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Windows 8.1 preview now available: Here’s what you need to know

windows 8.1 microsoft build 2013

Microsoft officially unveiled Windows 8.1 at its Build conference keynote speech this morning, confirming most of the rumors we’ve been hearing for months. The company is calling the massive update Windows 8 “Refined.” This update to last year’s Windows 8 fixes many of the quirks and frustrations users complained about and adds new features to the Windows operating system. 

Here’s what’s new with Windows 8.1. Want to try out for yourself? The preview edition is available today.

Start button

Windows 8.1 Everything you need to know start buttonThe Start button’s back and better than ever! Okay, maybe it’s not better due to the lack of a full menu, but at least it’s back. Absence makes the heart grow fonder as none of us realized how much we would miss the Start button when it disappeared from our lives upon the release of Windows 8. Now, the Start button’s coming back in Windows 8.1 with a white stylized four-pane look that brings up the Start tiles on top of your traditional desktop. It essentially serves the same purpose as the Windows key on your keyboard, but it’s not buried underneath your hand.

Easier settings access

For years, the Control Panel has been the central hub for changing settings, adding printers, changing screen resolutions, and connecting to networks, though there were several other context locations to make the same changes. Some of that easy access disappeared when Windows 8 debuted as it required users to first go to the desktop and then go into the Control Panel from there. Late last month, Microsoft announced that the settings found in the Control Panel will now also be found in the updated PC Settings found in the Modern UI. Why they didn’t just call it Control Panel is beyond us, but at least it’s there.

Boot to desktop

Windows 8.1 Boot to desktopMicrosoft is really pushing its one user interface to rule them all between Windows 8 and Windows Phone, but those of us who have enjoyed working from the default desktop setup since Windows 95 were none too pleased when it was ditched upon boot up for Windows 8’s Modern UI. The good news? The company has not only brought back the option to boot to the desktop, but it’s also added the ability to boot to your list of apps, too. So now you’ll be able to boot to the Metro UI, the old familiar desktop or to a list of all of your apps. 

Search everywhere

Windows 8.1 SearchPerhaps the most useful update in Windows 8.1 is Microsoft’s revision and merging of internal and external search. Search is now all Bing-powered and that’s positive. The company describes the search box as “the new modern control line.” Instead of providing a list of links, Bing search will come up with images, multimedia, maps, and even OpenTable reservations. 

One the disadvantages of storing your files all over the place, such as on the hard drive or in the cloud, is that you frequently forget where you put it. In addition to letting users automatically save files to SkyDrive, Windows 8.1 well help those of us with faulty memories by upgrading to a new global search that’s powered by Microsoft’s favorite search engine, Bing. Global search will be available from the charm bar and will search not only your hard drive and SkyDrive files, but also the Web for sites and images that are relevant to your query. Search results will appear in color-coded panels based on the type of content found. Clearly, Microsoft wants to make it easier for you to use Bing as your default search engine so you don’t have to go into your browser where you might be tempted by another, more “oogely” search engine. 

Aesthetic improvements

windows8-1-personalizeIf Windows 8 left you feeling like your machine was less personalized, then you’ll like the visual updates in Windows 8.1. First up, there are more wallpaper options, including active ones, for the Modern UI Start screen, that feature visual flair such as gears turning when you scroll through tiles. Not happy with your current background? It may be easily changed from the settings on the right side of the screen. The live tiles are also now resizable for easier use. Plus, Microsoft found that users were frequently moving tiles on accident, so they now require a right-click to move around. 

Want to see all of your programs at once? Simply swipe up from the Start screen. All the apps on your PC will be visible and you’ll be able to view them by alphabetical order, by date installed, by most used, or by category. 

The lock screen is also getting a makeover. Instead of displaying just one image, the lock screen can be turned into a makeshift digital picture frame with a slideshow of your images – just like the kind of slideshow you’d find as a screensaver option. The image slideshow is date aware so it’ll show photos from your daughter’s birthday party around the same date every year.

Skype calls and the system camera are also accessible from the lock screen so you don’t have to fumble around with a pin code and turning on your webcam while your Skype phone is ringing.

Like keeping multiple windows open side by side? Now in Windows 8.1, you’ll be able to give two open windows equal screen real estate or open multiple windows and resize them across the screen as you see fit. People with multiple monitors will especially love this because they’ll be able to snap several windows together across multiple screens.

New onscreen keyboard

Another update that tablet users will particularly appreciate is an updated keyboard that lets users quickly insert a full word or autocorrect by tapping the space bar. Previously, users had to click on the desired word from a list along the left side of the screen, which meant taking your fingers off of the keyboard. 

In the same vein, Microsoft has made accessing characters such as numbers, apostrophes, colons, and other non-letter characters quicker. Instead of switching back and forth between keyboards (numbers and letters), holding down a key for a moment will bring up alternate characters. Simply swipe in the direction of your chosen character and it’ll instantly appear.

