Windows 8.1 Preview

The first major update to Windows 8 brings some cool features to the table but it will not turn its detractors into fans any time soon.

The final version of Windows 8.1 is expected to be rolled out only at the end of this year but its beta was made available to the public two weeks ago.

I was initially overjoyed when I heard that Microsoft would bring back the Start button to the Desktop but when I tried it, it was an utter disappointment.

Clicking on the Start button simply takes you back to the new Start Screen designed for touch. Microsoft said this button is useful for users who are using tablets and phones but this must surely be the biggest red herring for PC desktop users hoping to regain the familiarity of the good old Windows desktop navigation style.

A major problem which was not addressed is the still-missing must-have native touch apps, such as Gmail, Google Maps, Instagram, YouTube, Spotify and Facebook, which one can find in any mobile device. Some popular apps, such as Evernote, have been dumbed down for Windows 8 touch.

Even the touch versions of Microsoft's flagship programme Office suite are a work in progress. Office is still running off the non-touch Desktop mode, more than seven months after the launch of Windows 8.

The Microsoft tablet experience is getting better with Windows 8.1, but I feel it is still an inferior product to the iOS and Android platforms. For fans, DL has picked the coolest new features to look out for.

Snap to fit

Trying to view two open apps side by side was a pain in the past because the two had a fixed 70:30 ratio. With 8.1, you can resize them at will and can have more than two apps on screen at the same time, if your screen resolution permits.

IE improvements

Believe it or not, Internet Explorer 10 for the touch interface did not let you bookmark your favourite links.

Version 11 finally lets you do that, though it makes you wonder why such a basic feature was not available right from the start.

Also new is the ability to snap two browser tabs side by side, so you can view two websites at the same time.

See also:

» Microsoft needs to make up its mind

» 10 reasons to love Windows 8.1

Improved user interface

The Windows 8.1 user interface is definitely more intuitive and customisable. You can now have four different sizes for each app tile (below). Previously, only two were possible.

When you install new apps, they no longer clog up your Start Screen, but are placed in an Apps Screen below the Start Screen (below).

To access the new Apps Screen, simply flick up the Start Screen button with your finger or click on the arrow button with your mouse.

You can use a photo or art file as the background image of your Start Screen, instead of choosing from a list.

Instead of booting up to the default Start Screen, you can now head straight into Desktop mode.

Right click on the Start button at the bottom left of the screen (in both Desktop and Start screens) to access the power menu. This offers a new option to Shut Down or Restart the PC, so you are required to jump through fewer hoops to shut down the machine.

Despite the additions, it is still less intuitive for those who are used to working in Desktop mode with the good old Start button that leads you to the good old Start menu.

New apps

There are a handful of new native touch apps to install, including Alarm, Sound Recorder, Reading List and Food & Drink.

The first two are self-explanatory. Reading List lets you bookmark Web articles that you stumble across and may want to read later.

Food & Drink is Microsoft's new cooking app and its new Hands-Free Mode (circled below) lets you flip the pages by simply waving your hand to the right. This is possible because it uses your PC's built-in camera to look out for large moving objects, such as your hand, and will flip the page when it senses your hand moving.

Power search

The new Search feature now lets you search Everywhere instead of just within your Apps, Files and Settings.

And Everywhere is definitely cooler. When I typed in "Sarah", it found photos of my two-year-old daughter stored on my Skydrive, information on the biblical Sarah from Wikipedia, music videos of Sarah McLachlan, websites with the meaning of the name and Web links to popular articles with "Sarah" as a keyword.

» Microsoft needs to make up its mind

» 10 reasons to love Windows 8.1

See also: