Windows 8.1: What to Expect

Backbencher June 21, 2013 3
Windows 8.1: What to Expect

The First Major Update To Windows 8 is Coming

The public beta release of Windows 8.1 should be available from 26th June 2013 and, according to the Windows Blog, will support both Windows 8 and Windows RT devices. This first key update to Windows 8 will be released at the annual Microsoft Build Conference (26-28 June 2013), at the Moscone Center, San Francisco – typically the home of the Google I/O developer conference.

When Two Worlds Collide

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Windows 8 and Windows XP side by side.

Windows 8 has had almost equal measures of praise and criticism, but until Windows 8 was released no one really knew what would happen when a traditional desktop operating system (mouse and keyboard based) collided with a mobile, touch friendly, one.

What would work? What wouldn’t work? What did people think might work, but didn’t? More crucially, how would people actually react to such a radical interface overhaul when faced with it on their own desktop – at work, at home, and on the move? Well, now we know, now everyone knows.

There have been a few raised eyebrows but somewhere between these two different approaches to user interface design must be a ‘best of both worlds‘. Unfortunately, this utopia is a few updates away, and may even stretch into Windows 9, but at least Windows 8.1 looks like a step in the right direction.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

The Windows 8.1 announcement coincides with Apples OS X 10.9 announcement, the latest update to its Mac based operating system.

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Apple’s latest refresh of its operating system, OS X Mavericks, is to be released in Autumn.

Apple recently announced a new direction for the product naming of its Mac OS X, away from big cats (Tiger, Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion), towards a celebration of Apple’s home state. So the next version has been named OS X Mavericks, to celebrate the big-wave coastline near Cupertino. Whilst Microsoft won’t be renaming Windows any time soon, the company are following Apple in the sense that they are moving to a similar mechanism for released updates to the Windows operating system.

However, it’s not just a case of keeping up with the Joneses. The Windows 8.1 release is planned for general availability towards the end of 2013, which puts it somewhere around ten to thirteen months following the release of Windows 8. To put this into context, Windows XP Service Pack 1 followed the launch of Windows XP by eight months, Vista Service Pack 1 followed the launch of Vista by thirteen months, whilst Windows 7 Service Pack 1 followed the release of Windows 7 by sixteen months.

The announcement for Windows 8.1 itself has caused a bit of a media frenzy. However, it is important to mention what Windows 8.1 is not. First up, it’s not Microsoft taking a backward step, or u-turn, nor is it any kind of admission that Windows 8 has serious flaws. At its core Windows 8.1 is a Service Pack. There are some old features added back in, where they make sense, and new features added. Microsoft appear to have listened to its user base.

What Can We Expect In Windows 8.1?

The return of the ‘Start’ icon and a new ‘Boot to Desktop’ feature are getting a lot of attention. The Start icon has been sorely missed from the new simplified, and streamlined, Windows 8 interface but it seems unclear, as yet, as to whether just the start icon is returning or whether the whole familiar ‘Start Menu‘ will be returning.

Boot to Desktop‘ makes a lot of sense for people who simply want to use Windows 8 as a means to getting to things like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop.

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The Windows 8 Search Panel.

The Search Charm has been consolidated so instead of performing a desktop search and only getting back matching applications the search function will return apps, settings, and files, together with more expanded descriptions on search subjects. Currently, when searching, the user needs to tap the appropriate options: Apps, Settings, or Files. The move to a more global search function feels a lot more natural.

The Store start page is also getting a spruce up together with a number of the built-in Windows Apps (for example Photos and Music). The current Windows Store front takes the idea of simplicity perhaps a little too far with vague titles and descriptions, an almost endless scrolling tile view, and little to inspire or tempt a download. New features will include related apps and more information about existing apps.

The built-in Mail feature isn’t the most feature rich version in the world. According to the Office News website Outlook 2013 RT will also be heading to Windows 8.1 as part of the update. Mail could become a confusing issue for new users of Windows 8; do they opt for the Mail that comes with Windows 8? What happens if Outlook is installed? And how will web based email clients interact – particularly as you have to sign up to Windows 8 with a dedicated email address?

In Windows 8.1 it will also be possible to save files directly to SkyDrive – Microsoft’s cloud storage platform.

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Live Tiles in Windows 8.1 will be available in more sizes.

More personalisation is also coming to Windows 8.1 with the lock stream becoming an animated slideshow and more colour and background choices for the Start screen. Live Tiles were a key feature of Windows 8 but they can be a little restricting as their sizes are limited to either ‘Smaller’ or ‘Larger’. Windows 8.1 will bring more size options so important apps can take more prominence.

According to Technet, support for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to work is to play an important part in of Windows 8.1 as Microsoft aims to convince Enterprise users to adopt its mobile platform. An interesting new BYOD feature is Work Folders for synchronising company files to device folders. Mobile Device Management, Broadband Tethering, Pervasive Device Encryption, NFC Tap-to-pair printing, and Wi-Fi Direct Printing are all coming to Windows 8.1.

One feature we’d like to see is the ability to sign in to different services, such as Music, with different email addresses. For example, when signed up to Music on the Xbox it’s not easy to gain access using the Windows 8 desktop because the desktop may use a different email address.

 

Jason Slater is a technology journalist, full-time blogger, and editor of Technology With Jason Slater. Follow Jason for tech talk on @jasonslater.

 

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