Just a while back, at Microsoft’s //build/ conference, Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, announced that Windows 8.1 will be available to download starting today. For those that are not aware, Windows 8.1 will be an update to Windows 8 rather than a full OS as some voices assumed and it will also come in the shape of a customer preview. Nevertheless, it will give users a chance to see and play around with the new updates of the OS.

Windows 8.1 will sort of bring back the start button that computer users have been asking for ever since Windows 8 was released. Apart from this update, Windows 8.1 will have a number of other upgrades, which shows that Microsoft has payed attention to the user’s demands.

New features of Windows 8.1

Even though Windows 8.1 will still be optimized for touchscreen interfaces, as Steve Ballmer said – that this is the direction technology is moving, and Microsoft wants to be in the first line of this technical revolution – the update will make it more accessible for computer users.

If you are interested in what Windows 8.1 is bringing to the consumer market, here are the main highlights that were presented at the //build/ conference earlier today, shortly enlisted:

  • Added Start Button
  • Possibility to boot directly to desktop
  • Added support for high-density displays on mobile devices
  • Virtual Keyboard will resize according to screen size
  • Global Search options via Search Charm
  • Updated Microsoft apps: Photos and Xbox Music
  • Better multitasking
  • Updated SkyDrive
  • Windows Store updated
  • Added Reading List feature

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These are the main features that were added or updated in Windows 8.1, if you want to know more about them, keep on reading, as we’ll be talking about each of them and we’ll see what exactly the updates will bring to Windows 8.1 users.

As you can see, these updates make Windows 8.1 better suited for traditional computers, but also add functionality to mobile devices that have a higher resolution. Windows 8.1 will be able to scale both desktop view and the start screen to 200% (instead of 150% that is currently available).

Better multitastking, new Bing & Windows Store

Thanks to the support for higher resolution displays, Windows 8.1 will have better multitasking options, as users will be able to snap together multiple apps and work on all of them at the same time. However, most devices have resolutions of about 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is not that much when you come to think of it. So, a better solution for those who want to multitask better would be to look for a Windows 8.1 device that has a much higher resolution, like the Toshiba Kirabook.

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Microsoft also updated their Bing search engine, which now offers better results on web searches. Also, the integrated Search Charm from Windows 8.1 will provide users with  both local and web results at the same time.

Along with the Bing service, Microsoft updated some of the Windows 8.1 integrated features, such as the Photos app, which now allows users to quickly edit photos and make slight adjustments. Another app that has been updated is the Xbox Music app, which is now more centered on your music collection, both local and shared via SkyDrive. One of the most important updates that Xbox Music has is the introduction of a radio feature, which is similar to Pandora Radio.

The Windows Store will finally have more features allowing users to find the best apps for them. This moves the Windows Store in the same category as the Play Store or the iTunes Store, as it will have a “Recommended for You” sections, as well as “Top Free” and “Top Paid” sections. With these, users will have a much better experience when browsing the app store on Windows 8.1.

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For those who do a lot of web browsing, Window 8.1 will have a feature similar to the “Read Later” that we’ve known for a long time. When you encounter a web page that you want to read, but you don’t have time at that moment, you will be able to save it for later via the Share Charm. Click the Share Charm and select Add to Reading List and the page will be saved.

Personalization in Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 also brings some novelties in terms of personalization. The Start page now has another option, the “Personalize” feature that you can find under Settings (to get there, you will need to swipe to the right, select Settings and then Personalize).  There, you will add different backgrounds and various color schemes. With Windows 8.1 you can also share a background between the desktop and the Start page, if you want to.

The “Change PC Settings” option also brings a new personalization feature: the feature of “converting” your PC into a photo frame, basically showing photos on your lock screen. We were recently talking about how much we need synchronization in our modern digital lives. Microsoft is alsow aware of that and that’s why Windows 8.1 syncs apps, Start screen tiles and layouts, browser shortcuts, mouse and printer settings and much more that you will discover along the way.

The same “Change PC Settings” option now lets you turn off those “hot corners” that allow you to access the Charms bar and recent apps. I’ll confess that I was among those confused and annoyed by this, so, thank you Ballmer!  In Windows 8, the power-user menu was accessible by pressing the Windows key + “X”. Inside Windows 8.1, perform a “long press” of the Windows flag and the same menu will apear. A “quick press” will bring, just like before, the Windows Store.  There are also other small features, yet important features coming with Windows 8.1, but the biggest concern is – will users know how to turn them on?

Improved search

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In Windows 8, search was something that many users (including myself) didn’t quite appreciate. I especially disliked the search functionality inside the Windows Store which was utterly inaccurate. Let’s hope that with the Search Charm and the Windows Store update, Microsoft will take care of that. Windows 8.1 brings a new search option, called the “Search Hero” interface that will be centered around big topics like bands, cities and just everything you’re interested in. If you were looking for the Kings of Leon band, this new intuitive search feature will let you choose from a list of songs and listen play them (of course, through the updated Xbox Music app).

If you will choose to read more information about that very band, you will then be redirected to the Wikipedia app, thus staying even more inside the Windows system. Smart solution by Microsoft to interconnect its apps as much as possible. In a world where search is synonymous with Google, Microsoft has decided to come with an interesting idea. Through it, users will access all kinds of content: pictures, online articles, listen-now buttons, read-more buttons, previewed Web links and much more that we are yet to discover. The feature remains great as long as you don’t search for topics that aren’t broad.

New and updated apps in Windows 8.1

Just like we were expecting, the major apps have been updated and some new apps have appeared as well. Besides the apps that we have talked above, there have been significant updates to Internet Explorer: side-by-side browsing and syncing of favorites, tabs, and settings across all Windows 8.1 devices; faster webpage loading time. Find below a list of apps that have been updated or created just now:

  • Bing Food & Drink
  • Health Tracker
  • Voice Recorder
  • Calculator
  • Alarms
  • News
  • Weather
  • Finance
  • Travel

Various other features in Windows 8.1

The best way to discover Windows 8.1 would be to simply get the update and have a thorough look at what has changed. We are going to enlist below some various features inside Windows 8’s update and describe so you could know if they are useful for you or not, as some of them are meant for niche users.

  • 3D printing support for applicatio developers 
  • Assigned Access “locks down” your Windows 8.1 PC to boot to a single app
  • Start Screen configuration can be exported to an XML file
  • Users can set up their PCs as Wi-Fi hotspots
  • NFC support in Windows 8.1 recognizs the nearest printer and prints to it
  • All versions of Windows get BitLocker encryption
  • Built-in VPN connection
  • Improved on-screen keyboard
  • Panorama capture feature in Camera
  • Touch-based office apps might arrive in Windows 8.1
  • Facebook and Flipboard official apps soon to arrive

Radu Tyrsina has contributed to this post

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