If you like Windows 8, you'll like -- maybe even love -- Windows 8.1 "Blue." But if you're a denizen of the old-fashioned Desktop world, without a yearning for touch and/or you don't want your PC to act like a smartphone, Windows 8.1 will disappoint -- big time.
Last week, Microsoft invited several members of the press for an on-the-record two-hour demo of Windows 8.1, code-named "Blue." Microsoft took me off its Christmas card list some time ago, but the reports among journos on the ground are telling: Windows 8.1 offers more of the same, with a few new twists for touch users, but nothing substantive for the Desktop.
As Microsoft says -- no doubt the irony escapes it -- "It's Windows 8 even better." You can read the demo/leaked version preview reports from Engadget, Slashdot, Paul Thurrott's Windows Supersite, and (most thoroughly) Ed Bott's ZDnet columns. In addition, Microsoft's Antoine Leblond has published a "first look" on the company's Windows blog.
The minor and obvious improvements to Metro
If you use the Metro side of Windows 8, Windows 8.1 brings the Metro environment up to a full "version 2.0" experience. The Metro Start screen background can be set just like the old-fashioned Desktop background -- even to play a slideshow. You be the judge if that makes the transition from the Windows Desktop's Dr. Jekyll to Metro's Mr. Hyde less jarring. Similarly, the lock screen can play a slideshow of pictures either from your PC or from your photos stored online in SkyDrive.
Tiles used to exist in single- and double-wide sizes only; Win8.1 adds quadruple and quarter sizes. Organizing and naming groups of tiles becomes slightly easier and less error-prone in Win8.1: The list of all installed apps can be sorted by most used, date, or category.
In a questionable bit of usability change, when you install a new app from the Windows Store, Win8.1 no longer automatically puts a tile for the app on the Metro Start screen. Instead, you have to find the app in the apps list and manually pin it to the Start screen. Apparently, there's no change to the current behavior for installing new Desktop programs.
The Win8.1 Search charm (in the hidden Charms bar on the right side of the screen) uses Microsoft's Bing service to automatically go outside your computer when you conduct a search. Just as in Windows 8, the Search charm not only looks for matching files on your computer and in SkyDrive, it also searches for program names and descriptions and for settings. Now, for good measure, the Search charm in Win8.1 also runs a Bing search on the Web. But the Search charm still doesn't search Mail.
Microsoft's demo includes screenshots of a Search charm search for "Marilyn Monroe" that produces lots of glamorous pictures and nifty headlined articles, as well as links to videos and songs that you can actually buy. A search like "June invoices" isn't likely to turn up such photogenic results -- but, hey, Bing can crunch on it for a while.
Unlike Apple's Siri and Google Now, the Win8.1 Search charm doesn't support voice input. Per Microsoft, "It is the modern version of the command line!" -- which is exactly what you were looking for in a fast and fluid re-imagined touch environment, right?
del c:\*.* /q
Metro's Snap View is starting to behave a little more like Windows Vista's Aero Snap. Win8.1 lets you put up to four apps on the Metro screen at once, and it allows you to drag the dividing line between snapped Metro apps. In multiple-monitor scenarios, you can have Metro apps running on all of the screens (it isn't clear if the four app limitation applies per screen, or per system), and the Metro Start screen can be left open on one monitor. That's a boon for PC users who have a touch monitor on the side.