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Windows 8.1 Features - What's new?

Michael Sawh

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Windows 8.1 Features - What's new?

The Windows 8.1 October release date is here. Find out about the new Windows features to look out for including the returning Start button.

Windows 8.1 Features - What's new?

Microsoft launched its Windows 8 operating system in October 2012 with high hopes of gaining lost ground on Apple and Google. It made its way onto Windows 8 laptops, tablets, laptops/tablet hybrids and desktops.

The tablet-friendly OS has not been without its issues and bugs. Windows 8 RT underwhelmed and Microsoft’s decision to ditch the Home button alienated the hard-core PC crowd.

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update hopes to iron out some of the flaws and win back some friends and it's a free download from the Windows Store.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 2 will be among one of the first Windows 8.1-running devices while the Toshiba Encore will be one of the first 8-inch tablets to benefit from the small screen support added in the latest update.

Here are our picks of the best news Windows 8.1 features.

Start button comes home

After leaving it out from the first incarnation of Windows 8, the Start button is back. Well, kind of. It returns to the bottom left hand corner of the Desktop mode, but clicking the icon works merely as a shortcut back to the tiled-interface as opposed to accessing the application launched as it has done in previous Windows operating systems.

So it's a small change, but a good one considering how awkward to use the 'hot corner' method Windows 8 currently employs. And while some may still not fancy the tiled start screen, it's worth persevering with. It is an improvement on the poky start menu from Windows 7 and the Windows Store is slowly attracting more apps.

If you an ardent hater of the 'metro' start screen, however, there are plenty of third-party solutions. One of our favourites is Pokki.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Windows 10

Booting to Desktop first

For Windows 8 laptop and desktop users, the inability to jump straight into the more traditional Windows Desktop is a great source of frustration. Thankfully Microsoft has addressed this and has now added the ability to choose whether you want to start at the tile-based screen or the Desktop screen first. We kind of understand why this wasn't in the original release, but it's the right move on Microsoft's part.

Customizing the Windows 8.1 UI

Windows 8.1 lets you give the desktop and tiled interface a more personal feel by introducing support for parallax (motion) wallpapers and adding more colourful themes.

Additionally, Tiles can now be resized to be extra small or extra live depending on how frequently you access them. You can also remove Tiles from the Start screen and have the ability to turn off Live Tiles.

The smaller live tiles are important because it's one of the features that should allow Windows to support smaller tablets.

3D printing support

As well as having the added ability to manage printing jobs, Microsoft is also adding the ability for developers to add 3D printing support for applications. That means you’ll be able to print 3D models directly from programs. The functionality has the support of the major 3D printer manufacturers including Makerbot and Form Labs who already produce desktop 3D printers.

Wi-Fi Direct and NFC printing support has also been added. This means that if you have an NFC-enabled printer and Windows 8 device you can simply tap the two together to pair and print.

Windows 8.1 apps update

An area Microsoft will be eager to improve, Windows 8.1 will come with a series of pre-installed apps all accessible from the Start screen. Internet Explorer, Bing and SkyDrive are among the usual suspects. You can also support for Outlook.com and the Outlook desktop client and you can choose the default apps for browsing, emails, music and more.

The biggest news on the Windows 8.1 app front is that Microsoft has confirmed Skype will replace Microsoft’s Windows 8 Messaging app. It'll now become the go-to service for video, voice and instant messaging communication.

Microsoft has also taken the opportunity to refine and adjust existing native Windows 8.1 apps to make them slicker and add extra functionality and in its own words, ‘put creativity in your hands’.

Windows 8.1 screenshots 2

The camera app now let’s you take photos when you are shooting video, the ability to rewind photos BlackBerry 10-style and take panorama pics using Microsoft Photosynth. In the process of the changes, Microsoft has decided to drop built-in Facebook and Flickr support.

The new Movie Moments app is a very simplified video editing app where you can trim footage, add music, text and special effects.

