Microsoft has been talking about its next version of Windows 8 for months, and has already shown off bits and pieces of it.
The new version, Windows 8.1, debuts today. It’s not the final version, although anyone with a Windows 8 device can download it from Windows Update or the Windows app store to try it out.
The release comes on the opening day of Microsoft’s big developers conference in San Francisco called Build.
We got to take the preview version of Windows 8.1 for a spin. Here’s what you can expect to change when you make the free upgrade later this year.
It fixes some of the things that people hated in the original version of Windows 8 and it added a bunch of new features.
After a lot of customer feedback asking for this, Microsoft included a setting that will let you boot your computer into a classic desktop mode instead of the Windows 8 touchscreen menu.
It's a bit tricky to find. Go to the Desktop, right click or press on the task bar. You'll find a bunch of hidden Power User options there including one in the Navigation pane that says 'Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in.'
Apps you download from Microsoft's app store will now update themselves whenever the developer releases a new version.
The app store icon no longer shows a little number to indicate the number of updates you have waiting. However, there's some confusion what will happen if an app update requires more permissions like access to your location or list of contacts. A Microsoft spokesperson said that these will auto update too, granting the app more permission, but that could violate some of Microsoft's privacy rules. We'll have to see what the final version of Windows 8.1 does.
Microsoft's Xbox Music app was originally more like Spotify than Pandora, geared for finding music to buy rather than finding music to listen to.
But Microsoft added a new radio feature to it that will let you stream music, much like Pandora or Apple's new iTunes Radio.
By the end of the year, it will have a new feature that automatically creates playlists from any website you visit that has a collection of songs.
Search used to be one of the weakest apps in Windows 8. Microsoft has given the Search Charm, which lives in a bar that pulls out from the right side of the screen, a big overhaul.
The same Search Charm can now search the Web (via Bing), your files, your music, music via the new Radio app, links within files, and your online storage in SkyDrive.
Windows 8.1 now lets you work with up to four apps on one screen through a revised Snap feature, depending on the size of the screen on the device you are using.
This feature takes some getting used to and some know how.
For instance, it works well when using dual 27-inch screens, letting you run 4 apps apiece on each screen. But smaller tablets in the 8-inch range will still restrict you to two windows. And the app chooses the initial size of the window, not the user.
There's a new feature in the Share Charm called Reading List.
From any Windows 8 app (which Microsoft used to call a 'Metro' app and now calls a 'Modern app'), you can create a bookmark that will add the page you are reading (document, Website, etc.) to your Reading List. Use it to mark your spot in a long article and then continue reading it later, on any of your other Windows devices.
Microsoft added a few new Internet-powered apps to Windows 8, too. Food & Drink is one of them.
It lets you find and collect recipes, create shopping lists, and read articles from famous chefs.
But the best feature is a setting called 'Hands-free mode.' Load your recipe on any Windows 8.1 device that includes a front facing camera and then click 'Hands-free mode.' Wave your hand in front of the screen to scroll through the recipe.
This let's you work with a recipe even when your hands are messy from cooking, without touching the screen and gunking it up.
Another new app for Windows 8.1 is Health & Fitness.
It includes an exercise log, a calorie tracker and a symptom look-up where you can click on the body part that is bothering you to find out more.
Through the Windows App store, there are a bunch of new PC games that are exclusive to Windows 8.
There's even an arcade-style shooter based on Halo called platform like Halo Spartan Assault, which will be available in July for $7.
Microsoft added some new features for geared toward the new crop of small tablets that Windows 8.1 supports. (Acer, for instance, introduced an 8-inch Windows 8 tablet a few weeks ago).
You can use the camera without unlocking the the tablet, too. It also added some new gestures to the onscreen keyboard to make typing on smaller screens easier.
For instance, swipe the spacebar to accept an auto-suggestion. Swipe to switch between the alpha and numbers screens.
Microsoft added this feature for PCs parked in the family room: the lock screen will scroll through your picture library stored on the device or in your Microsoft SkyDrive cloud.
You can select photos or let it select photos for you. For instance, it will show the pictures of your kid's last birthday party near the date for her next birthday.
Windows 8.1 lets you choose more desktop backgrounds and more colours. It lets you resize tiles. It lets you click on multiple tiles and create a new tile group.
It even offers options for how you can display your Start menu apps while in the classic Windows 7 desktop mode.
While on the Start menu, swipe the right bar, click on settings and 'personalise.'
Don't forget to explore the secret set of personalisation options in Desktop mode, too. Just right click, or press and hold on the Taskbar to get to Properties.
Miracast is an alternative to Bluetooth that offers a high-speed wireless connection to other devices. It can connect the Windows 8.1 device to a projector, an Xbox One, or other game console or to television as long as that other device supports Miracast, too.
It's great for streaming video or games from a small tablet to something with a bigger-screen.
Windows 8.1 is has also added built-in support for consumer-grade 3D printers.
If you own a 3D printer like a MakerBot, just hit print from your 3D design app. It's the same as if you were printing on paper. Microsoft says it's the first operating system to support 3D printers like this.
There's a hidden set of features on the Desktop side in the spot where the 'Start' button lives in Microsoft's last operating system, Windows 7.
That button has been replaced by the 'Peek' button, a Windows logo. Press that and you instantly switch to the Start menu Windows 8 side. But right click or press and hold and you'll see a bunch of hidden menu options, including 'shut down.'
You can also set up 'Peek' to float your Start menu, instead of switch to it. That's a really useful option.
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