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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.
    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.
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.

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