Microsoft rolls out the next version of windows, 8.1, at its annual Build developers conference today. It’s a big deal. Windows 8 was a crazy ambitious step, what follows is just as important. This is what Microsoft’s taken from your months of feedback (or just yelling).
Almost everything coming in 8.1 seems like a genuine improvement. The question, then, is exactly how much improvement. It’s not so much good news/bad news as good news and wait that’s all the good news? That’s part of Microsoft’s plan though, as it’s focusing on smaller, faster releases.
We’ll be updating this post throughout Microsoft’s keynote (refresh to see the latest updates), but we’ve started you with an overview of what’s going into the update.
Welp, you can boot to desktop now. You can also boot basically anywhere else you want, too — the All Apps screen, individual apps, the Start Menu.
The Start button also returns, but it only flings you into the Start Screen — no old school Start menu.
There are also some new tile sizes: The smaller square tiles (like Windows Phone 8’s), which let you cram more stuff onto your homescreen, and the gigantic square tile, which can display a bunch of information, like emails or calendar appointments.
You can select a group of tiles at once and drag them into their own group, which you can name, like a folder.
Swiping up from the Start screen brings up All Apps, which can now be sorted in more ways. This is a nice improvement from the swipe-then-tap required to bring this up in Windows 8.
The start screen can be customised to more colours and has some “motion accents” that move as you scroll through the metro tiles. Or, blessedly, you can just put your desktop wallpaper behind the Start screen.
As a whole, the changes to the Start screen are pretty indicative of the update as a whole. A few functional improvements, some of which are highly anticipated, but just as much window dressing and little flourishes.
Microsoft’s big push for 8.1 is to make Windows feel more customisable, and that goes beyond the Start screen.
The most visible change is the tweak to multitasking. “Snap View”, or the ability to pin a Metro app to either side of the screen, has been changed to let you drag to resize the apps. Meaning: If you want to have, say, Mail on the left side and a browser on the right, you can have each app take up 50 per cent of the screen, or drag the divider around to your liking.
In addition to this, you can have up to four apps snapped as vertical columns on your screen. All screens can take four apps, but obviously you’re going to want a larger monitor to handle them (16:9 or 21:9 being ideal).
Microsoft has looked into allowing you snap apps as horizontal rows — either at the top and bottom of the screen, or within columns created by snapped apps — but that’s not currently possible. Yell about this some more and maybe it will show up in an update down the road.
The lock screen can now be a moving collage of photos from your PC, SkyDrive and Phone.
Mail will be updated in an upcoming build to have some new features like “sweep”, which gets rid of all of the same spammy emails of a type. So, LivingSocial: you can get rid of every LS app at once, or only keep the oens from with the past 10 days or so.
Music got a new auto-generating playlist feature that makes a whole playlist from a selected artist.
The on-screen keyboard has some new gestures. You can slide up from any key that has a number as a secondary key, and the number will be inserted automatically, instead of having to switch to a different panel.
You can use hands-free swiping to scroll through apps, which is allegedly helpful for stuff like the new Food and Drinks app, which is more or less a huge cookbook.
We know you’ll be able to keep the Start Screen pinned to one screen permanently now, but we’ll have more specifics soon, hopefully.
Each monitor will now have its own scaling factor, meaning that you can zoom in with a high DPI monitor, and then move the app to a lower DPI screen without it being huge and awful. The app just resizes on its own.
SkyDrive features more prominently in 8.1. You can decide in all your apps whether to view files on your PC or on SkyDrive, and where things are saved. We’ll add further features as they’re announced.
We’re going to see a lot of new APIs today that will allow developers to make apps more customisable. We’re also told that the first party Microsoft apps will have more options as well. We’ll have more details as the specific APIs are announced.
Search is a big addition for Windows 8.1. Well, “change” is probably more appropriate.
In Windows 8, Search was broken down to search by applications, on the web, in the store, through your files. You decided which you’d see.
In 8.1, Search is universal. Searching for any term will bring up a “hero” display if you press enter, showing you results from the web, in your files and anywhere else, which you scroll through.
If you just type into the field, though, the pane on the right hand side of the screen will display results in real time, a lot like Apple’s Spotlight. This is a good thing, in theory, but we still want to see how it works in a day to day setting.
Microsoft also is looking at turning Bing into a platform. What does that mean? Good question. Basically, developers are getting access to Bing data and use it to power their apps directly through APIs.
For example, a trip planner app can power its images of a city with Bing image results, and because it’s using Bing APIs, the data will sync between Windows Phone or Windows tablet and a Windows PC.
You’ll also see Maps leveraged heavily as an API with this Bing platform business. Think Apple Maps in all your iOS apps, but wayyyyy further along. This includes some very detailed 3D maps.
And because you’re using Bing for the maps, you can ask contextual questions about an area or building. The demo was asking “who is the architect” of a building that was zoomed in on, and Bing knew which building it was looking at and provided a response. That is very nice cross-referencing capability.
Bing can also translate text, or interpret images with text that it scans — think business cards — and send that data back to your phone or PC.
Performance is supposed to be faster for all apps in 8.1. We’ll let you know if we see the difference.
For devs, there are new performance analysis tools in Visual Studio 2014 to test network health, battery life effects, and other variables with app performance.
There’s also a new tool to make push notifications easier to put into apps. So for users, notifications should be better in the apps you use.
The Store is totally remodelled, with new lists that make it easier to find things.
Windows Phone 8.1
Apparently we’re going to be hearing about Windows Phone too, which is unexpected. We’re going to be adding details about it as we have them.
Microsoft is also pushing new enterprise features, like better and easier encryption. Obviously, Windows 8 wasn’t a huge hit for that sector, so this is sorely needed. More details to come here.
Microsoft is adding native support for 3D printers to Windows 8.1. That means you don’t have to jump through any hoops to 3D print an item — if your computer is hooked up to a 3D printer, you can just hit print.
There have been some rumours floating around that Microsoft would release its own affordable 3D printer, but that’s not happening now. What is happening is Microsoft is partnering with a number of existing 3D printing companies — Makerbot, 3D Systems, Form Labs, Autodesk, and several other software and hardware companies. Got a Replicator 2, for example? Or one of 3D System’s adorable Cubify machines? You can print things right from your Windows machine. Fabbster’s Pesonal 3D Printer and the UP! 3D Printer from PP3D are also initially supported.
Microsoft is announcing this news today in hopes of seeing some 3D-printer applications developed especially for Windows. While this isn’t necessarily game-changing news, it’s good news. If 3D printing is going to be more than just a passing fad, it has to be something that’s easy and readily accessible to normal people, rather than hobbyists and rich people. Being able to print right from your computer to your 3D printer is a good first step.
Good Thing? Bad Thing?
Windows 8.1 brings good stuff to the table. The question isn’t really if it’s good, but if it’s good enough. A lot of that will depend on how the new developer tools are implemented going forward, and how much developer support overall improves this year.