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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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