Windows 8.1: release date, new features, screenshots
Windows 8.1 has been unveiled at Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco.
The Windows 8.1 Preview is available to download from Microsoft here or through the Windows Store.
This feature was updated on 13 August with an update on the release date
Note that if you install the Windows 8.1 Preview over your current Windows 8 installation, you will have to reinstall all Windows Store and desktop apps when the the final version is released, so you might not wish to test the new OS on your primary PC. All user data and accounts should be retained.
Here we reveal the new features, screenshots and videos of the first major update to Windows 8 – read our review of Windows 8.1 here.
Windows 8.1 will have better support for smaller tablets. The Start screen adapts to smaller form factors to work better in portrait mode. Developers will be able to design apps specifically for smaller form factors.
The virtual keyboard has been redesigned to suggests words as you type. Rather than removing your hand from the virtual keyboard to select the word, Windows 8.1 recognises gestures, letting you pick the word you want by stroking the space bar.
Start button returns
The much-missed Start button returns to the desktop – although not in the form many have hoped for.
There’s no old-fashioned Start menu. Instead, pressing the Start button overlays the Windows 8 Start screen tiles over the desktop wallpaper. It’s a lot less jarring than before, making the new Start screen feel like less of an intruder on desktop PCs.
Right clicking on the Start button also brings up the power user menu.
That menu now now has options to shutdown and restart, meaning users can reboot directly from the Start button, similar to previous versions of Windows.
Direct to desktop
Windows 8.1 will also feature an option to bypass the much-maligned tile-based Start Screen.
The new Start Screen has proven controversial, with many desktop and laptop users bemoaning the fact that they can’t simply skip straight to the more mouse-and-keyboard friendly desktop of old.
The option to boot straight to desktop is now offered, although not switched on by default.
Start screen wallpaper and lock screen
Windows 8.1 will allow users to set their own wallpaper on the Start screen. Currently, users are merely allowed to choose from a selection of preset “accents” and to select a colour scheme.
The Settings charm includes a new Personalize option that provides more granular control over the appearance of the Start menu backgrounds and colours, including the accent colour of the Start charm itself.
Windows 8.1 also includes new “motion accents” – animated wallpapers that move as you scroll through the Start screen.
The lock screen can now be used as a digital photo frame, displaying a slideshow of images stored on the user’s PC or in cloud services such as SkyDrive.
New tile sizes
Windows 8.1 offers support for more tile sizes. Windows 8 supports two – “smaller” and “larger” – but Blue throws another two sizes into the mix. App tiles can now be reduced down to thumbnail size, occupying only a quarter of the space an existing “smaller” tile occupies.
There’s also a new super-sized tile, the size of two of Windows 8’s “larger” tiles. This allows you to display more live information on tiles such as Mail and Weather, providing a detailed synopsis of recent messages in your inbox or a long-range weather forecast, for example.
Windows 8.1 includes a new photo editing tool built directly into the OS, with radial controls to make it easier to add filters and tweak images.
Bing Food & Drink features recipes, and shopping lists, and can be used with a hands-free mode – this uses the webcam to recognise gestures to flip through pages, so you don’t need to touch the screen.
Xbox Music has been redesigned, featuring free music streaming and a personalised radio player that creates playlists based on your preferences.
There’s a new Mail app in the works, but it won’t show up until the final version in the autumn. It will feature the same “Sweep” tool from Outlook.com that lets you automatically clean up newsletters and other messages.
Microsoft also showed off a “pre-alpha” version of PowerPoint for Windows RT, but didn’t show off any other touch versions of Office apps.
Windows 8.1 will also feature a built-in 3D printing tool, letting users print to devices such as the MakerBot directly from their device without any specialised software.
One of the biggest criticisms of Windows 8 was that the search menu had been hobbled, only returning results for apps by default. Windows 8.1 reverts to a unified search menu, which as you can see from the screenshot above, returns results for apps, settings and files as you begin to type.