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Feature Articles
First Looks: Windows 8.1 Preview
By Ng Chong Seng - 27 Jun 2013,12:00am

Start Button, Powerful Search & Multiple Windows States

The Return of the Start Button (Sort Of) & Booting to the Desktop

In Windows 8.1’s desktop mode, you’ll find a familiar Start button at the bottom left hand corner of the taskbar. Clicking it doesn’t bring back the Start menu of old, but return you to the Modern Start screen. At the Start screen, this Start button will also popup when you bring the cursor to the same corner; clicking on it brings you back to the desktop environment. More customization options are offered at the Taskbar and Navigation properties menu. For example, you can choose to use the same desktop background for your Start screen; boot to the desktop instead of the Start screen during sign-in; and even show the All Apps view by default instead of the Start screen. With resizable and live tiles, the various app views, and powerful system-wide search, there’s no doubt that Windows 8.1’s Start button is the most flexible and (arguably) most powerful Start button implementation yet.

The Start button returns in Windows 8.1, but it behaves very differently from the one we know so well.

Power users who want to alter how the Start screen behaves should check out the Taskbar and Navigation properties panel.


Super-smart Search

The Search charm in Windows 8 aims to quickly find what you’re looking for, be it a file on the PC, a control panel setting, or an installed app. You can also direct a search query to a specific app. In Windows 8.1, the Search charm - powered by Microsoft’s own Bing search engine - is on steroids. It attempts to search (almost) ‘everywhere’ in one place (or rather, in one search box), be it a document on the PC, a photo on SkyDrive, an app in the Windows Store, a website, or images and videos on the Internet. It’ll show all relevant search results in a nice Modern-style, Search Hero view. For example, when we searched for Taylor Swift, Search gave us the options to play her top songs using Xbox Music, read more about her using the Wikipedia app; returned related album and video results, images from the web, and news articles. It also showed us Taylor Swift-related apps in the Windows Store. As another example, when we searched for San Francisco, it returned weather and population information of the city; gave us the options to view it on a map (via the Maps app) or explore the area (via the Travel app); returned search results of some local attractions, and a list of San Francisco-related apps, website previews, and news articles. For web images, you can even specific you want images based on certain criteria, such as size, color, type (photo, clipart, or line drawing), layout (square, wide, or tall), and people (just faces or include head and shoulders).

Here are search results related to Taylor Swift. The idea is to find as many answers as possible in one search.

Here's how it looks like when we searched for San Francisco.

Of course, with so much available information coming in at once, it’s difficult to go through all of them in one sitting. The new Reading List app lets you save what you’ve found so that you can return to it later. Websites and app content can be added to Reading List via the Share charm. Powered by the cloud that's SkyDrive, your Reading List bookmarks will sync across Windows 8.1 devices. Currently, saving the content offline can't be done.

Bookmark it and read it later - that's what Reading List is for.


Multiple Window Snap States

In the Modern environment in Windows 8.1, there’s no more view states. This means that app sizes are determined by you, and more than two apps can be snapped side by side. A minimum width of 500 pixels is still required, though apps can indicate that they support a smaller minimum of 320 pixels. Still, how many apps you can snap depends on the display size and its resolution. On the Surface Pro that has a 10-inch, 1,920 x 1,080-pixel screen, since a 140% scale is used, the maximum number of Modern-style apps you can snap side by side is still two. On a larger, full HD monitor where no scaling is applied, you can snap three apps side by side. To snap four apps side by side would require a 3,200 x 1,800-pixel screen.

And oh, multiple DPIs across monitors is now possible in Windows 8.1. And since desktop scaling factor of different displays can be set independently, there will be no comically oversized desktop elements on the external monitor when we connect it to a HiDPI device like the Surface Pro.

While there's no more view states for Modern-style apps in Windows 8.1, most users won't be snapping more than three apps side by side at any one time. The good thing is, the apps can now snap in different ratios.


New PC Settings & Built-in Apps

Of course, what we've listed above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new features and improvements in Windows 8.1. The built-in apps in Windows 8.1 in particular are also receiving major updates. For example, the Xbox Music app is now organized around your music collection, as opposed to helping you discover new music, which is the focus of the current version. There's also a new Radio feature that lets you create stations with a dynamic playlist. No subscription is needed for this service. Another feature that's coming before the end of the year is the ability to go to any website with a playlist, and use Xbox Music to create an instant playlist, instead of you copying and pasting the titles manually. To put it even simpler, it'll 'scrape' the website for you.

PC settings has been redesigned too, and now sports many new settings. For example, you can manage SkyDrive storage, customize display resolutions, adjust typing and power options here. Shown here is the PC & devices page in PC settings.

The new Radio feature in Xbox Music lets you create dynamic playlists.

For the Xbox Video app, you can watch a video, and then use the Devices charm to directly stream the video to the Xbox One. This streaming function also works for music. And since Windows 8.1 supports Miracast, peer to peer wireless streaming of 1080p content (with 5.1-channel surround sound, no less) is also possible.

There's also a hands-free mode in the Food & Drinks app, which lets you swipe your hand in front of the camera to advance a page (say, of a recipe), so that you don't dirty the screen. The Sports, News, Weather, Finance, and Travel apps are also being updated. Also worth mentioning is that Windows 8.1 is the first OS with built-in support for 3D printers.

And how can we forget Internet Explorer 11 (we've a separate article just for that), with new features such as roaming tabs and (almost) unlimited tabs per window, and the revamped Windows Store, with its redesigned user interface that puts apps front and center. Other new features include support for consumables, as well as Store value and gift cards (this will be available in 41 markets, including Singapore). In addition, app updates and new in-app offers now get pushed to users automatically. You can't select which apps get auto updated and which don't - it's all or none. Also, the app roaming limit will be lifted (Update: the new limit is 81 devices). In other words, you can install an app on all the devices you own (the current limit is five). For developers, the app package size for submission has been increased to 8GB. But through app bundles, you're able to separate the core package from the resources (e.g. HiDPI assets and localized data), so that users only download what's necessary. We will explore IE11, the new Windows Store, and some of the built-in apps in greater detail in the coming weeks.

The Windows Store has been redesigned to enable new revenue opportunities and better merchandizing for developers, as well as improve app discoverability for users.

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