SAN FRANCISCO — There was a time, not long ago, when Windows users needed to wait three years or more for a significant upgrade to the Microsoft operating system. The company is changing that starting today, with a public preview of Windows 8.1, part of a broader plan to shift to more regular feature updates.

Related: Hello, Windows 8.1: Live from Microsoft Build, Day 1

So what can you expect if you try out the preview? Windows 8.1 is a steady improvement over Windows 8, with lots of little touches that add up to a better experience. Windows 8 users will want to upgrade once the finished version of Windows 8.1 is released later this year.

Windows 8.1 won’t singlehandedly revive the PC market or make Microsoft a bigger player in tablets overnight. It’s tough to point to a single must-have feature. But it is a nice refinement overall.

A search results page in Windows 8.1 feels like a custom app.

Those are my initial thoughts after using Windows 8.1 on a Surface Pro tablet on loan from Microsoft in advance of the company’s Build developer conference here, which kicks off this morning with a keynote address at Moscone Center.

Here are some of the features that stand out the most so far. Also watch my quick video tour above.

Microsoft has added new flexibility for running and viewing multiple apps at different sizes in the “Modern” user interface. The company will show the ability to run up to four Modern apps side-by-side on one screen — or eight total on dual monitors — letting the user monitor Twitter and email while browsing the web or using another app. The number of apps that can run side-by-side on a given machine depends on screen size and resolution.

Much has been made about the return of the Start button to the traditional desktop in Windows 8.1, and it’s nice to have it there as a more obvious (non-hidden) way to get to the Start screen. But in my initial usage, the better improvement is the option to use the same background on the traditional desktop and the Start screen.

Yes, it seems trivial, and it’s completely psychological, but the effect is to make Windows 8.1 feel much more unified and cohesive, connecting the old and new worlds of Windows. When this option is activated, the tablet-friendly Start screen emerges smoothly on top of the desktop, rather than taking you to an entirely different context.

New options in Windows 8.1 for customizing the experience.

Microsoft has also added the ability to boot directly to the traditional desktop, among other changes designed to appease longtime Windows users, but you’ll need to dig into the settings to make this happen.

The new universal “Smart Search” function is another subtle but important change, making it much faster to search across Windows, the web and online services. Searches bring up files, apps, settings and suggested keyword queries in a single view, without having to switch contexts as required in the original version of Windows 8.

Conducting a web search from this feature brings up an entirely new search-results experience, almost like a custom app, created on the fly based the your query. For example, results for San Francisco start with a postcard picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, followed by the current temperature, key facts, a list of attractions, a preview of web results and related apps from the Windows Store, laid out in a polished design.

Speaking of the Windows Store, app updates in Windows 8.1 will happen automatically by default in the background. Users will be able to switch back to manual updates if they wish.

Microsoft has also added some surprising new features in Windows 8, such as support for printing directly to 3D printers. There’s also a new camera-based gesture recognition capability, which is showcased in a new Bing Food & Drink app, for turning the pages of a recipe without smudging the screen with vegetable oil or flour.

The Food & Drink app is one of several new apps from Microsoft that are shipping with Windows 8.1. Another is a Bing Heath & FItness app, for tracking diet and exercise. Another new Microsoft app, which can be downloaded from the Windows Store for Windows 8.1, is “Movie Moments,” for lightweight video editing.

Those are some of the initial highlights. If you think you might download the Windows 8.1 preview from the Windows Store, see these caveats, including the requirement to reinstall your apps when you move to the finished version.

See the keynote live blog here, and stay tuned for more from San Francisco as the Microsoft conference continues.

Three apps open side-by-side, one of the new options in the Windows 8.1 interface.

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  • Guest

    So in roughly the same amount of time it took MS to add back the start bar, allow boot to desktop and a custom background in Metro, all of which should have been there on release and were offered by 3rd parties within weeks of launch, Apple managed to development an entire new release of iOS with a completely new UI throughout, albeit that it borrows heavily from Metro?

    If this is an example of the new, more agile MS and “continuous improvement”, MS is in deep trouble. Most of these “features” should have already been in users hands via updates within at most a month or two of launch. And the fact that upgrading from the preview to the release means an app reinstall for both desktop and Metro is laughably stupid.

  • guest

    Good video, Todd. That Bing search stuff seems to be the most interesting change, though it’s surprising how much better that all apps view is by just having a custom wallpaper. Previously I thought it was the ugliest screen in W8. One question: How stable has it been for you? The Verge is reporting they experienced some issues.

