Windows 'Blue': A visual preview

Here's a look at the highlights (so far) of Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8.1 update

Windows Blue

Microsoft is expected to make a public beta of Windows 8.1, aka Windows "Blue," available in late June. In the meantime, the company has been releasing early builds to Microsoft developers and partners. Here are the most notable new features coming in Windows 8.1. This information is based on Build 9369 of Windows 8 Pro 64-bit, and builds 9374 and 9385 of Windows 8.1 Pro Preview 32-bit.

Windows Blue
Larger and smaller Tiles

Users will be able to set tiles either four times larger or four times smaller than the standard tile size.

Windows Blue
Real-time customizing of the Start screen

To change the look of the Start screen, you invoke a toolbar that appears over the right side of it, with which you can choose background designs and color schemes. Selections you make are applied instantly onto the Start screen behind this toolbar. (In Windows 8, customizing the Start screen takes you to a separate configuration page listed under PC Settings where you cannot see changes to your actual Start screen in real time.)

Windows Blue
Five new default apps

Windows "Blue" comes with five new apps that are pinned to the Start screen: Alarms, Calculate, Files, Movie Moments, and Sound Recorder. Alarms can be used as an alarm clock, countdown timer, or stopwatch. Calculate features scientific and standard calculator interfaces. Files is a simple file manager for accessing files stored on your system’s local drive. Sound Recorder is a very bare-bones audio recording app. Movie Moments allows you to load video footage and then can trim both the start and end points of your clip.

Windows Blue
Easier access to apps and customizing of them

If you are using a mouse, an icon of a downward-pointing arrow inside a circle appears on the lower-left of the Start screen. Click it, and the Start screen scrolls up to reveal the Apps page listing all of your installed apps. You can use the new search box to find a specific app, or sort this list of them by name, date installed, or most used. (To reach the Apps page in Windows 8, you have to right-click on the Start screen, which brings up the App bar along the bottom of the screen, and click on the Apps icon set on the far right of the App bar.)

Windows Blue
Display up to four apps on screen at once side-by-side

In Windows 8, you can display two apps alongside one another, each getting its own window column, in a mode Microsoft calls SnapView. In Windows "Blue," you are given more leeway when you move the borderline dividing the two to resize the area one app takes up on the screen relative to the other. SnapView in Window "Blue" also lets you display up to four apps at once.

Windows Blue
Run only one app upon login

Called Assigned Access or Kiosk Mode, you can set Windows "Blue" to automatically run a Windows 8 app after your device starts up and a particular user account has been logged in. This essentially turns your computer or tablet into a single-use device. Why would you want this? For example, you could start a new user account meant solely for customers or other guests you want to have access to your Windows 8.1 device -- but be limited to doing only one thing on it through an app. So you could choose this app listed in Assigned Access (under PC Settings > Users) to run when you log into this account.

Windows Blue
Set an App to show alarms on the lock screen

There is now a third setting under Lock Screen Apps that will let you select an App to show alarms on the lock screen. We are not sure how this feature will work, since it relies on an app with this specific feature written into it. Presumably, such apps will be made available to use this when Windows 8.1 is released.

Windows Blue
Automatic Web searches and results within the Search Charm toolbar

Under Apps in PC Settings, there is an option that, when activated, will automatically search the Web when you type keywords into the Search Charm, and filter adult content on the Web as it does this. Also, Web search results show up below the search box in the Search charm itself. In Windows 8, searching the Web takes you to a full screen displaying the results.

Windows Blue
More settings moved over to the Modern environment’s PC Settings app

Windows "Blue" copies over a few more settings from the Desktop's Control Panel to the Metro environment's PC Settings page and inserts brand new ones: Screen lets you adjust the orientation and resolution of your device’s screen. SkyDrive now has a spot in PC Settings. Under Devices, you can access mouse and trackpad settings. Apps shows you how much space each installed app is taking up on your system’s main storage medium and lets you uninstall them.

Windows Blue
More things to sync

The sync settings have been relocated under the Users category in PC Settings, and there's a new option to sync your installed apps and Start screen customization across multiple Windows 8.1 devices that share your user account. You also can sync your tab and tracking protection configuration in Internet Explorer 11, as well as a long list of other things: app secondary tiles, Bluetooth device associations, Explorer quick links, file history, input personalization, picture password, and tethering.

Windows Blue
Snap a photo from the lock screen

Under PC Settings for the lock screen, there is a switch you can turn on to allow you to take a photo with your computer’s webcam or tablet camera by dragging down on the lock screen.

Windows Blue
Internet Explorer 11

Windows "Blue" comes with Internet Explorer 11. The IE11 app for Metro has two new features buried that are already in both the Desktop IE11 and IE10: Suggestions provides suggested sites as you type, based on your browsing history and keystrokes that you permit to be sent to Microsoft. Tracking Protection blocks services online that could be tracking your browsing. The Desktop version of IE11 also comes with improved developer tools.

Windows Blue
Support for ReFS

ReFS is a file system that Microsoft introduced in 2012. It is built upon, and compatible with, NTFS -- the format now commonly used for Windows systems. Windows "Blue" is the first appearance of this new file system in a client-side version of Windows, where you can select to format a hard drive to use ReFS.