Microsoft’s Photo app lets you edit snaps within the application and Fresh Paint now adds improved stylus and pen input support with greater SkyDrive integration to import paintings from the cloud.

New Windows 8.1 apps

Microsoft has also been busy making its own apps that include something for foodies and fitness-lovers. The Food & Drink app, powered by Bing, pulls in 100,000 new recipes, a wine encyclopaedia and plenty of culinary tips.

The Health & Fitness app provides insight into exercise routines, nutrition and includes a symptom tracker. Other notable new apps include a Reading List, which saves articles that can be read later on, and the more straightforward sounding Alarms, Sound Recorder and Calculator.

New Lock Screen and Start screen features

If you want to liven up your Lock Screen, Windows 8.1 now lets you add a photo slide show (Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Daydream anyone?) but also more useful features like the ability to access the camera without unlocking. This lets you take pictures quickly, as well as accept voice and video calls without faffing around.

Bored of the static landscape shot? You can now personalise your Start Screen using the new Motion Accents that allow you to add live backgrounds.

Multitasking windows

Having two applications open at once was already possible on the first version of Windows 8. The latest update now allows you to open those windows side by side with a more even 50/50 split. It will also let you have up to four apps open on one screen, adding the ability to alter the size of the applications if you are trying to focus on one more than the others.

Improved search

Making search work more comprehensively across hardware, the web and cloud storage, the Bing-powered search has been refined in Windows 8.1. It now lets you search everything on your device, from Windows 8 apps and information hidden inside Microsoft Word documents, to content nestling inside your more deeply integrated SkyDrive account.

Search results will present images, video and other content related to your query with preview thumbnails for related web links. Another handy new search feature is the ability to search for text within photos in SkyDrive.

Fingerprint security

A feature that is perhaps more geared towards James Bond or business folk using Windows 8 is the additional layer of enterprise-grade security that now has biometric authentication enabled. You can now use fingerprint technology to protect important data and files that you don’t want to fall into the wrong hands, so expect to see a load more tablets and laptops with scanners on them.

Final thoughts

So that’s our pick of the best Windows 8.1 features. While you could argue many of these should have been in the orignal release, there's no doubting there's plenty of useful additions that will make Windows 8 significantly better to use.

We will have a full Windows 8.1 review soon, but for those who have already had a play let us know what you make of it in the comments section below.

Gul Bali

June 27, 2013, 9:43 pm

Windows 8. is currently the NOKIA of OS. Existing Windows 7 users dont want it.

WP7Mango

June 28, 2013, 1:47 pm

I currently run Windows 8.0 on my desktop and on my tablet. Happy with both, but needed Start8 installed on the desktop (not needed on the tablet).

I have downloaded and tested Windows 8.1 and yes there are lots of significant improvements which make it much better (for desktop and for tablets), and I will certainly upgrade to Windows 8.1 when the full release version is available.

What Windows 8.1 does best is provide an incredibly powerful tablet operating system, far superior to iOS or Android. You no longer need to drop into the desktop to do common stuff like access Control Panel settings, but you can still run desktop apps if you need to. This makes it a fantastic experience for the power-tablet user.

Bubba St. Jaques

June 28, 2013, 2:29 pm

POS Inventor Should be Tarred , and Feathered !

toboev

June 28, 2013, 4:09 pm

Talk about thumbing your nose at your customers:
"We've put the Start Button back, just like you asked......HaHa, made you look, fooled you! It's really just a link straight back to the Tiles, not really a Start Button at all. Good joke? Oh, you don't think so...."

MattMe

July 1, 2013, 11:48 am

Try this: Imagine the tiles as a big start menu (because it it). Problem solved!

itsallgonepearshaped

July 1, 2013, 2:50 pm

Your comment about alienating the hard-core Windows users, is a little overstated. Try the vast majority of corporate users...
It's all too little, too late... and more than a little insulting that Microsoft consider this an upgrade - putting an icon that flips back to the homescreen??? All it looks is that stuff that got de-prioritised from 8.0 is now in 8.1 - Mind you at least they're not charging for it.

