Windows 8.1 release date, news and features

12th Jul 2013 | 14:24

Windows 8.1 release date, news and features

All the latest on the Windows 8 update

Microsoft has revealed full details about the comprehensive update to Windows 8, now known as Windows 8.1 and formerly known as Windows Blue. We've also had plenty of time with the new update, so check out our brand new Hands on: Windows 8.1 review.

Windows 8.1 was launched at the Microsoft Build developer conference in San Francisco and when available the final version will be available as a free downloadable Windows 8 update.

In the meantime, Microsoft has released a preview version of the new version of Windows 8 - the Windows 8.1 Release Preview is now available to download. The final Windows 8.1 release date is likely to be September or October, as the OS will be released to manufacturers to install on new PCs in August.

The big headline news is that the Start button has returned to Windows 8 with Windows 8.1, although it still goes to the Start screen rather than the Start menu. There is also more integration between the desktop and Start screen to stop the jarring of the two interfaces.

On stage today, Steve Ballmer said that in coffee terms, Microsoft was "refining the blend" between the desktop and Modern UI interfaces and a lot of Windows 8.1 enhancements have been designed to make the change between the two interfaces far less jarring.

Steve Ballmer

Ballmer also promised plenty of new, smaller Windows 8 tabletswould be released as well as new apps from Flipboard, Facebook and the NFL - though we didn't see any screenshots of these in action.

In our own hands on review, Mary Branscombe sums the new release up as a moderate success. "Windows 8.1 isn't a whole new operating system: it isn't the same leap as Windows 7 to 8. But it's more than a service pack as well.

"Performance feels generally faster, even for simple things like zipping up files. The interface changes won't please everyone, especially if you liked the Windows 8 Start screen and don't feel you need for yet another Windows key on screen - or if you were hoping for the Windows 7 Start menu back.

"Some things, like customising tiles on the Start screen, feel a little more long-winded until you get used to them. But generally the interface feels more consistent and easier to learn. And the expanded PC Settings gives the mass of control panel options a clean, simple interface that Windows has needed for years."

There will also be a boot-to-desktop feature in the final build - news which attracted massive applause from the gathered Microsoft developers and fans when it was announced at the Build conference today.

Windows 8.1 will bring greater personalisation

Leblond is Head of Windows Program Management and references the marked change of tune that TechRadar detected earlier this year: "Not only will Windows 8.1 respond to customer feedback, but it will add new features and functionality that advance the touch experience and mobile computing's potential." The feedback he's talking about is surely the mellowing of the Start screen dream and the reintroduction of a Start button of some sort.

"We're only a bit more than seven months into [a] new, bold approach to computing," continues Leblond. "The response to Windows 8 has been substantial - from new devices to strong app growth to key enhancements to the OS and apps. We've learned from customers in how they are using the product and have received a lot of feedback. We've delivered hundreds of updates to the product and to apps. We're just getting started, and the potential ahead is tremendous.

"We've been watching, we've been listening"

We've picked out the top enhancements in Windows 8.1 along with some quotes from Leblond about each one.

1. Lock screen slideshow

"As people started using Windows 8, we found that people were using their Lock screens to show pictures of their families," Leblond says. So in Windows 8.1, you can turn your PC or tablet into a picture frame by making your Lock screen a slide show of your pictures - either locally on the device or photos from Microsoft SkyDrive.

You can unlock the camera or answer a Skype call quickly without needing to fiddle with a password. If small tablets get popular, that will be useful.

2. The Start screen evolves

Windows 8.1 offers more colours and backgrounds for the Start screen - including some with motion. You can also choose your desktop background as your Start screen background.

However, it's still perfectly possible to get a really garish looking Start screen, like this - does anybody actually use these patterns?

Windows 8.1 Start screen

3. Different tile sizes

As in Windows Phone 8, the Windows 8.1 Start screen features a variety of tile sizes including a new large and new small tile. It's also even easier to name groups and rearrange tiles, says Leblond: "We found people were accidentally moving tiles on their Start screen so in Windows 8.1, you press and hold (or right click) to move things around."

