Windows 8.1 Preview provides a window into the future of Windows
Today, during the keynote for the Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco, the company announced the preview version for Windows 8.1 (download the preview here). As a point upgrade to Windows 8, there are few sweeping changes to the operating system, but Microsoft has thankfully made some tweaks to the interface, along with upgraded apps and other enhancements that users will appreciate. But it's important to note that if you were hoping for a return to a Windows 7 layout, you're going to be disappointed; Microsoft is sticking to its guns on the Modern UI (the tiled Start screen interface), and you'll still be using it as your main launching point. With that said, Microsoft has added a few features that make it a bit more palatable to keyboard-and-mouse Windows desktop users.
In developing Windows 8.1, Microsoft says it listened to feedback from users and tried to solve the problems people were having with the new interface. In our time with the updated OS, we think the company has done a good job on a lot of fronts and has added a lot more to like, but we suspect that some people will still find the OS' reliance on touch off-putting.
The Start menu returns! (sort of)
One of the biggest complaints for Windows 8 was the removal of the Start (or Windows) button in the lower-left corner of the desktop. Microsoft's move toward touch-screen computing made it rethink the way people use their computers in Windows 8, but those who spent years clicking the Start button to navigate the OS weren't pleased with an entirely new way of doing things.
As a compromise of sorts, Microsoft has reintroduced the Start button in Windows 8.1 in the lower-left corner of the screen. Clicking on it brings up the Start screen, where you can type a few letters to find and open apps, just like in Windows 8. While you still don't get the exact same pop-up menu you had in Windows 7, Microsoft has added the ability to right-click the new Start button to get to common Control Panel settings, open the Task Manager, perform a search, and other useful system tools. At the bottom of the pop-up menu you have the option to shut down or restart your computer -- a function that was previously found in Windows 8 by mousing to the top-right corner of the screen, dragging downward, clicking Settings, clicking Power, then clicking Shutdown or Restart.
There's obviously nothing groundbreaking about bringing a widely used interface element back from a previous OS, but we had hoped Microsoft could bring it back completely. We use Windows 8 every day, but we still miss the convenience of having recent files, the Control Panel, and everything else from Windows 7 in one spot, whereas you now need to drill down in multiple different areas when using Windows 8. Nevertheless, we're glad the company has made the menu more easily accessible for mouse-and-keyboard users at the very least.
Boot to Desktop
A change that many users will appreciate is the capability to set up the Windows machine to boot directly to the desktop from within the OS. It seems that Microsoft has heard the outcry from users, or perhaps the company is finally admitting to some extent that the tiled Modern UI is not necessarily ideal for mouse-and-keyboard setups. In any case, we're happy it's been added.
Xbox Music gets much more intuitive
In Windows 8, Xbox Music allowed you to stream free music from a huge library of more than 30 million songs. In Windows 8.1, the app has been redesigned to make it easier to move around the interface. A left navigation pane lets you start a radio station, explore artists, play songs from your collection, or create and manage playlists. On the right side of the screen you can view artists, explore content, watch videos, and more. We noticed this is a theme in Windows 8.1: many of the interface elements include a left-side nav with content on the right, and we think it's much better than the sideways scrolling found in earlier versions of Xbox Music. You can create Pandora-like radio stations by entering an artist to get a stream of similar music, and you can create playlists of music you choose. The process is a little involved, but when you're finished you can listen to a custom playlist in exactly the order you want. There are obviously other services like Spotify that let you choose songs to play, and Pandora, which does free streaming, but the new layout in Windows 8.1 makes it much easier to use and might be your new go-to app instead of third-party options.
Search gets an upgrade
The search charm in Windows 8.1 does a little more than it did before. Now when you perform a search, you'll get global results from several sources including files, SkyDrive, apps, and the Web. All your search results are displayed horizontally, with more results from other sources when you scroll to the right.
When you search for popular actors, musicians, sports figures, and other well-known people, Windows 8 displays what it calls a Hero screen. On a search for Kanye West, for example, you get a large photo, related songs and videos, movies, and -- as you scroll further -- more-basic Web search results to Web sites and images. When a person isn't as famous, you get standard Web search results with links to Web sites and photos.
More flexibility with Snap views
In Windows 8.1 you'll now be able to run more apps simultaneously on one monitor by resizing app windows and using the Snap function. Now, you can have up to four running apps on one screen simultaneously, as long as your screen has a high enough resolution: 2,560x1,440 pixels is required to display four simultaneous apps. With a dual-monitor setup, you could have eight apps running at once. On the Surface Pro that Microsoft loaned us for testing, we were only able to get three apps on one screen (Surface Pro features a 1,920x1,080 resolution), but it was easy to see how it could be useful.
Microsoft has added some personalization features with both the Start screen and lock screens so people can add a bit of their own style to desktops and tablets. There are more colors to choose from for backgrounds, and you can display a slideshow on your lock screen with photos currently on your hard drive or from those stored on SkyDrive.
Much-improved camera app
The camera app has been improved significantly in Windows 8.1. In Windows 8 your only option was to crop photos, but in 8.1, you get a full set of photo-editing tools to enhance color, adjust brightness and contrast, and red-eye, and pick from six different filters.
Our favorite part of the app is the color enhancement tool, which lets you pick a color on the photo, and enhance just that color to make it stand out. Where the camera app was almost useless before, in Windows 8.1 people will be more likely to use it with all the new features.
Part of this week's Microsoft Build event is about getting developers excited about making new apps for the Windows Store. A redesign in Windows 8.1 might be a step in the right direction with a cleaner look, larger images, and an overall more refined and sophisticated layout. Microsoft also made it so your current apps are now auto-updated, ensuring that you'll always have the latest versions.
One of the complaints of the Windows Store was that it didn't have a robust catalog of apps. While it's slowly grown since Windows 8 first arrived, hopefully a new look and auto-updates will make developers take a new interest in it.
Do the changes make Windows 8 better?
The short answer appears to be: yes. Windows 8.1 streamlines much of the touch interface, while adding many cosmetic and tangible, utilitarian features.
We think the real question, however, is: does 8.1 do enough to sweeten the bad taste left in the mouths of many Windows 8 users? That's a much more difficult question to answer and one that will require much more time spent with the new OS.
Windows 8.1 probably still relies a bit too much on touch and may not do all it needs to repair damage caused by its predecessor; however, it's a much-needed and in some cases impressive step in the right direction.
Editors' note: This story was originally posted at http://reviews.cnet.com/microsoft-windows-8-1/ but was moved here on October 16, 2013.