Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: Well, it beats Windows 8

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Preview does much to improve Metro, but little to make Windows 8 more attractive to either new or longtime Windows users

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Better control over grouping and naming tiles. In Win8, it's easy to drag a tile out of place and hard to assign names to groups of tiles. Win 8.1 adds a Customize option (right-click the Start screen or drag up from the bottom) that unlocks tiles so that they can be moved about. You can also type in a Group name without zooming out.

All Apps alternative views. In Win8, the Metro All Apps list shows you a giant blob of tiles, sorted in alphabetical order by the first name of the app, with a concatenated list on the end, grouped using the names that would have appeared in a Windows 7 Start menu (see Figure 2).

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 2: The All Apps list in Windows 8 is an amorphous mess.

In Windows 8.1, you access the All Apps list by clicking or tapping on the up arrow on the Metro Start screen or by swiping up. The list can be sorted in several useful ways (see Figure 3). Oddly, though, when you install Office 2013, the Office apps don't appear in the main By Category list.

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 3: The All Apps list in Win 8.1 is sortable.

Fewer tiles automatically appear on the Metro Start screen. In Win8, when you install an old-fashioned desktop program, any entry that would have appeared on the Win7 or XP Start menu instead appears as an individual tile on the Metro Start screen. What a mess. In Win8.1, those newly installed programs appear on the Apps list, not on the Start screen (see the tiles marked New in Figure 3). To get the tile to appear on the Metro Start screen, you have to right-click or tap on the All Apps tile and choose "Pin to Start screen." That can be a pain in the neck if you don't know the names of the programs you installed, but it definitely beats having hundreds of useless tiles (InfoPath Filler 2013? Dropbox Uninstaller? Logitech Camera Controller?) squatting on the Metro Start screen.

Metro Snap now snaps. In Windows 8, the Metro Snap feature lets you view two Metro apps running at once by dragging one of them to the side of the screen. However, this view was restricted to very precise dimensions: The snapped app occupied one-third of the screen, and the other app took up the rest of the screen, end of story. With Win8.1, the relative size of each snapped app can be adjusted, within limits, by dragging the vertical bar. In some cases you can have more than two apps side by side (see Figure 4); the number of visible apps is limited by the number of 500-pixel strips that will fit on the screen. Note that there's still no communication between the thin strips. For example, you can't select text in the Metro News app and drag it to a program running on the Desktop. Metro Snap on multiple monitors behaves bizarrely in the Preview.

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 4. Metro Snap in Windows 8.1 lets you view more than two apps. You can also adjust the window sizes.

Smarter lock screen. The new lock screen can play a slideshow, either from the local hard drive or from SkyDrive. You can use the camera or answer a Skype call when its notification appears on the lock screen, without unlocking the computer. I'm not sure if that's a good idea or not.

Greatly increased number of PC Settings. Win8 had a paltry subset of Control Panel settings accessible on the Metro side. Win8.1 brings many -- but far from most -- Control Panel settings to the Metro side. For example, the screen resolution can be fully controlled from the Metro side of Win8.1 (see Figure 5).

Windows 8.1 'Blue' preview: It beats Windows 8
Figure 5. Windows 8.1 brings more settings, including screen resolution, to the PC Settings app.
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