You can even have large double-size tiles (check the weather in the picture above) but apps need to be written specifically to take advantage of this.

To select a tile, you now need to press and hold it. You can now select multiple apps all at once, resize them, uninstall them, or rearrange them into a group: "View all apps just by swiping from the bottom to view all apps, and we've added the ability to filter your apps by name, date installed, most used, or by category.

"You want the Start screen to be about all the things you love. So when you install a new app from the Windows Store, we no longer put that app on your Start screen. Instead, you'll find these apps under apps view as mentioned above and marked as 'new' where you can choose to pin the apps you want to your Start screen."

The Start screen has also been refined to work with all screen sizes more effectively - Microsoft believes Windows 8.1 really can scale from 8-inch tablets to 27-inch devices.

Start screen

4. Aggregated search

Instead of having to select an app and then search when you go to the Search charm, Bing now powers an aggregated search system from the web, your files, SkyDrive and elsewhere. Leblond says: "We think this will really change the way you interact with the Web and with Windows making it quicker and easier to get things done. It is the modern version of the command line! Results from local files, apps, and settings are easily accessed in the same convenient view by scrolling to the left."

In the Desktop, the Search charm now overlays a Search pane on the desktop rather than chucking you over to the Start screen. More evidence that Microsoft is 'refining the blend' between desktop and Modern apps.

Search Windows 8.1

5. Enhanced apps

New app enhancements are also coming to all the built-in apps like Mail and Xbox Music, while there are new apps for food and fitness and there is a 'modern' version of Office that's set to launch.

The Photos app now has some new editing features that let you quickly edit or adjust photos when you view them in the Photos app or open them from other places like the Mail, SkyDrive, and Camera apps - you can now create Photosynth panoramas directly within the app.

Mail includes some clever extra options for filtering mails, while there's also a Reading List to gather links from Internet Explorer. The Photos app now has a lot more editing options.

Windows 8.1

6. More snap views

If, like us, you use Windows 8 a lot, you'll have been frustrated by the lack of 50:50 split snap views. This is the game-changer for Windows 8 apps. "You will have more ways to see multiple apps on the screen at the same time," says Leblond. "You can resize apps to any size you want, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected, you can have different Windows Store apps running on all the displays at the same time and the Start Screen can stay open on one monitor (yes!).

This is one of the fundamental changes in Windows 8.1 and makes multi-tasking and multi-monitor use a lot easier. Also in Windows 8.1, you can have multiple windows of the same app snapped together - such as two Internet Explorer windows." We're really looking forward to that.

Yes! A 50:50 split!

7. An enhanced Windows Store

The Windows Store gets a new look in Windows 8.1, designed to make it easier for you to find new and interesting apps. Instead of having to guess what the featured apps at the front of the Store do, a carousel flips through large images and descriptions of each of the six featured apps in turn (swipe down if you don't want to wait for it to flip).

App updates will now install automatically in the background as they come through the Store. And search is available in the upper right hand corner for finding the apps you want. Leblond elaborates: "The improved Windows Store is designed to show more info than before in Windows 8 with detailed lists of top free apps, new releases, and picks for you on the homepage. The app listing is more descriptive and informative and includes an area for related apps to help with app discovery."

8. Save direct to SkyDrive, plus offline files

In Windows 8.1 your files can be saved directly to SkyDrive - it's completely integrated into the OS. The SkyDrive app has also got a new update so that files are available even when offline - as in the desktop version.

There's no longer a separate desktop interface for picking folders to sync.

SkyDrive

9. You no longer need the desktop Control Panel

The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop. "You can do things like change your display resolution, set power options, see the make and model of my PC, change the product key, let me do Windows Update, and even join a domain – all from PC Settings," says Leblond. You can also manage SkyDrive from PC Settings as well.

10. A new Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer 11 will ship with Windows 8.1. "IE11 will offer even better touch performance, faster page load times and several other new features we think you will enjoy," says Leblond. "For example, you can now adjust the appearance of modern IE11 to always show the address bar and you can have as many open tabs as you like. And you can access your open tabs in sync across your other Windows 8.1 devices."

