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Hands On with Windows 8.1: Microsoft's 'do-over' OS is loaded with features

Mark Hachman | June 27, 2013
If you already think Windows 8 is a flawed OS, Microsoft's new 8.1 update won't change your mind. But I've been digging into a preview release of the new system since Tuesday afternoon, and it's clear that Microsoft's course-correction efforts have paid off in loads of convenient new features.

If you already think Windows 8 is a flawed OS, Microsoft's new 8.1 update won't change your mind. But I've been digging into a preview release of the new system since Tuesday afternoon, and it's clear that Microsoft's course-correction efforts have paid off in loads of convenient new features.

Microsoft released the long-awaited Windows 8.1 preview at its Build 2013 developer's conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, and will soon publish download links for both Windows RT 8.1 and Windows 8.1. If you decide to download either preview, consider backing up your PC first, and read Microsoft's FAQ. Microsoft executives say your current apps won't be affected by installing the preview, but some could require re-installation once Windows 8.1 is released in its final form. The download appears to be about 2.44 GB, based on a demo Microsoft showed journalists Tuesday.

The preview holds few surprises for those who've been keeping track of the Windows 8.1 saga. Yes, it includes the new boot-to-desktop option, and Microsoft has re-organized the Start page to make finding apps easier. Within the desktop, the Windows flag serves as a faux Start button, although it's really just a shortcut to the Start page.

The expected personalization options are there, including dynamic desktop art as well as the ability to share a background between your desktop and Start page. But there's also a flood of other tweaks, apps and features, making this free upgrade a tremendous value in terms of volume alone.

Some highlights: There's a new Bing Food & Drink app that you can wave at to turn the page, Samsung Galaxy S4 style. There's direct control of 3D printers (yes, 3D printers). You can turn the PC into a Wi-Fi hotspot, and stream 1080p video via Miracast to the Xbox One. And Microsoft also confirmed that it has "alpha code" of Microsoft Office for the Modern interface that's due some time in the future.

Although Microsoft will key the Windows 8.1 release to your Microsoft ID account, it seeded the upgrade to journalists and analysts on Surface Pro loaner units. While not much grabbed me from the get-go, poking into the nooks and crannies has been rewarding.

Friendly, but frustrating
Because Windows 8.1 is a connected operating system, booting up the Surface is a rather blah experience. But after connecting your Microsoft account, enabling SkyDrive, and diving into the personalization options, Windows 8.1 comes alive. It's just a lot harder than it could be.

A key goal of Windows 8.1 is to offer a highly personalized experience. Indeed, one of the many additions to the Start page is the "Personalize" option under Settings. To get there, swipe in from the right, select Settings, and then "Personalize." Once you do so, you'll have an option to add different backgrounds, with various color schemes. I'm not sure if the Surface I had simply lacked the dynamic 'Dragon" and "Robot" backgrounds that Jensen Harris, part of the Microsoft Windows User Experience team, demonstrated for reporters Tuesday. But Windows 8.1 either synced over the new backgrounds by copying over my old background options, or the content wasn't there.

 

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