Windows 8.1 Update 1: hands-on preview

A pre-release build of the latest update to Windows 8 has leaked online, giving us the opportunity to try it out ahead of its anticipated release in March or April.

This isn’t the “Threshold” update that’s been in the news lately: that’s not expected to arrive until next year. Threshold will reportedly bring major changes to the OS, including the return of the Start menu; it will probably be dubbed Windows 9, and could well be a paid-for upgrade.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 is expected to be a free download for all users, but it still represents a significant step forward for Windows. The leaked code is dated 14 January 2014, so there’s still time for a few more changes to be made before release, but what’s here is enough to give us a good idea of what the update will bring.

What’s new in Update 1

The differences start even before the OS has finished installing: if you log in with a Microsoft account while setting up a new PC with Windows 8.1 Update 1, you’ll now get the option to automatically copy settings and Store apps from another one of your registered computers. That’s an improvement on the Windows 8.1 updater, which required you to go to the Store and re-download everything from the Your apps section.

Once installation is complete, the leaked build of Windows 8.1 Update 1 boots directly to the desktop, rather than the Start screen. It’s possible that this is merely a convenience for developers, and we haven’t yet had a chance to test whether the same happens on tablet hardware that lacks a keyboard and mouse. What we’ve seen is suggestive though – following the return of the Start button in Windows 8.1, Microsoft may be gradually coming to accept that many users see the desktop, rather than Start, as their default home screen.

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That’s supported by another change: the Windows Store icon is now pinned to the taskbar by default, and you can optionally have other tablet-style apps appear here too when opened. As with regular desktop applications, you can hover over an open app to see a preview, and pin frequently used apps for quick access. Subjectively, we think flat Modern-style app icons look incongruous next to conventional Windows icons – but from a usability perspective it’s a huge improvement to be finally able to see and switch between all your open apps, both desktop and tablet-style, at a glance.

Apps themselves have also been brought closer to the established Windows way of doing things. Move your mouse to the top of the screen and a black title bar now appears, bearing the name of the app and a conventional close button at the top right. Hover at the bottom of the window and the taskbar pops up, making it much more practical than before to multitask within the full-screen interface.

Start screen updates

The last few changes we’ve spotted affect the Start screen. Next to your name you’ll now see new icons for Search and Power: clicking the Search icon causes the search panel to fly out – it’s basically the same as activating the Search charm, or indeed not clicking anything and simply starting to type. The Power icon opens a drop-down menu allowing you to put your computer to sleep, restart it or shut it down. The functionality isn’t new, but it’s fair to say that previously it wasn’t well exposed; sticking these icons here will make life easier for users who aren’t familiar with the foibles of the Modern interface.

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Finally, Microsoft appears to have recognised the ergonomic sense of placing contextual options alongside the item to which they refer. Right-clicking on a Start screen tile now brings up a standard drop-down menu, letting you pin, resize, hide or uninstall apps without having to schlep down to the bottom of the screen.

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As the modest name implies, Windows 8.1 Update 1 isn’t a revolutionary upgrade, but it represents a series of sensible improvements that make the Modern interface more user-friendly, and help full-screen apps fit more harmoniously into a desktop-oriented workflow. The two sides of Windows 8 still don’t quite hang together seamlessly – for that we may have to wait for Threshold, which will reportedly allow Store apps to run in windows on the desktop. But with an expected release date a mere six months after the arrival of Windows 8.1, Update 1 represents a second consecutive step in the right direction.

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