    • Todd Bishop

      Thanks. I haven’t noticed any major stability problems yet.

      The biggest issues I’ve noticed were that it wasn’t able to connect to my hotel wifi last night. (I had to tether to my Windows Phone.)

      And I have also noticed that the battery life with Windows 8.1 is much worse than on my Windows 8 Surface Pro. It drained in a couple hours of use. I’m assuming this is a function of it being a preview.

      • Guest

        Okay. Thanks. Odd that battery use and wifi would be issues, even on a preview. Surprising those would have been touched much at all.

  • Bob

    Bing, SkyDrive integration, and customization enhancements look good. Disappointed that Xbox Music is basically just reskinned. Not sure what this team does all day? Even the old Zune s/w was better looking and feature rich. New photo features are positive but still oddly lame coming from a company that used to ship an entire photo suite. Why couldn’t they leverage any of that code to make a truly kickass client? If you’re going to offer a handful of native client apps, why not make each one leadership in class? And why is the Bing team apparently better at building beautiful, innovative, functional apps that the various Windows and entertainment teams?

  • Jason Farris

    After a day, a few observations that are not mentioned in most write-ups.

    Apps now auto-snap when clicking external, and it’s very smooth. For example, if you’re watching a video in Vevo and click a link in the interface, it auto snaps the video to one side so it continues playing while snapping the link destination in a browser. Much cleaner than the decades-old method where a new window would spawn and then you would immediately having to manage it’s location, size and overlap. So slick I almost didn’t notice it was happening, an old chore just disappeared.

    Xbox music’s reskin is mostly cosmetic, but there’s a couple of things worth noting. The playlist management, which was the biggest gap in prior versions, is much better, with some persistent management regardless of whether your browsing new or collection music. Additionally, SMART DJ has been replaced by “Radio”, although from what I can tell the functionality is more or less the same… dynamic playlists, but it’s an indication of a hope to align what were “ahead of their time” ideas with modern perceptions around this kind feature. On the downside, there is more optimization of the indexing that needs to be done, my collection (25k songs) causes lags of 3-5 seconds when rendering the full song list. Still has a ways to go compared to Zune.

    Start screen management scrolling has been tweaked for a very smooth, controlled tween when dragging live tiles long distances. Live tiles can be selected in combination and have options adjusted in bulk, dragged in bulk, sized in bulk, all makes for a highly tweakable start menu.

    The start button is back, and despite not thinking I needed it, I’m glad it’s there now but for a different reason; previously the left-hand sidebar which manages multiple apps was a little “floaty”, the start button and this interface are now tied together and pulling out apps for snaps is much easier with a mouse. Never was an issue for touch, but for mouse users the whole Metro experience is much easier to work into a natural workflow.

    The charms on the charm-bar now follow the mouse user… if you open from the upper right, the charms are aligned top, if you open from the bottom right, they align to the bottom. A nice touch for the K&Ms.

    Cross machine sync of the UI is more complete… apps, app groupings, group names and content pins now sync across all your W8 machines, and the settings for exactly what should sync and should not is much more granular, so there’s a lot of control there. It was pretty cool to see the second machine update, then immediately pull in the first machines UI arrangements. I delete a contact off my start screen at work, it’s deleted automatically from my tablet and home machine. This can be turned on and off easily, very cool.

    Tapping down to navigate between live tiles and the full start menu app list, the background of the start menu also moves. It should stay in place for more continuity. It feels like your going to the app basement when digging for rarely used installs. That said, I never really use it, the search charm is so much faster than visually scanning a list.

    New tile sizes and color customizations are well known, but it makes a big impact in real use. Spent a minute tweaking out a nice crimson / carbon theme, built out new live tile groups based on the new tile sizes and catagories, and already the annoying candy-color dominate feel most people associate with this UI is gone. It feels much more modern and badass.

    Not all of 8.1 is metro-oriented, there’s some significant tweaks to the desktop as well. File Manager (windows explorer, i’ll never say that, it’s always file manager to me) does a much better job of representing local files vs. cloud storage and erasing the lines between the two. Skydrive is tighter everywhere, and sync controls are better defined between machine(s) and cloud.

    Livetiles built from legacy desktop icons now seem to intelligently pick up the dominant color from the foreground of the icon and uses a variation of it for the background color, which makes them instantly more homogenous in the start menu environment. Tiny tweak that makes a big difference.

  • daisydog555

    Been using 8.1 for a while now and here is my review:

    1. I still can’t print a photo from within the new tiled interface
    2. MIcrosoft flightsim x no longer works.

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