Xbox Music

windows8-1-xbox-musicThe Xbox Music app has also been refined in this update. In addition to built-in free music streaming, the app now makes playing new music even easier. For example, go to a music-related webpage and the app will search all of the artists listed on that page and create and save a playlist featuring them.

Bing Food & Drink

windows8-1-foodOne of the biggest surprises today was Microsoft’s announcement of a new food-related app called Bing Food & Drink. It includes articles about food and dining, a meal planner, recipe suggestions, and a hands-free recipe application. Imagine your cooking something and need to check the next step in the recipe. Turn on the hands-free mode and your device’s camera is activated. Now you’re able to flip back and forth between the recipe pages with just a hand gesture instead of gunking up your tablet with olive oil. 

NFC printing

At the TechEd conference earlier this month, Microsoft tipped its hand in regards to printing with Windows 8.1. Need to print something from your tablet? The updated OS has you covered as long as your device has NFC capabilities. Slap an NFC tag on your printer and you’ll be able to send docs to that printer. Don’t have NFC? Windows 8.1 also supports Wi-Fi direct printing, which creates a peer-to-peer network between your device and your printer. 

Windows Store

Windows-8.1-Windows-Store-For wanting to sell apps and make money, the Windows Store in Windows 8 was abysmal. As we’ve lamented, it’s hard to navigate and even harder to read. Recently, we’ve heard rumblings that the store will be updated to version 2.0 when Windows 8.1 debuts. Among the upgrades will be an easily accessible “Your Account” button and a better organized store with specialized categories such as Popular Now, Special Offers, Top Free, New Releases, and Picks for You. 

Wi-Fi hotspot capability

wifi-hot-spotsAnother feature confirmed at TechEd is Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities. Many of the improvements in Windows 8.1 are business-user friendly, though we think sharing a mobile broadband connection is a bonus for everyone from students to families. Here’s how it works: if only one guy has a broadband USB stick, he’ll be able to turn his laptop into a Wi-Fi hotspot and everyone he’s with will be able to connect to the Internet using his single connection. While it might not offer the fastest speeds, this Windows 8.1 feature could be invaluable for collaborators. 

Fingerprint reader

fingerprintFingerprint readers on laptops are nothing new, but now Microsoft is getting in on the software that powers them. Rumor has it that Windows 8.1 will include native fingerprint scanning software. According to what Microsoft’s senior product marketing manager, Michael Niehaus, said at TechEd, the difference with Microsoft’s implementation is that users will be able to lock down and secure individual folders with the flick of a finger. Most fingerprint applications currently available only let users log in or lock their computer during the day.

Business feature improvements

VPNMicrosoft is proactively working to make the latest version of Windows more attractive to businesses who won’t give up XP, and there are many improvements Redmond has touted in Windows 8.1. While we’re sure the company still has a few tricks up its sleeve for the keynote, we do know it’ll be easier to log into a VPN and there will be more granular management of devices that employees bring into the company to use for work. 

Internet Explorer 11 

Windows-8.1-Internet-Explorer-11Internet Explorer has always been the ugly duckling of Web browsers. Millions of office workers are forced to use it – many of whom are still stuck with Windows XP. Microsoft is definitely working on reshaping the public perception of IE, starting with a Vine video campaign entitled “Not Your Father’s Browser.” Windows 8.1 will include IE11, which will no longer set limits on the number of open tabs. Plus, it’s expected to support WebGL, which gives browsers the ability to render 3D graphics. Currently, IE is the only major browser that does not support this Web standard.

Outlook 2013

windows8-1-outlookThough Microsoft is updating Outlook for Windows 8.1, the version shown this morning will not be in the preview build. The new enhancements to the mail program allows you to see social network-related email at a glance, easily access your favorite and most commonly used contacts, and lets you group emails from lists, such as shopping sites so that can be quickly dealt with and deleted after a specified amount of time. 

Windows 8.1 isn’t just coming to the full version of Windows 8, it’s also arriving for Windows RT as well as Windows RT 8.1. One of the most common complaints of Windows RT is the lack of Outlook for managing mail. Instead, users have been left to depend on the meager Mail app for email management. At Computex, Microsoft announced that the Windows RT 8.1 update will, in fact, include Outlook 2013. Though RT currently ships with Office 2013 Home & Student, that version of Office doesn’t include Outlook, which has always struck us as annoying, but it’s nice to see Microsoft throwing the fledgling RT a bone.

We already know a ton about what will be included with Windows 8.1 when it’s officially released at Build this week. What’s going to be exciting is the extra goodies we haven’t found out about yet. If you want to be one of the first people to take the public preview of Windows 8.1 for a test drive, Microsoft detailed how to do it. In the meantime, stay tuned for more information about Windows 8.1 from the conference, and stay tuned for our full review of the WIndows 8.1 preview.

[Updated 6/26/13 at 11:15 p.m. PST: Updated to include details from Build conference keynote.]

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