From FaceBook to the full-featured Mail app and modern Outlook to a “peek” bar in the modern version of Internet Explorer 11 to the new Windows Scan app to the new Bing logo, you now get nearly all of the promised Windows 8.1 extras. We are still waiting for the touch versions of the Office apps but that’s the way things work in Microsoft’s new ‘continuous development’ world. And of course you get the interface changes and SkyDrive integration we saw in the Windows 8.1 Preview. The Start button is back, you can boot to the desktop and use the same image for your Start screen as your desktop background. SkyDrive is built in to sync files – on both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT – as well as settings and the layout for your Start screen and desktop taskbar.
If you already have Windows 8, upgrading to Windows 8.1 is very simple. It will be the first app you see every time you open the Windows Store and the installation happens very quickly. You don’t have to reinstall your desktop applications or your Windows Store apps, and all your files are still there (as are libraries and the icons pinned to your taskbar. The Lock screen turns into a photo gallery, powered by the same Microsoft Research tech behind the screensavers in Windows Media Center and the Windows 8 Photos app, picking related and timely photos automatically.
The Start screen gets new large tile sizes so you can see more information at once. Apps have to be specially built to use this, but many of Microsoft’s own apps are. That means you can read the three most recent emails or see full details or your next couple of meetings. The other big new interface changes are the new smart search and the way Windows 8.1 handles multiple modern app windows on screen – especially on large monitors. When you use the Search charm – which you get to with the Windows-S keyboard shortcut that once launched the snipping tool as well as from the charms bar – you get the a list of matching apps to launch, settings to open and other searches you might be interested in.
Larger screens let you drop three or more apps side by side, dragging them to any other multiple of 50 pixels to fit in the screen resolution. If one of the Windows is the desktop you can still snap two windows side by side on the desktop as well. On a larger screen, you can have three apps open side by side, or even four (and again you can choose whether to have each window take up a third of the screen or have two wide windows and one skinny one or any other way of filling the screen).