Reviews are glowing say changes are small but cumulatively significant

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) gave guided tours of its upcoming operating system releaseWindows 8.1.  Free to Windows 8 customers, the upgrade will be available late this year and is being aired as a Release Preview at the BUILD Conference, which runs June 26-28.

I. Our Old Friend, the Start Button

Perhaps the most immediate change in previews by The Verge and Engadget is the unification of the Metro-styled (aka Microsoft's "Modern UI") Start Screen and the traditional desktop.  Both screens can now share the same background color or photo.  And both screens get a shiny new Start Button.

The new Start Button works much like the Start Button of old.  Contrary to rumors, when in Desktop mode may not drop you back onto the Start Screen.  

Based on the descriptions it is somewhat unclear whether the button will dump you in the Modern UI Start Screen or simply pop-up Live Tile styled menu -- some of the images would suggest the latter is the case (otherwise what would identical the button do in the Modern UI Start Screen?).

The Start Button on the desktop may be kind of like Windows 7's, albeit with a Metro makeover which still may leave critics a bit irked (but much less so).

Jensen Harris, director of the Windows User Experience Team at Microsoft explains in an interview with The Verge, "One of the things we realized right after we shipped Windows 8, was that the start tip was the only place in our entire ecosystem in which we had something that takes you back to the Start Screen that didn't look like a Windows logo."

Start Menu
The new Start Menu and multi-tasking snapping in the Modern UI [Image Source: Microsoft]

"We knew we needed to change that [start tip] to the Windows logo.  Once we had that there and we figured out that was the change we needed to make it was pretty straight forward to keep that same button in the same place in the task bar…it lends back a little bit of familiarity. It makes the whole PC work the same way."

II. Many Little Changes Make for Major UI Overhaul

The lock screen also gets a major overhaul that brings it more in line with other mobile device operating systems.  The camera UI is accessible from the lock screen.  You can accept Skype calls from the lock screen.  And the screen supports slide shows -- including seasonal shows based on the month of the picture -- using photos taken either from local directories or from Sky Drive, Microsoft's cloud storage service.

The Live Tiles are also livelier.  There are two new sizes --small tiles and large tiles (which occupy about four of the standard tile-size slots).  And you can make batch changes (resizes) to tiles. There's also a new app screen that's brought up by swiping upward on the Start Screen.  This menu allows you to add or remove apps from the Live Tile menu.

Windows 8.1
The start screen now has new tile sizes, which help eliminate clutter. [Image Source: Microsoft]

These changes may sound subtle, but anyone who has used Windows Phone 8 (or 7.9) versus the older Windows Phone 7/7.5 knows how big a difference they make, dramatically compacting your start menu and reducing clutter by shrinking lesser-used tiles.

Search has been unified so that users no longer have to click on different categories -- apps, files, settings and web suggestions are all combined in a single results page.  Plus there's a new "Search Hero" feature that allows curated internet searches on a specific topic, allowing the users to learn more about a question of interest.  In many ways this mirrors Google Inc.'s (GOOGknowledge aware search options in Android and the search side of Apple, Inc.'s (AAPLiOS helper Siri.

Apps are now "snappable" when multitasking.  And unlike Windows 7 that simply halves the screen, apps are allocated space based on their needs -- for example an email might only get 40 percent of the screen with 60 percent left for a photo.  Higher resolutions screens will support four side-by-side screens, while the prevailing mid-range resolutions will support two side-by-side snapped apps.

The touch keyboard is also overhauled to support long presses for numbers, foreign punctuation, and other special characters -- similar to Windows Phone.  You can even swipe from the key in the direction of the character you want to type it faster, offering a fast gesture-based way to type special characters.

III. Fixing Windows 8's "Missed Bets"

There's multiple new apps including Internet Explorer 11, plus updated versions of Photos, Calculator (now Modern UI-enabled), Xbox Music, Reading List, Alarms, Bing Food & Drink, Bing Health & Fitness, and more.  The options (Control Panel) menu has also received an overhaul in the Modern UI.

Sky Drive is also much more integrated into the operating systems.  For users comfortable with storing their data in the cloud (which appears to be an increasing majority of the unwashed masses), this means it will be much harder to fill up your hard drive, assuming you have ample internet access.  The important fringe benefit is being able to access your documents on secondary machines via Sky Drive's web interface.

Sky Drive
Sky Drive is deeper integrated in Windows 8.1. [Image Source: Microsoft]

Microsoft's Antoine Leblond, who oversees Windows Web Services, tells The Verge that the company realizes it made some mistakes with Windows 8, commenting, "We really have a great sense of where we got the details of these bets right and where we actually maybe missed a little bit."

But Microsoft is betting that Windows 8.1 will revive slumping sales and restore users confidence in Windows -- enthusiasts and casual users alike.  It's building that hope on a foundation of small changes, which while perhaps subtle on their own, cumulatively add up to what looks to be a much more usable experience.

In other words you can think of Windows 8 as perhaps the tech demo and Windows 8.1 as the finished product.  It took a while, but the preview of that polished build is almost here.

Sources: Engadget, The Verge [1], [2]

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