Windows 8.1: I’m blue da ba dee
Windows 8.1 (previously referred to as “Windows Blue”) is a free, update to Windows 8 and Windows RT for consumers. Windows 8.1 advances the vision that Microsoft set forward with Windows 8 and delivers the experiences that people want on the latest PCs, tablets, and other devices. Windows 8.1 is still Windows 8 only this time its evolved…
This new, incremental update has been designed to bridge the gap between the new world ushered in by Windows 8, and whatever will inevitably come next. Windows 8.1 predominately takes advantage of new technologies and new form-factors, so if you’re looking for an operating system that’s future-proof – Windows 8.1 is your guy.
If you’re running Windows 8 already, you can look for the update now in the Windows Store on your Start menu.
The Start button returns
These days you can’t write an article about Windows 8 without making passing mention of the Start button. Yes, everybody’s unhealthy fixation with the beloved Start button looks set to be addressed in Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 update.
The new button appears anytime you move the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen, and it will always be visible on the taskbar when you’re on the Windows desktop. When clicked it will plonk the user back to the Windows Start screen. So not a full return to days of old, but a slight return nonetheless – hopefully enough to keep the naysayers happy.
Boot to desktop
OK so if Microsoft still hasn’t done enough to placate you, then maybe you’ll be interested in this curious new option. In 8.1 you can now choose to boot straight to your classic desktop environment, instead of the new, modern look and feel of the Start screen.
Your new Start screen
Windows 8.1 boasts more colours and backgrounds for the Start screen (including those with natty motion effects, more on that shortly).
If you’re already familiar with Windows 8 you’ll know more or less what to expect from the customisation options. Windows 8.1 offers up a wide colour palette to daub your Windows experience with. But unlike its previous incarnation, Windows 8.1 goes that little bit further. There are no half-measures to be found here, all of 8.1’s background and themes are suitably wacky and garish. Just check out some of those designs… Happily you can always opt for your default Windows Desktop background if you prefer.
The ‘Red Dragon’ has become a bit of an internet celebrity owing to various Windows 8.1 leaks and YouTube videos throughout the summer.
This static screengrab doesn’t do the effect justice, the background image moves when you scroll around your Start screen.
Customising your tiles
Tiles on the Start screen can still be resized to your heart’s content, only this time the whole process has had a bit of a makeover. Microsoft noted that in Windows 8 users were prone to accidently moving and resizing tiles when they didn’t intend to, now a pop-up menu aids you in the resizing process.
The Lock screen offers a further layer of customisation. Here you can choose to display a different background image to the one on your desktop, and there’s also an option to play a slideshow if you really can’t choose.
In a change from Windows 8, Skype is now baked into the very fabric of Windows (previously it had its own standalone app).
We’ll let Noah Edelstein, Director of Program Management (Skype & Lync) tell you about the various updates Microsoft has made to the Skype experience found in Windows 8.1: ‘With app-to-app launching, we made multitasking even easier. Now Skype users can not only share the screen with other apps but open another app (the browser, a picture, an Office document, etc.) and have it snap to the side of Skype. As Windows 8.1 reaches more and more products we realized the Skype client needed to automatically adjust the size and layout of the device. With the help of the Windows team we created an application that intuitively changes based on the aspect ratio and orientation of the devices’screen.’
Windows 8.1 wants to save all of your stuff in the cloud (that’s your SkyDrive account) by default – it’s a bit like having an extra folder on your PC…
Because your SkyDrive goes with you (it’s tied to your Microsoft account) you can access your files from any PC or tablet. You’ll just need to sign in using your details to get at the goodies. With SkyDrive being a cloud-based service means your files are synced across both the Web and your devices, so you’ll always have the latest version of your file available to you. Better still, any changes made when offline will automatically be pushed to your SkyDrive the next time it connects to the internet.
