Microsoft rolls out the next version of Windows, 8.1, at its annual Build developers conference today. It's a big deal. Windows 8 was a crazy ambitious step, what follows is just as important. This is what Microsoft's taken from your months of feedback (or just, yelling).
Almost everything coming in 8.1 seems like a genuine improvement. The question, then, is exactly how much improvement. It's not so much good news/bad news as good news and wait that's all the good news?
We'll be updating this post throughout Microsoft's keynote (refresh to see the latest updates), but we've started you with an overview of what's going into the update.
Welp, you can boot to desktop now. You can also boot basically anywhere else you want, too—the All Apps screen, individual apps, the Start Menu.
The Start button also returns, but it only flings you into the Start Screen—no old school Start menu.
There are also some new tile sizes: The smaller square tiles (like Windows Phone 8's), which let you cram more stuff onto your homescreen, and the gigantic square tile, which can display a bunch of information, like emails or calendar appointments.
You can select a group of tiles at once and drag them into their own group, which you can name, like a folder.
Swiping up from the Start screen brings up All Apps, which can now be sorted in more ways. This is a nice improvement from the swipe-then-tap required to bring this up in Windows 8.
The start screen can be customised to more colours and has some "motion accents" that move as you scroll through the metro tiles. Or, blessedly, you can just put your desktop wallpaper behind the Start screen.
As a whole, the changes to the Start screen are pretty indicative of the update as a whole. A few functional improvements, some of which are highly anticipated, but just as much window dressing and little flourishes.
Microsoft's big push for 8.1 is to make Windows feel more customisable, and that goes beyond the Start screen.
The most visible change is the tweak to multitasking. "Snap View", or the ability to pin a Metro app to either side of the screen, has been changed to let you drag to resize the apps. Meaning: If you want to have, say, Mail on the left side and a browser on the right, you can have each app take up 50 per cent of the screen, or drag the divider around to your liking.
In addition to this, you can have up to four apps snapped as vertical columns on your screen. All screens can take four apps, but obviously you're going to want a larger monitor to handle them (16:9 or 21:9 being ideal).
Microsoft has looked into allowing you snap apps as horizontal rows — either at the top and bottom of the screen, or within columns created by snapped apps — but that's not currently possible. Yell about this some more and maybe it'll show up in an update down the road.
The lock screen can now be a moving collage of photos from your PC, SkyDrive, and Phone.
SkyDrive features more prominently in 8.1. You can decide in all your apps whether to view files on your PC or on SkyDrive, and where things are saved. We'll add further features as they're announced.
We're going to see a lot of new APIs today that will allow developers to make apps more customisable. We're also told that the first party Microsoft apps will have more options as well. We'll have more details as the specific APIs are announced.
Search is a big addition for Windows 8.1. Well, "change" is probably more appropriate.
In Windows 8, Search was broken down to search by applications, on the web, in the store, through your files. You decided which you'd see.
In 8.1, Search is universal. Searching for any term will bring up a "hero" display if you press enter, showing you results from the web, in your files, and anywhere else, which you scroll through.
If you just type into the field, though, the pane on the right hand side of the screen will display results in real time, a lot like Apple's Spotlight. This is a good thing, in theory, but we still want to see how it works in a day to day setting.
Microsoft is partnering with Makerbot, 3D Systems, Form Labs, Autodesk, and several other software and hardware companies to add 3D printing support to 8.1.
Windows 8.1 brings good stuff to the table. The question isn't really if it's good, but if it's good enough. A lot of that will depend on how the new developer tools are implemented going forward, and how much developer support overall improves this year.