Features expected for Windows 8.1 (aka Windows Blue)

Windows 8.1 was unveiled during Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco, and the preview version in now available to download and final editions are expected to ship around the one-year anniversary of the Windows 8 launch.

As the software giant has confirmed, Windows 8.1 (aka Windows Blue) will be launched on October 17 and will be available through the Windows Store as a free download. Microsoft also confirmed that new devices running Windows 8.1 will go on sale beginning on October 18.

In recent weeks, many of Windows 8.1’s features have been previewed by Microsoft. After reviewing the new OS, here are some of the new features of the update:

Smaller tablets – Windows 8.1 will have better support for smaller tablets. The Start screen adapts to smaller form factors to work better in portrait mode, and developers will be able to design apps specifically for smaller form factors.

The virtual keyboard has been redesigned to suggest words as you type. Rather than removing your hand from the virtual keyboard to select the word, Windows 8.1 will recognize gestures, letting you pick the word you want by stroking the space bar.

Direct access to desktop – The new Start Screen has proven controversial, with many desktop and laptop users complaining about the fact that they can’t simply skip straight to the more mouse-and-keyboard friendly desktop. The option to boot straight to desktop is now offered in Windows 8.1, although not switched on by default.

Re-sized tiles – While Windows 8 supports only two tile sizes – “smaller” and “larger” – Windows Blue throws another two sizes into the mix: thumbnail size, occupying only a quarter of the space an existing “smaller” tile occupies, and the super-sized tile, the size of two “larger” tiles.

Personalized Start screen and Lock screen – With the new edition, users will be able to personalize the OS. Windows 8.1 will allow users to set their own wallpaper on the Start screen, and there will be more colors and backgrounds for it.

Like a digital photo frame, the Lock screen will now display a slideshow of photos stored on the user’s PC or in cloud services such as SkyDrive, and Windows 8.1 will also includes new “motion accents”- animated wallpapers that move as you scroll through the Start screen.

The return of the Start button – The very much missed Start button will return to the desktop but not in the form many have hoped for. Pressing the Start button will overlay the Windows 8 Start screen tiles over the desktop wallpaper. Also, right clicking on the Start button will bring up the power user menu, and that menu will have options to shutdown and restart, meaning users can reboot directly from the Start button, similar to previous versions of Windows.

New apps – Microsoft claims that with Windows 8.1 it will be easier to use multiple apps. Users will be able to resize apps to any size, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected.

At the same time, newly installed apps won’t be added to the Start screen automatically. Instead it will be displayed in a “new” section of the apps menu, while users will also be able to view apps by name, date of installation, most used or by category. At the same time, app updates will install automatically in the background as they come through the Store, and search will be available in the upper right corner for finding the apps you want.

Windows Store – The release of Windows 8.1 will also mark the arrival of a redesigned Windows Store. Microsoft will update the Windows Store, and the new design will show more information and a search bar at the top. Windows also states that their apps will work better on Windows 8.1, and that the company has introduced 5,000 APIs for developers to take advantage of.

Search section – One of the biggest criticisms of Windows 8 was that the search menu only returns results for apps by default. Windows 8.1 reverts to a unified search menu, which will return results for apps, settings and files as you begin to type.

Whether or not the release of Windows 8.1 will be enough to encourage enterprise users to embrace the new operating system is still a big issue, but it seems many businesses will skip Windows 8 because very few see the release as an improvement on what has gone before. With Windows XP’s end-of-life date rapidly approaching, most IT shops are still too focused on migrating to Windows. However, employee interest in Windows 8 appears to be higher, suggesting the OS could find its way into businesses through BYOD schemes.