Microsoft just released a publicly available preview version of the new Windows 8.1 operating system at their BUILD 2013 conference. The preview version is really supposed to be only for people who want to do some testing and work on building new applications for the operating system, however, we had to install it on a Surface Pro right away to see how everything is going to change in the world of Windows tablets… and there certainly is a lot that’s going to change with Windows 8.1. Most of the changes are really refinements, but some are quite different. For example, the search charm no longer allows you to choose which app you want to search. It only has options for everywhere, settings, files, web images, and web videos. Search options for specific apps now seem to be built into the apps themselves which kind of defeats the purpose of the original search charm in Windows 8. Regardless, the new search function is quite powerful. It can be activated simply by typing whatever you want from the start screen (just like Windows Vista) and if your top result is an app or setting, it’s automatically selected so that all you have to do is hit enter to launch it. If your search term is not something that’s on your PC, it will allow you to search the internet and the results are often a very nicely designed landscape graphical layout of all sorts of related information. It’s actually pretty impressive. If you search for a musical artist, you get songs that you can listen to right away in the Xbox Music app… along with all sorts of photos, videos, and web page results.
The multi-tasking, multi-window-pane interface has been overhauled as well. In Windows 8, you really only had 3 size options for your “metro” apps. Either a narrow column, full screen, or a wide column. With Windows 8.1, the column widths are adjustable to just about whatever width you want. If you have multiple monitors, you’ll be able to arrange multiple columns of apps across them. Unfortunately, with this added multi-tasking flexibility there comes some weirdness when launching new apps. Instead of tapping an app icon and having it instantly appear on the screen, the app’s icon appears floating over your multiple window panes. There’s no visual indication of what it’s doing or what you’re supposed to do about it. It looks like the app has frozen and there are display problems. Really, you have to tap the app’s icon and drag it to the window pane that you want it to load into. Hopefully that interface can be made much more user-friendly before final release.
The settings areas have been overhauled, too. PC Settings controls much more than it did in Windows 8 so there will be much less of a need to access the classic Control Panel for the desktop environment. If you access the Settings charm from the Start screen you’ll now have much more extensive customization options including the ability to set the Start screen’s background to be the same image as your desktop’s background. This feature will greatly ease the transition between desktop environment and Windows 8 modern environments… just be sure to pick a good wallpaper image.
There are plenty of other enhancements coming to Windows 8.1 as well, be sure to take a look at the video below for our first look at what’s new in the Windows 8.1 Preview.