Microsoft launches Windows 8 update – here are the main points

The next generation of Windows 8 has been unveiled by Microsoft - we take a look at the key features of Windows 8.1

27 Jun 2013


The next generation of Windows 8 has been unveiled by Microsoft.

Steve Ballmer used the keynote speech at Microsoft's Build conference in San Francisco to launch the free test version of Windows 8.1 - the much-talked-about update to the Windows 8 operating system.

Windows 81Preview Sta _01_Web

(Credit: Microsoft)

This test version is available to download now, with the full version coming later in the year.

But what is it all about and how will it enhance your Win8 experience? We've taken a closer look so you can focus on shopping, sofa surfing, sleeping and the other important stuff.   
Here's the rub.

Windows 8.1 updates search functionality, allows you to resize apps to run them simultaneously and gives you the option to personalise your desktop among other things, but the features grabbing most of the headlines is the return of the Start button, its funky right-click menu and the ability to boot directly to the desktop.

Ballmer said: "We pushed boldly in Windows 8. And yet what we found is that we got a lot of feedback from users. If I were put it in coffee terms, they said, 'Why don't you refine the blend here?'"

So they did. 

Windows 8.1 - the future with a smidgen of familiarity

Windows 8 launched last October, heralding a brave new world for operating systems.

Microsoft went all out with it, too - totally revolutionising our understanding of Windows. The OS was redesigned from the bottom up. At its core was a new touchscreen user interface populated with colourful tiles which could be tapped to bring up your apps and programs.

Designed with tablets and the new wave of convertible laptops in mind, the operating system looked and felt like the future as we tripped the light fantastic on its colourful tiles, swiping and sliding our way around.  

Innovation goes hand in hand with the future, but when pioneering new tech is launched it's largely unknown - or unfamiliar - at first.
Although stoked with the new UI and its re-imagining of the concept of an OS, those of us who have used Windows for years craved the familiarity of previous versions too.

This brings us to Windows 8.1, an update to the operating system which blends the newly enhanced tiled user interface with a slice of familiarity.

The Start button makes a return

The main thing we missed from previous versions of Windows was the Start button - after all, most of us have been clicking it to navigate our machines from primary school to the office.
Now with Windows 8.1 it's back.

With Windows 8.1 you'll find a Start/Windows button back where it belongs on the desktop; in the familiar left-hand corner of the screen on the taskbar.

Windows 81Desktop _Web

(Credit: Microsoft)

But despite reinstating the Start button, Microsoft is also keeping the faith in the new tile interface. So when clicking the new Start button, you'll see the tile-based Start screen - where you'll be able to access your apps and programs. 
But rather than taking you completely out of the desktop when clicking Start button,
 a semi-transparent version of the Modern UI will float over the top of the desktop screen - a bit like a ghost (but not a scary one). 

Also, right-clicking on the Start button will bring up a menu of settings such as Control Panel and Task Manager - crucially, you'll also be able to shut down your machine from here. In the original version of Windows 8, shutting down or restarting your machine was a slightly more drawn out process.
Another thing we're pleased to see is the ability to swerve the modern UI and boot directly to the desktop - some traditionalists just don't like change.  

Ballmer said: "Let's make it easier to start applications in the way we are used to.

"We will bring back the Start button, and you can boot straight to the desktop if you want to. We have refined the blend of our desktop experience and our modern app experience."

Search is improved

Microsoft has also bolstered the search functions of Windows 8. With 8.1 when searching from the charm bar we get results from a number of sources - including files, SkyDrive, apps and the internet. Among other things this means you can use search as an app launcher. 

Another cool feature is the Hero screen. Let's be honest, many of our web searches are for celeb crushes - now Windows 8.1 is making our drooling a little more informed. Hero screen throws up a large picture as well as other info and links when we search for our favourite celebs, sports stars or other well-known folk.

The less famous your celeb crush is, the more this is scaled back. It's good to see Microsoft honouring the established rules of A-list to D-list exposure levels. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile.

Microsoft says it has created a "beautiful curated app-like experience which brings together everything in the PC and on the web in one place" - sounds pretty neat? 

Get flexible with your apps

Many of the devices Windows 8 is designed to run are incredibly flexible - laptops that morph into tablets and back again. So it makes sense flexibility is a key element of the 8.1 upgrade. As well as more flexible search options, you also have more freedom when it comes to viewing apps.

In 8.1 you'll be able to resize your apps to fit multiple ones on screen at the same time. Resize your apps with the Snap Function and you'll be able to have as many as four on-screen at once.

Windows 8 - tailored to you

As well as being flexible, Windows 8.1 is also personal. It recognises how nothing fits quite like that 'perfect fit' - whether that's a bespoke suit, a handmade pair of shoes or a computer desktop.

Make your Windows truly your own with the new personalisation features in the 8.1 update.
A stickler for coordination? Choose colours for your desktop to complement your office or bedroom.

There's also what Microsoft calls Motion Accents. What the hell is that? The example shown on the preview video is a dragon that follows your finger as you drag it across your Start screen.

Want to remind yourself how popular you are? Set up a slideshow of you and your pals goofing around in Magaluf last summer on to your lock screen. A little something to remind you or what it's all about when you're fighting your way through a tough Thursday afternoon in the office.

Windows 81Previewloc _Web

(Credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft says the lock screen has been turned into a 'beautiful, cloud-powered photo frame' - sounds a bit flowery, but it really does look good.

Touch is the new fast

An update to Internet Explorer has also been revealed - ladies and gentlemen, meet IE11. Microsoft says the new Internet Explorer is "fast, fluid and perfect for touch". We can expect our web pages to load faster, as well as improved browsing across multiple devices of various screen size such as tablets and laptops.  

Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for Internet Explorer, wrote on the MSDN blog that "Performance matters to everyone who browses the Web. The way to judge performance is how responsive browser and device are, especially to touch. On today's devices, touch is the new fast."

So, there we have it - a few of the changes we can expect from Windows 8.1. We think it looks great - let us know what you think in the comments below.