are two new tile sizes. The first new size, called Small, helps to bring the Metro UI closer in line with its Windows Phone sibling. The second size, Large, is used by apps that want to show just a bit more information on their Live Tile like the Weather app. There is also a downward-pointing arrow at the bottom of the screen that takes you to the improved All Apps view when clicked or tapped.
In addition to these new tiles, the Start Screen background is also getting some improvements. Instead of 25 predefined color sets, you can now set the background and accent color to just about anything you desire. There’s a selection of new Start Screen backgrounds too, including an animated betta fish.
Desktop apps also get a bit of an upgrade in Windows 8.1. Trying to help make them look better when placed on the Start Screen, the tile backgrounds now automatically colour themselves in a similar fashion to the Superbar in Windows 7. Desktop app tiles can also be shrunken down to the new Small tile size.
Of course, the Start Screen isn’t the only bit of Windows 8.1 that’s getting an upgrade. The Windows Store has always been “meh” in Windows 8 in terms of design, layout and functionality. So, here’s the brand-new Windows Store that makes the experience a lot nicer to use:
The new Store moves all the different app categories into the swipe bar, which you access by swiping down from the top of the screen or by right-clicking. It also adds a “Your Account” screen that helps you manage which Microsoft account is currently signed into the Store, your payment and billing info and which PCs you want to authorize to have access to your apps.
The new Store no longer keeps track of your app downloads however. The download progress meter has been moved from the Store app to the All Apps view, in much the same way as Windows Phone. Any newly-installed apps also get a little “NEW” marker added under their name, like the newly-installed application highlight in Windows XP, Vista and 7 only this features much less gold coloring.
Windows 8.1 Preview also displays some radical improvements to the way that multi-monitor support was implemented in Windows 8. Prior to Windows 8.1, you could only run one Windows Store application at a time, two if you docked one to the side of the display. That meant it was impossible to utilize both monitors to their fullest potential – you couldn’t run one application on each screen side by side, for example. This was particularly annoying while using an application such as Netflix or Videos, where you were stuck using those apps without the ability to surf the web with Internet Explorer or check out a location Maps, for example. In Windows 8.1, this limitation is gone like the wind – it feels absolutely amazing to be free to run two applications in full screen at once, side by side. If you’re a multi-monitor user like I am, this alone makes Windows 8.1 a worthwhile upgrade.
If we go over to the Charms bar and click the Search charm, you might think nothing has changed. And that would be wrong. In Windows 8, the Search charm simply searched for apps, some files and settings. In Windows 8.1, the search has been vastly improved. For one, there’s now a drop-down list that you can select to search for everything, settings, files, or web images and videos. Searching for something with “Everything” selected does exactly that – it searches your files, the Windows Store for relevant apps, and it also does a Bing search for websites and images.
Going to the other end of the Charms bar to get to Settings also reveals some changes. The Metro Control Panel has gotten a huge upgrade – for starters, its splash screen is now purple! On a more serious note, many things have been added to the Metro Control Panel. For example, you can now change your display properties from this new Control Panel without having to go to desktop land. It’s also now possible to manage your hardware with the new Control Panel.
Now we go to desktop land. The very first thing anyone will notice is that their beloved Start button is back just where it’s always been since Windows 95. It works pretty much the same way as the Start button in the Charms Bar: It stays white until you hover over it, at which point the background turns opaque, the logo colorizes and then plays a little animation. One thing I dislike about this is that it’s a smaller click/touch target than the mini-Start Screen was in Windows 8. But hey, at least we have our Start button back (much to the displeasure of Stardock, anyway).
There’s a few small additions to the Win+X menu here too. Bringing up the Win+X menu shows two new menu options, Shut Down and Desktop. They are exactly what you expect, Shut Down being an expanding menu for various shutdown options and Desktop shows the desktop. You know, just like the Show Desktop button that sits in the system tray, next to the time and date. Going to the taskbar properties gives us a new settings tab: Navigation. This tab adds hot corner navigation options for the Charms Bar and app switches, a few options for customizing the Start Screen (more on that in just a minute) and another feature everyone has been pining for, Boot to Desktop.
That option labeled “Show my desktop background on Start” does exactly what you think it does. It sets your Start Screen background to the same as your desktop wallpaper, which is pretty cool if you’re tired of the default Start Screen backgrounds. It looks like this:
If I may be somewhat funny for a moment, there is just one problem with this new feature. Inevitably, someone will come along and do this to their Start Screen. As you can see, the result is… anything but pleasing. The feature works great if you have the right kind of wallpaper, it just doesn’t work for everything out there.
As another minor change, “My Computer” has been renamed to “This PC” and is the default window that opens when you open a new Explorer window. They’ve also hidden the Libraries listing in the sidebar by default and moved them to This PC’s main window. You can get your Libraries list back if you so desire, just right-click the sidebar and select “Show Libraries”.
Well, that’s about all there is in the Windows 8.1 Preview. Honestly? From the eyes of someone who’s played with betas such as Windows Longhorn, the Windows 8.1 Preview is kinda boring. It feels like a finished product even though it’s not at this point, and that’s probably because this is really a minor update to Windows 8. That’s not to say it’s bad and you shouldn’t upgrade – on the contrary, there are the visible tweaks you’ve seen here and many under-the-hood tweaks that make it that much nicer to use. Do I recommend you upgrade? Right now, this is pre-release software. It will have some bugs and things may not work right. If you want to jump right in to the latest and greatest, though, do so. Upgrade now. For the rest of you, the decision should be simple – there’s not enough here to warrant an upgrade just yet. Wait until later this year when the bugs are squashed. You’re not losing anything, as the upgrade will be free when it comes out.