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A quick look at Windows 8.1 before official launch later this month

Windows 8 has certainly split opinion, some love the new interface changes while others refuse to move from the much beloved Windows 7. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hopes this will change with the release of Windows 8.1 later this month. He has called the new update a ‘more refined blend’ of the new operating system.

The public consumer preview was released on June 26th at their Build Developer Conference and in the last couple of days they have launched their preview of the enterprise version. The 8.1 update will be available to all users of desktop and tablet systems as a free update in the Windows Store.

I have been testing the Windows 8.1 preview on a couple of desktop systems since it was released. The Start screen has been changed. The tiles can now be arrange into four different sizes (Small, Medium, Wide and Large). I have found that using the small size is useful for applications that really don’t need to have Live Tiles. I have been using the large format tiles for my weather applications which display a lot of useful information.

Switching between tiles and All Apps can be achieved by swiping up and down, or by clicking on the up and down arrows. This negates the need to swipe from the edges or by right clicking on the Start Screen background and choosing All Apps. Groups of tiles can be easily named.

As before you can boot directly into the desktop, bypassing the Metro interface completely. Most people using a none touchscreen computer will be using this option. I love the ability to SNAP multiple applications into a single viewing screen. You can view up to four applications side by side and resize the windows intuitively.
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The most talked about new feature is the Start Button, but it isn’t the full Menu system we all know and love, from Windows 7. This button lets you toggle back and forward between the two environments, like the Windows Keyboard button. If you right click on it however you get a new menu system which is powerful. You could already get this in Windows 8 by pressing a Windows X combination, but many people aren’t even aware it is there now.

Other changes include a new set of PC Settings, improved on Windows 8. These are much more in depth so you don’t look around for the old control panel to change system settings. Windows 8.1 has a new universal search option that displays results across Bing Web searches or files. In Windows 8 users searched through Apps, Settings and Files. SkyDrive no longer requires a separate utility to sync files and settings. Placing a file into one of the SkyDrive placeholder folders means it will be automatically uploaded, but also available offline as well.

Microsoft have been focusing on improving SkyDrive, including new high resolution thumbnails, photo rotation and even the option to share groups of files regardless of where they are stored. A built in text editor may be useful for some people also.

Windows 8.1 includes some new and upgraded Microsoft applications and new features for third party applications. Windows Store has also received a face change.

Microsoft are bundling new applications with Windows 8.1. Others, such as Xbox Music and Photos have been redesigned due to user complaints. The Photos application now lets you rotate, edit and even retouch photos. It is certainly not Adobe Photoshop by any stretch of the imagination, but it offers basic editing features, useful to a family for instance who are editing some family snaps.

Microsoft will be planning a big update soon to the Mail application, bringing over many features from the fully fledged Outlook software package. No date on when this will happen, but it might be later in the year. Windows RT users get Outlook 2013 RT which will be a very welcome addition.

Third party applications such as Facebook, Flipboard, Rockmelt and Rhapsody are coming soon.

Snag the preview here.

Kitguru says: Enough to get Windows 7 users moving across?

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