11. Better with a mouse and keyboard

For devices without touch, Windows 8.1 features a number of improvements for easier navigation using a mouse and keyboard. "PCs today are evolving for a world of mobile computing where people interact with their devices through touch, and we designed Windows 8 for this," explains Leblond. "But we also recognize there are many non-touch devices in use today - especially in the commercial setting."

12. A change to the Start 'tip' and the Start button

You've already heard about this one, right? Leblond adds that there are also options to change what the corners do, and options to boot into alternate screens: "For example, if you prefer to see the Apps view versus all the tiles, you can choose to have the Start screen go directly to Apps view."

Here's a picture of the new Start button on the desktop.

Windows 8.1 desktop

11. Improvements to the Desktop and All programs

Your tiles will overlay over your desktop background when you access the Start screen from the desktop, while you can now swipe up from the Start screen to access your All programs view. This really is a game changer.

12. Changing app switching

You can now also change the settings for the hot corners and App switching, so you can prevent the Charm bar or app switching bar from appearing if you don't want them to.

Windows 8.1 App switching

13. Changes to Windows Explorer

File libraries no longer show up in Explorer automatically, even though they're still the way you put media into the Xbox Music and Video apps and the first place Mail looks when you add attachments.

To avoid filling all the storage on a tablet with a small drive, all you get by default is the Documents and Pictures folders from your SkyDrive.

You can see your other folders and the names of all the files in them and when you click on a file Windows 8.1 automatically pulls it down from SkyDrive and caches it offline and syncs changes to it.

When you right-click on folders in Explorer the option to add them to a library is still on the context menu, but if you want to find and work with them in Explorer you have to turn them back on in the navigation pane. Instead you see This PC where you're used to seeing Computer, along with SkyDrive which is installed as part of Windows (in both 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1) and syncs some of your files automatically.

Windows 8.1 files

14. Native 3D printing support

Windows 8.1 also includes baked-in support for 3D printing. It's still niche, of course, but it's an interesting development.

Here are our earlier Windows 8.1 rumors

Windows 8.1 release date

The final Windows Blue release date is late 2013, while there will also be some new Windows Blue hardware.

In a post on the official Windows blog early in May, Tamy Reller, Microsoft's chief marketing office and chief financial officer, confirmed what we already knew - the update will be available "later this year", and certainly by Christmas.

Reller went on to say that the update will provide "more options for businesses, and give consumers more options for work and play". Microsoft now has more than 70,000 Metro/Windows 8-style apps in the Windows Store.

Reller later confirmed the Windows 8.1 name during a conference call with J.P. Morgan, where plans for the operating system were discussed.

Quite how the upcoming preview release will work in practice remains to be seen, but you might not be able to install it straight into an existing Windows 8 install.

If you happen to be one of the small number of users who have a Windows RT device like Surface RT, we're sure you'll be thrilled to know that the Windows 8.1 update will also be coming to your device.

There aren't likely to be too many massive surprises from Blue, which our writer Kate Solomon says "we feel a bit guilty for passing off as a minor Windows update" now that we've seen plenty of Windows Blue screenshots.

Windows Blue

Windows Blue is actually Windows 8.1

Windows Blue, we now know for sure that Windows Blue will not be the software's official name. Shame. Instead Windows Blue is just the internal name for the software.

Windows Blue will officially be deemed Windows 8.1, first revealed in early April. Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet's All About Microsoft blog said the original Windows 8.1 tip came from a reliable source and screenshots of the About Windows screen also appeared on Twitter - see below.

In stores, the update will still be called simply Windows 8 - that means Microsoft isn't about to start naming its incremental OS refreshes like Apple does (like OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion). But it does indicate a new attitude to the type of software updates that it has previously called Service Packs.

One thing we definitely would say, it's unlikely that Windows Blue will mean the merging of Windows 8 and with Windows Phone 8 into a single product.

Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 Start menu

There has been a lot of speculation over whether Windows 8.1 will actually introduce a Start Button and on May 30 we saw a preview of what the brand new button will look like, thanks to Paul Thurrott at Windows SuperSite.

However, we'd like to point out a big caveat with this screenshot - the new button shown by Thurrott looks awfully like Stardock's Start button replacement tool Start8. Will we actually get a Start button in Windows 8.1?

Windows 8 start button

Credit: Windows SuperSite

New Windows 8 apps

As well as the operating system itself, Microsoft is apparently building some new Windows 8 apps, looking at new ways to run apps side-by-side on smaller-screened devices without needing hefty black-box-level resolution. That's in addition to the March updates for standard Windows 8 apps.

Blue is also bringing in new Snap Views so you can share your screen 50:50 between different apps rather than the current 70:30, including across multiple monitors.

Windows Blue

As expected, Microsoft is upping the Sky Drive integration, with some new treats like auto-camera uploads and more back-up options, as well as tab sync which will see your tabs mirrored across devices.

The grabs also reveal the inclusion of IE11 but not much detail on the next iteration of browser beyond that.

And for the personalisation fans, the grabs show a quick and easy menu of options for customising your desktop background and other design elements

IE11

Windows Blue desktop

Could Windows Blue enable users to boot straight to the desktop? Some rumours think so. You can't boot straight to the desktop in Windows 8, though you can resume to it.

Some coden supposedly includes an option that disables the start screen so users would jump straight to the desktop layout - known as "CanSuppressStartScreen".

Certainly there are no plans to ditch the desktop any time soon. In an interview with TechRadar, Windows Product Manager Ian Moulster was candid about the desktop's important role in Windows.

"To be honest I don't have an answer because I don't know. I'm loathe to speculate. It seems highly unlikely to me. I haven't seen anything either way. I'd be surprised, but that's my personal view."

"I think it's a continuation of us always building on what's there. Windows 8 is built on Windows 7 and starts from where Windows 7 stops, and I don't think there will be a change to that approach. We'd be crazy to throw anything away.

"But what form that takes we'll have to wait and see I suppose. I think we have said that we'll be releasing updates more frequently, but precisely what that means I don't know. There's the apps as well, we've released plenty of updates to our apps."

Windows Blue sync

It seems that more features will be synchronized between PCs and your user account with Windows Blue. It looks like this will extend to the Start screen as well as device associations and Internet Explorer tabs.

Further Windows development

According to a February 15 job posting on the Microsoft Careers site, the software giant is seeking an engineer to join its Windows Core Experience Team.

That part of the operation will be working on improving the centrepiece of the new Windows UI, including the start screen, application lifecycle, windowing and personalisation, according to the post.

This seems to suggest that Windows Blue will bring more than a few tweaks under the bonnet and offer tangible visual enhancements to the Windows 8 software.

Indeed, the post mentions Windows Blue by name and says the updates will look to "build on and improve Windows 8" as time goes on.

An excerpt reads: "We're looking for an excellent, experienced SDET to join the Core Experience team in Windows Sustained Engineering (WinSE). The Core Experience features are the centerpiece of the new Windows UI, representing most of what customers touch and see in the OS, including: the start screen; application lifecycle; windowing; and personalization. Windows Blue promises to build and improve upon these aspects of the OS, enhancing ease of use and the overall user experience on devices and PCs worldwide."

Windows Blue will extend to other platforms

It is also thought that Windows Blue updates will be extended to multiple Microsoft platforms, including Windows server, the mobile OS Windows Phone 8 and applications like SkyDrive and Outlook.com.

Indeed, another post on Microsoft's job site mentions Windows Phone Blue by name, so that is definitely on the horizon.

The plan from Microsoft's point of view is reportedly to move towards a more regular update pace, rather than the three year gap that separated Windows 7 and Windows 8, with little improvements in between.

Apple has enjoyed great success in this arena, gradually adding new strings to the bow of Mac OS X every year, through its feline-themed updates.

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