Speaking to the desktop architects at work, they reckon we'll be on Windows 7 until Windows 9 comes out or until they radically fix 8.x - It seems they struggle with the same things - User transition, compatibility with previous apps (SharePoint 2010 struggles with Windows 8) and ultimately a compelling business case.
So as I work for a 160k employee company, it looks like I'm not the only one who thinks like this.

Guest

July 1, 2013, 5:54 pm

Clueless

HarryGlass

October 17, 2013, 12:37 pm

Big deal. You don't like it install Start8 or something like that. That's the power of Windows, you can customise it to your needs. For the rest of us the Start Screen works well as a modern update.
People that "hate on" Windows 8 just because of the start screen and go back to Windows 7 are being so short sighted and foolish.

HarryGlass

October 17, 2013, 12:44 pm

"Too little, too late", sorry but enterprises upgrade their machines every 5-7 years, even if Windows 8 was amazing for desktop users many companies still wouldn't be upgrading for a while. Look how many are still on XP instead of what is considered by most people the vastly superior Windows 7.
Windows 8 is a solution to the Android/iPad phenomenon. For consumers buying a Windows 8.1 based tablet/laptop/hybrid is now a good choice versus an iPad; that's what MS needed to do here. For business users they still have a couple of years to update W8 (or shake things up a bit more with Windows 9) to make it work better for desktop & corporate users. They had to compete with tablets cos when in a couple of years businesses are ready to upgrade they'd be considering Android or iOS, this way, while it feels half-done at times gives them more chance of competing when upgrade time comes.
Or you could just do what I do and work in the desktop 99% of the time and not even know I'm running Windows 8; and just enjoy the speed benefits and UI enhancements they've made to the desktop.

Guest

October 17, 2013, 2:08 pm

"The biggest news on the Windows 8.1 app front is that Microsoft has confirmed Skype will replace Microsoft’s Windows 8 Messaging app. It'll now become the go-to service for video, voice and instant messaging communication"

I think you need to proof this article a bit more before republishing it - as far as I am aware Skype replaced Windows Messenger a while back. Not really news anymore and certainly not a future event.

lw

October 17, 2013, 8:55 pm

If you work all day in desktop mode as many in a corporate environment will or those that need to use desktop applications, there is no point to Windows 8, and 8.1 doesn't change that.
I have had Windows 8 since release as I purchased a new laptop, and have upgraded today to 8.1. As I work using desktop applications I still can't find any reason to use Windows 8 and would never have paid for it had it not come with my laptop. I only upgraded to 8.1 to see if it fixed some of the problems I had in 8. Too early to tell if it has...

Gareth Barber

October 18, 2013, 12:05 am

Windows 8 has one really great thing over 7, the fast boot, other than that an actual desktop for people who use windows for work 8 brings nothing. Fortunately with a quick download desktop can be restored to as good as 7.

Overall 8.1 for productive users looks like a damp squib, as others have mentioned for tablets this might just be what was needed.

And on the bright side at least they aren't charging for a minor OS upgrade.

Gareth Barber

October 18, 2013, 12:11 am

Imagine this, title apps are incomparable with desktop applications.

For your usages the start screen thing might work, for anyone using windows for their rich history of existing applications, or some usage activity that doesn't fit with the strange/odd (windowless) model application mode, it simply doesn't work, it could almost be called broken if it wasn't for it being designed this way.

Jason

October 18, 2013, 8:52 am

They're talking about the messaging app that was built into Windows 8

Jason

October 18, 2013, 8:57 am

I really don't get why everyone hates the tiled screen. I admit at first I did, but it's pretty much a full screen Start menu. The other stuff you may want from the start menu can easily be accessed by right clicking the bottom left corner. Apart from that, it runs identical to Windows 7.

