We’ve finally had some hands-on time with an official build of Windows 8.1 – and yes, many of the rumours and leaks are accurate. The Start button is back, you can boot to the desktop and use the same image as your desktop. SkyDrive is built in to sync files – on Windows 8.1 and Windows RT.The Start screen gets new large tile sizes for select apps like Weather and Finance so you can see more information at once, although apps have to be specially built to use this. You can pick from far more colours to customise the Start screen backgrounds – some of which animate subtly as you scroll sideways – or you can use your desktop background, in which case your tiles scroll but your background is fixed.Two big new interface changes are the new smart search and the way Windows 8.1 handles multiple modern app windows on screen – especially on large monitors. When you use the Search charm – which Microsoft refers to by the Windows-S keyboard shortcut more than the charms bar – you get the same suggestions of apps to launch, settings to open and other searches you might be interested in.
But now, those all show up in the Search pane itself, rather than in a distracting full-screen. And both apps and settings show up in the same list rather than separate lists that can fool you into thinking Windows doesn’t have any way to change settings.
You can still see search results in a full-screen view but that’s not just a boring list of tiles and titles. Bing combines results from your PC and SkyDrive, from the content inside your apps and from the Web. By the time Windows 8.1 launches smart search it will include email messages, though it doesn’t yet. If you have documents that match your search, they show up first. But Bing will also try to find a person, place, band, album or other entity that matches what you’re looking for and build an instant search ‘hero’ that’s like a mini app full of content
•What’s new in the Windows 8.1 Store?
Drag the marker onto a colour in the image and move the slider around the circular control to saturate or fade out that colour throughout the image. Drag it to another colour and choose a different level. You can use this to make an image more vibrant or give it a muted effect. The Photos app is also far faster (and for now, at least, you can still get the Windows 8 version from the Windows Store).
But then there are apps that you have to wonder about Microsoft spending time on. Health & Fitness is a great dashboard for Microsoft’s Health Vault service, but that continues to have few features outside the U.S. And Food & Drink is a nice demo of waving your hand in front of a webcam to scroll through pages when you have cake batter on your hands, but it’s hard to see it competing with the dozens of other food apps on the market.
•Potential Windows 8.1 Preview install fix surfaces for UK users
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. We love the new on-screen keyboard where you can swipe up on the top row of keys to type letters. And the expanded PC Settings gives the mass of control panel options a clean, simple interface that Windows has needed for years.
If you use the Windows Store you aren’t going to be able to avoid the prompts and promotions to try out the Windows 8.1 preview. We’ll need to run it for longer to see if it’s stable enough to recommend as your daily operating system (it’s been rock solid so far). We might have hoped for more major new features, but in eight months Microsoft has delivered a sensible and welcome update to Windows 8.
•Full details: Windows 8.1 release date, news and features
But this isn’t Microsoft backing away from what we still want to call Metro; key Microsoft apps like Mail and Xbox Music have been updated, there are new apps for food and fitness and there is a ‘modern’ version of Office on the way.
If you’re reading this in the UK, note there have been some issues with installing
To select a tile, press and hold on it. You can still select multiple tiles and now you can do useful things to all the tiles you have selected. You can also select multiple tiles on the Apps screen and pin them to Start as a group. As this is the only place you get tiles for newly installed apps, it’s a useful option. There’s now a Start Button to bring up the Start Screen
The Start Button doesn’t do anything that clicking in the bottom-left of the Windows 8 desktop doesn’t already, but it will at least make things a bit clearer for newcomers to Windows 8.
The Start Screen is now better-organised, and takes some cues from Windows Phone. Instead of all your apps being on one Start Screen, the main screen now only holds a selection which you can customise. Swiping up brings up a screen showing all your apps with much smaller icons and a search box. If you have many applications installed, this will make it easier to see what you have at a glance