Bonnie Cha

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With Windows 8.1, Microsoft Makes Some Asked-For Fixes

Microsoft’s Build developer conference officially kicks off today in San Francisco, with CEO Steve Ballmer delivering the keynote address. Much of the three-day event will focus on courting developers and explaining how they fit into a new world that has seen Microsoft go from a software company to a software and hardware company. But another big part of Build will be the release of a preview version of Windows 8.1.

Launched eight months ago, support for Windows 8, both on the consumer and the developer side, hasn’t exactly been strong. But Microsoft is looking to address some of the early criticisms of its overhauled operating system with Windows 8.1.

I got a chance to see what’s in the works at a media event yesterday. Below, you’ll find five of the major features that are coming to Windows 8.1, which will be released later this year. You can also check out the gallery of Windows 8.1 screenshots at the end of this post to see what else is new. If you like what you see or can’t wait till then, you can download Windows 8.1 Preview now from the Windows Store.

Start Screen

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft is giving users a lot more say in how they customize their Start and Lock screens.

For one, you can now decide which apps you want pinned to the Start screen. With Windows 8, whenever you downloaded a new app, it was automatically pinned to your Start screen, which isn’t ideal since some apps are less important than others. Now, Windows 8.1 installs them directly to the Apps page, where you can pick which ones to pin to the Start screen. You can select multiple apps at once, and choose if you want them displayed as a small or big tile.

Windows 8.1 also offers support for animated background images. This reminded me of the live wallpapers on Android smartphones, and is more of a vanity feature than anything. Perhaps more useful is the fact that the Lock screen can now display images from your own photo library.

One other thing about the Lock screen: You can now activate the camera and accept incoming Skype video calls directly from Lock screen without having to unlock it first and launch the appropriate app.

Finally — and this should bring a smile to all those who miss the old Windows — Microsoft has added the Start button back to desktop screen. It doesn’t offer exactly the same functionality of the Start button you might be used to, but it does give you access to features like search, control panel, task manager and the ability to shut down or restart your computer. You can also boot directly to desktop view, the Start screen, Apps screen or a specific app.

Smart Search

According to Microsoft, more than 20 billion searches are conducted on PCs in the U.S. every month. This includes Web searches, file searches and people searching within apps, so in redesigning the search function, the company wanted to create something that could do it all.

Now when you look up something using the Smart Search function, it brings up what Microsoft calls a search hero. This page brings together Web results from Bing, information about the entity, deep links within apps on the PC, related searches, results within the Windows Store and more all in one place.

Jensen Harris, Microsoft’s director of program management for the Windows user experience, demoed the function by looking up the term “San Francisco,” and Smart Search returned with a myriad of resources, including websites (along with previews of the page), maps and weather information. Tapping on the weather automatically launched the weather app, which showed an animated view of the current conditions and upcoming forecast. A single swipe to the left returns you to the search result page.

In another example, a search for Beyonce brought up a link to her bio (via Wikipedia), news articles and a list of her top songs, with the ability to stream tracks from Xbox Music with a single tap.

Xbox Music

Speaking of Xbox Music, it is now organized around your music collection in Windows 8.1. Before, it was organized around helping you discover new music. “While that’s important, we thought it would probably be better if you could just play your music in two clicks instead of six clicks,” said Harris. “So, it’s been vastly redesigned to make it easy to play the music you care about.”

The app also includes a new Radio feature where you can create a new artist station and listen to their music, with no need for a subscription or Xbox Music pass.

Multitasking and Windowing

One of the problems with Windows 8 is that the apps weren’t optimized for all screen sizes, something Harris readily admitted. “It is true that Windows 8 modern apps were not a good match for large screens,” he said. “We designed Windows 8 and modern apps for 10-, 11-, 12-inch screens, but a 27-inch screen is just only being able to see one thing at a time, which is not the most productive way of doing things.”

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has made improvements for better multitasking and more robust windowing. You can now open up to four apps on the screen at once (previously, you could have two windows side by side). The number will depend on the resolution of your screen, but at least now you have the ability to resize each window any way you want. You can also have one app automatically open another app side by side. So, for example, if you are reading an email with photo attachments, you can click on the file to open the image viewer in the right pane while still being able to see the message on the left.

New Windows Store

Last but not least, the Windows Store gets a major redesign. With Windows 8, much of the information about the apps sat behind tabs, so Microsoft has flattened the layout: Now you can see all the details up front. It also allows for better app discovery with new apps located front and center, and recommended apps based on what you’ve downloaded and searched for.

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