If it was up to consumers we would all still be using XP. Almost every time Microsoft makes an OS, everyone complains and really, there's nothing wrong. I do admit putting the Start button back was a troll move, but ever since they announced it, I thought it was pointless since it's the same as clicking that corner.

Yoanna

October 18, 2013, 11:12 am

I bought a new laptop last year with windows 8. I wasn't too keen about it. But now, I can never go back to windows 7. I don't understand all this negativity. It has everything windows 7 can do, maybe some things differently. I don't know about you's, but I love trying new things. I don't like staying on something for too long. Change is good. Hopefully it gets better.

Ciao people (:

Paul

October 18, 2013, 12:39 pm

Start up takes 45 seconds now on my PC. Prior to the update it was 20 seconds.Some progress!

Also the photos and skydrive tile apps no longer work. "Try again later" is the message I receive. You can no longer uninstall either app like you could in Windows 8.0. I wanted to uninstall them and then reinstall them to see if that would fix matters. Sheesh!

microsoft old timer

October 18, 2013, 12:58 pm

No wonder Microsoft is loosing customers left right and centre.. How dumb does Microsoft think its users are? Multitasking support? Isnt this something that existed in Windows 3 ? Now we should be happy that we can only have 2 windows side by side? Customisable? Can someone show me how to get rid of metro? bring aero back? As much as I was a Microsoft person (and Microsoft pusher), now I cant wait until google also get in the desktop space so I can switch over.. Steve Balmer and his non direction ruined Microsoft. Maybe when they get a new guy, might steer Microsoft in the right direction.. hopefully is not to late..

Guest

October 18, 2013, 3:34 pm

I was talking about the "Service": i.e. "It'll now become the go-to service for video, voice and instant messaging communication"" <- This happened some time ago. There is only the Skype service now - not matter which app you use!

lw

October 19, 2013, 4:15 pm

My experience was the direct opposite. I bought a new Dell laptop (see post below) that had W7 installed but a free voucher for a W8 upgrade (as it wasn't released at the time).
My W7 laptop flew along thanks to i7 and a 32gb SSD cache drive. Boot up and waking from sleep was super fast.
Then I installed W8 and it seemed to destroy the benefit of the SSD cache. Boot up and waking from sleep into Metro worked fine, but going into desktop now took an age. It seemed like the cache no longer saw anything on the desktop as something it needed to cache. Any start up programs seemed to load after Metro and when I tried to load the desktop, and now take forever. I tried talking to various support groups but they were clueless.
As I only work in desktop mode if was a total step backwards AFAIAC. So far, I haven't seen anything in W8.1 that has vastly improved this.

Gareth Barber

October 19, 2013, 4:57 pm

That sounds unfortunate, I'm not sure how many laptops have those cache drives, maybe MS missed them out (after bigging them up previously), I guess as always buyer beware.

Hugh Bear

October 20, 2013, 12:33 am

Can I politely ask you to be quiet when grown-ups are speaking?

You're ignorantly replying to someone who actually knows about corporate IT needs and their relation to Windows 8, whereas you are either some random weirdo who likes to aggressively defend boring consumer products on the web or one of the thousands of astro-turf drones in Indian call-centres employed by Microsoft to improve their Internet reputations. Shhhhhhhhh.

Jason

October 20, 2013, 1:39 pm

Not MSN Messenger. There was an app that comes built into the Start menu that has now been replaced by a Skype app.

HarryGlass

October 20, 2013, 3:37 pm

Oh please, you don't agree with me so you call me a child. It's you that has to grow up if you say things like that.

I actually agree with the previous poster, there's no reason for most companies to upgrade to Windows 8 as it stands now. But my point is that many companies wouldn't be looking to upgrade for a while yet anyway no matter whether Windows 8 was good or not.

Anyway, please be polite.

Lily

February 17, 2014, 12:31 pm

there is only one thing you could improve in w8,, gaming! most games dont run because of dll files missing :c I had to install w7 alongside because w7 can run all games with no problems

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