Xbox and SmartGlass
With the impending release of the Xbox One, SmartGlass is turning into a rather tantalising and exciting proposition indeed. Xbox SmartGlass gets your Windows devices and TV talking to each other to enhance your favourite shows, movies, music, sports and games. With SmartGlass, you can play a movie on Xbox 360 while reading about the cast on another Windows device. That’s not all, as SmartGlass makes cross-platform gameplay possible too. Try it for yourself today by downloading titles like Halo: Spartan Assault and Skulls of the Shogun from the Store.
Let’s talk about Xbox Video and Music too: the Xbox Video app lets you rent or buy full HD-quality movies, stream blockbusting TV shows, watch trailers and import your own videos, while Xbox Music presents a library that houses millions of the world’s biggest artists and bands. You can choose to listen for free, or if the monthly 30-hour restriction is too limiting – upgrade your account to all you can eat.
A better search
Although the search experience in Windows 8 was impressive to a degree – it still felt somewhat half-baked. When carrying out a search in Windows 8.1, Windows (well, Bing) will automatically scour the Internet, your apps, files and SkyDrive to find the necessary result. There’s no more specifying where you want Windows to look, which gets a big thumbs up from us.
App updates – woo hoo!
Apps will be automatically updated in Windows 8.1 – so there’s no need to manually (and tirelessly) perform the update yourself anymore. Microsoft on apps: ‘There’s no a little update counter. We are done with those.’ If you find that this option isn’t activated by default (ours wasn’t), it’s easy to do: open the Store, select the ‘Settings’ charm and click on ‘App updates’. With any luck you’ll see the screen shown in the image above.
The app drawer keeps your apps tidy
It’s nice to see that Windows 8.1 is taking some cues from mobile. Visit the Start screen and you’ll no longer be lost in a sea of apps and numerous unwanted icons. You’ll be able to view all apps (in an apps drawer of sorts) just by swiping from the bottom of the screen (or by clicking the arrow pointing down).
Better still, when you install a new app from the Windows Store that app won’t automatically appear on your Start screen. Instead, you’ll find these apps tucked neatly away in the apps drawer and marked as “new” – so you can choose the apps you want pinned to your Start screen
Filter your apps
Microsoft’s also added the ability to filter your apps by name, date installed, most used, or by category.
Apps work together
In some respects apps found in Windows 8 were siloed – each worked independently of one another and the potential was never truly realised. Windows 8.1 removes these shackles and apps have been specifically designed to work (communicate) better together. In this example we’ve fired-up the Camera app and snapped a picture of this cuddly toy. So we’ve got our picture, what now? We want to edit it, maybe apply a filter and set it as our lock screen image. Now it’s possible to do all of this without ever leaving the comfort of the Camera app.
Have more windows open
Two heads are definitely better than one, and Windows 8.1 introduces more ways to see multiple apps on the screen at any one time. You’ll be able to resize apps to any size you want, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected.
It will also let you have different Windows Store apps running on all the displays at any given time and the Start screen can stay open on one monitor (making multi-tasking even easier).
Bing Apps built-in
Straight out the box Windows 8.1 has a great array of really useful apps to get you started. Take a moment to explore the Bing apps for News, Sports, Travel, Health & Fitness, Food & Drink, and Weather – you’ll notice that each looks like an interactive magazine, with headlines and beautiful full-screen pictures.
The Bing News app offers a treasure-trove of news stories from around the web; it takes the pick of the day’s top stories and headlines from the biggest news providers, as well as offering specialist local news, world, entertainment, business and sport categories. There’s something in here for everyone…
Internet Explorer 11
As was the case with Windows 8, you can find two versions of Microsoft’s newest Internet Explorer 11 browser waiting to service your browsing needs.
Both the modern (app) version and traditional desktop experience have been overhauled and benefit from speed improvements and clever syncing options that allow your settings, browser tabs, and history to travel with you across multiple PCs and devices.
Hidden menus and advanced features
As you click around Windows 8.1 it is likely you’ll come across a number of hidden menus and options. This is one such example that can be achieved on both the Start screen and Windows Desktop: position your mouse cursor in the bottom left-hand corner – right-click to reveal the hidden ‘advanced context menu’. It was present in Windows 8 too, but this time around there a couple more options. It actually hides some rather useful shortcuts…