Windows 8.1: Return of the start button, better search, customized home screens & tweaks for tablet and BYOD users

June 20, 2013

The start button is back

Perhaps the least surprising “introduction” on Windows 8.1 will be the return of the Start Button, which featured on every version of Windows until Windows 8.

But with users having voiced frustrations over its absence, Microsoft appears to have bowed to public pressure by confirming that the start button will return on Windows 8.1.

Well, sort of. The start button will actually be known as the “start tip” and will point users to the Metro screen. Users will also be able to avoid the Metro tile interface altogether by booting directly to desktop.

Personalize your home screen with new colors and tile sizes

Anyone who’s used a Windows 8 PC, tablet or even phone over the last eight months will know that the operating system hasn’t exactly offered a variety of choice when it comes to colored backgrounds or tile sizes.

Fortunately, that’s about to change with Windows 8.1, which will offer smaller and bigger squares as well as new animated backgrounds and more colors. Furthermore, you’ll also be able to use the same background for desktop and Metro/Modern UI.

Add into this the fact that newly downloaded apps won’t automatically “pin” to home screen as they do now and you should find your home screen more personalized than ever before.

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Search the web faster than before

The Search charm bar has been well received since the launch of Windows 8 but even the most popular features of an operating system can be improved, and that is clearly something Microsoft has taken on board.

Because whereas with Windows 8 you can only search by Apps, Files or Settings (or a combination of all three), Windows 8.1 will also include web and “action” results, such as playing a song or video.

As an additional bonus, users searching the web will also be able to preview web pages or search for images by background color.

Bigger is better for Snap

It’s a minor change but Snap, the Windows 8 feature which lets you bring apps side-by-side on the screen, will offer greater screen size options on Windows 8.1.

Whereas before the second side-by-side screen was restricted in size, Windows 8.1 users will be able to resize the screen so that both screens are of equal proportion or so that is slightly bigger than the other.

Windows tablets get portrait mode support

Of the changes already detailed on Windows 8.1, there have been few relating to tablets. One which has, however, is that tablets running Windows 8.1 will offer better support for portrait screen orientation.

Speaking at Computex in Taiwan earlier this month, Antoine Leblond, Microsoft’s corporate VP for program management on Windows, said that users will be able to create “portrait specific” Start Screen layouts, and added that all apps shipped with Windows 8.1 will be optimized for this orientation.

Slight improvements to Bing and Internet Explorer

Bing and Internet Explorer are already essential pillars to Windows 8 and that doesn’t look like changing with Windows 8.1 as Microsoft increasingly looks to lock users into using their own products.

Microsoft says that Windows 8.1 will see deeper Bing search interaction as well as the new Internet Explorer 11 browser which will bring about the ability for unlimited tab and syncing across devices. As another part of the web improvement, Windows 8.1 will even let you make live tiles out of websites, even those which are continually updating.

A smarter lock screen

Microsoft has already been pretty initiative with Windows 8 home screen, allowing for picture-based authentication and an easy guide to changing users.

But the Redmond firm is improving the lock screen even further with Windows 8.1. The lock screen will be able to display photos from exactly a year ago, and will also pull in photos from your PC, SkyDrive account and tagged photos from Windows Phone device. You'll even be able to take a Skype call without having to unlock the device.

SkyDrive is no longer a bit-part player                                 

Windows 8 and Windows 8 Phone users will know now that while SkyDrive integration is pretty deep on the OS, it isn’t the only cloud storage solution on offer.

Microsoft looks to be stepping up the reliance on SkyDrive with Windows 8.1, which is set to see SkyDrive become the default program for saving all documents. Furthermore, any and all files stored in SkyDrive will be made available offline by mirroring content to your PC.

Better BYOD support

It may not grab the headlines like the return of the start button but a change that is equally as important – for businesses at least – is the changes Microsoft is making to tailor for bring-your-own-device (BYOD) users.

Speaking at the TechEd conference in New Orleans earlier this month, Microsoft officials revealed that Windows 8.1 will add a number of new “manageability, mobility, security, user experience and networking capabilities”.

This will see IT administrators gain more powers for remotely wiping corporate data from Windows 8 devices and they'll also be able to be more selective on who is granted access to certain work resources.

For example, administrators will be able to selectively wipe corporate content from devices. Microsoft writes that corporate data “can now be identified as corporate vs. user, encrypted, and wiped on command using EAS or EAS + OMA-DM protocol.”

Furthermore, Windows 8.1 is expected to bring about better device encryption and will allow NFC tap-to-pair printing, which will allow users to quickly print directly to Wi-Fi Direct printers without having to install any drivers.

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