Windows 8.1 is here: Key things to know about Microsoft’s ‘refined blend’

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Personalization options on the Windows 8.1 Start screen include new tile sizes.

Microsoft released its Windows 8.1 update this morning, almost a year after the release of Windows 8 — aiming to make its operating system more palatable to desktop and notebook users, and a more viable choice for consumers and businesses considering new tablets.

dellvenueThis is a critical release for Microsoft as the company tries to make the transition to tablets and secure its place in the new world of computing. Microsoft faces increasingly tough competition from Apple, Google and other rivals in this new world. Although Windows 8 now represents about 8 percent of the desktop computer market, traditional PC sales are continuing to slump, and Windows operating profits declined 18 percent last year.

Windows 8.1 also represents a new pace of development for the company, with major Windows feature updates now expected approximately once a year, rather than every three years as in the past.

Windows executives refer to Windows 8.1 as a “refined blend.” In other words, there’s not one killer feature that will generate a crush of interest (no, the return of the Start button on the desktop doesn’t qualify as killer) but rather a broad set of changes that collectively represent a significant improvement.

It’s a free update for existing Windows 8 users, available for download starting this morning from the Windows Store on Windows 8 machines.

The updated operating system will also be available on new computers starting this week. In addition to new Windows 8.1 notebooks and all-in-one desktop computers, several new 8-inch tablets are debuting with the Windows 8.1 update, including the Dell Venue 8 Pro (pictured here) and the Acer Iconia W4, both selling for $299.

These are some of the features that stand out in my use of the Windows 8.1 preview, and demonstrations of the update by Microsoft Windows team members.

  • On the Windows 8.1 lock screen, users can take incoming Skype calls without needing to unlock the device, or quickly activate a secure camera mode to take a quick picture.
  • The Windows 8.1 Start screen can roam across devices, making it easier to pick up any Windows 8.1 device and quickly ‘make it your own’ by logging in.
  • Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 8.1 lets people access browser tabs from another Windows 8.1 machine where they were logged on. So it’s possible, for example, to start browsing on a Windows 8.1 machine at home in the morning, and pick up where you left off by logging into a different Windows 8.1 machine at work.
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    Drag and drop in the new Mail app.

  • For people who prefer the traditional desktop, there’s now the option to boot directly to the desktop, skipping the new Start screen.
  • The built-in Mail app is significantly improved, with a better interface, drag-and-drop capabilities, and faster performance. Windows RT, the version of the operating system for ARM processors, now runs a version of the Outlook mail software, as well.
  • The ability to set the same background for the traditional desktop and the Start screen is a nice addition, making it feel as if you’re in the same context when you switch between them.
  • Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud storage service is integrated deeply into Windows 8.1 as the default mechanism for storing files, and also built into the Windows Explorer on the traditional desktop.
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Four apps side-by-side in Windows 8.1.

  • The multi-monitor experience has been significantly improved. Windows 8.1 can scale to the appropriate size on different screens, and it’s easier to manage where the Start screen and apps appear on different screens.
  • The Windows Store has been redesigned for easier discovery of apps, and Microsoft says there are now more than 100,000 apps in the store. Apps will now automatically update once installed on a machine.
  • Apps in the “Modern” Windows 8.1 interface can be dynamically resized, with as many as four apps side-by-side depending on screen size.

Bottom line: This free update is a no-brainer for existing Windows 8 users — yes, you should upgrade. Windows 8.1 should also make people less wary of buying a new computer or tablet with the new OS. Making the upgrade from Windows 7 on an existing PC will still be a tough sell for the company.

Here is Microsoft’s FAQ on updating to Windows 8.1.

  • Paul Zoba

    When I go to my Windows 8 Tiles and click on the Store, I get the following message: “We weren’t able to connect to the store. This might have happened because of a server problem or the network connection timed out. Please wait a few minutes and try again.”

    Is the server down or is there some other problem?

    • Tim

      I had a third-party firewall that was blocking communication and got the same message

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.jordan.56884 Tim Jordan

    This Start Button is not the old start button. It is just a button which takes you to that crappy Metro interface. This is a sham. Microsoft fooled us into thinking that they were bringing the Start button back but they gave us a button labeled Start but is really a “Go To Metro” button and I don’t want to go to Metro. I hate Metro. Microsoft lied when they said they will bring back the start button. Does anybody know what are we suppose to do without a Control Panel?

    • Guest

      There’s still a control panel. Just right-click the Windows logo and select it from the menu.

    • David Bangs

      If you want a real Start menu, download Start8 from stardock.com . For $5 you can install it on all your machines. I love it. And, of course it links to the control panel.

  • Sara

    Great, but I find pay4keys.com which sells windows 8.1 product at low price, is It legit?

  • panacheart

    I just can’t get over how ugly the interface is. It’s like they fired the UI team and replaced them with the cleaning crew. Flat icons, ugly font, wildly ugly colors. When I pick up a device that has Windows 8 on it I feel like I’m wearing orange polyester pants and a cyan polyester dress shirt. Lime green, cyan, fluorescent purple and orange all on one page. If you put all those colors on the same pallet as an art student, they would throw you out of school.

    • David Bangs

      Are you talking about the colors app designers choose for their icons and tiles? I see the exact same colors on my iPhone running iOS 7. Apple also flattened their icons and changed their font. Must be in vogue.