Microsoft will publicly show off the improvements it has made to Windows 8.1’s Modern UI later today, but we’ve managed to get an early look at what the company has in store for its users. It’s no secret that Windows 8’s all-new interface has presented challenges for many users, so we’re expecting a fairly significant overhaul in Windows 8.1. Microsoft's blog post can be found here.
Slightly over seven months since the launch of Windows 8, Microsoft announced that 8.1 will be a free update and will be available to all users through the Windows Store. Much like we’ve come to expect from mobile platforms, there will be a number of visual tweaks and the core apps will have improved functionality. Users will be more in control of the look and behaviour of their Windows device.
Windows 8 was built around touch, and 8.1 continues that with an emphasis on mobility. It is expected that hardware manufacturers will continue to experiment with innovative shapes, sizes and designs across device types—desktops, laptops, hybrids and tablets.
You can now use image backgrounds on the Start screen
The Start menu
In this early preview, Microsoft has skimmed over some of the biggest criticisms of Windows 8, i.e., the lack of a Start button and menu, and the amount of discord users feel when moving between the new Modern UI and the legacy desktop. The only real indication we have of any change is a tiny line buried at the end of Microsoft’s information packet—you’ll now be able to choose from different views to boot into. The example used is of the "All apps" view rather than the Start screen with all its tiles—and while there’s no outright denial of an option to boot into the desktop, there isn’t a hint of a confirmation either. Microsoft also says the “hint” icon displayed when hitting the lower-left corner of the screen has now been changed so that a Windows logo appears, and it will always be visible in the Desktop mode. So this somewhat evokes the old Start button, but doesn’t quite reinstate it.
These measures might suffice as a middle ground for some, but don’t solve any underlying problems. Hopefully, there’s more to be revealed. All the other changes we’re privy to now are smaller tweaks and incremental improvements. Many of the changes are cosmetic, but they should still help users to feel more comfortable with their devices.
The Start screen
As we noted in our exhaustive Windows 8 review, the Start screen looks impressive at first, but quickly becomes a mess, with newly installed programs consigned to the very end of the list and a mess of animations obscuring their names. The Start screen will now consist only of tiles that you explicitly want to pin there. The "All apps" view was much better organised but also difficult to find. This view now pops up with a swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen (if you aren’t seeing it by default, as described above), and newly installed programs’ tiles are highlighted—somewhat like programs in the Start menu used to be. This way, you create your own Start screen with only the tiles you want to see.
Speaking of tiles, they’re now more difficult to accidentally displace. You’ll need to tap and hold or right-click to move them around. There’s also a wider range of tile sizes to choose from. The new small and large squares make the Start screen look very similar to Windows Phone 8’s main menu. Multiple selection of tiles is a much-needed improvement—you can resize, move and even get rid of several in one go. There’s no indication of whether the excessive animation has been reined in or whether all tile animations can be turned off in one shot.
There are also more choices for the Start screen’s background. There are more colours and new “tattoo” patterns (including animated ones), but users will most likely appreciate the ability to use any image as the background and also unify the desktop wallpaper and Start screen background.
New colours and tattoos, including animated ones
Another huge problem with Windows 8 was the need to dip into the desktop to perform seemingly ordinary tasks. Many system-wide settings and options could only be found in the classic Control Panel, which defeated the idea of the desktop as an app with less importance than the Modern environment. This seems to have been fixed, and Microsoft indicates that there should be nothing in the Control Panel that cannot also be found outside the desktop, including hardware setup, power management and domain management.
The lock screen
Not much has changed here, except the ability to run a slideshow as a sort of screensaver when your device is locked. Photos on your hard drive or in your online accounts can be used. There’s also a smartphone-inspired feature for taking photos with the webcam even when a device is locked—probably not much use on a desktop, but potentially handy for tablets.
The Snap feature is now not limited to specific screen sizes. You can snap two apps next to each other and drag the bar between them arbitrarily. You can also have two instances of the same app snapped next to each other on screen, such as two document windows—something that really should have been allowed right from the beginning. PC users with more than one monitor will be able to snap even more apps together on screen, run different full-screen apps on different monitors and even leave the Start screen permanently visible on any one monitor.
The overhauled Skydrive app
Windows Store and default apps
Free apps will be easier to find and the homepage will have curated lists of top picks and noteworthy new entries. Related apps are now listed in an app’s detailed view, along with more descriptive information about it. Apps can update themselves in the background instead of requiring a user to check for updates. Interestingly, Microsoft describes a new search bar in the Store, which would indicate that the search charm and shortcuts were not easy enough to discover, and that Microsoft is willing to break from its own design convention.
The default apps have been given minor improvements across the board, much like we’ve come to expect from apps on our phones. The Photos app gains a few adjustment tools and the Music app seems to have been redesigned completely. Microsoft has also teased a few brand new apps, but more details on this front are not forthcoming yet.
Internet Explorer gets a bump up to version 11. We’re assured that touch response is improved, pages will load faster, there’s no limit on open tabs and you can choose to have the address bar visible at all times (so much for the superiority of a “chrome-free” fullscreen experience). Microsoft describes a feature that will sync tabs across Windows 8.1 devices, but it’s unclear whether or not this applies only to IE in the Modern environment. It would be extremely weird to have tabs sync to multiple devices but not to the desktop IE on the same device—and there’s no word on the taming of that two-headed monster either.
Search and cloud integration
Searching for anything from the Start screen or within the Modern UI will now bring up a Bing results page with results from the Web, your synced SkyDrive and social accounts, and apps. Results will come with “Quick Actions” shortcuts for doing things such as playing media files. The new search experience is described as “the modern version of the command line!”, which is an extremely odd thing to boast about—wasn’t Windows all about proving the superiority of a graphical UI?!
Cloud syncing is a lot more pervasive across Windows. Files can be saved directly to SkyDrive rather than local storage, and the SkyDrive app seems to want to be the Windows Explorer equivalent for the Modern environment, displaying files stored online as well as locally. There’s also a section in the Settings panel for managing SkyDrive storage and buying more space.
We know that Windows 8.1 will have its first public preview on June 26, at Microsoft’s Build conference. Undoubtedly, even more information and images will trickle out before then. Not much has been said about the desktop or core OS-level improvements, although the extremely short upgrade cycle makes it unlikely that there’ll be anything dramatic in terms of security or the file system, for example.