Microsoft continues to reveal details about the comprehensive update to Windows 8, now known as Windows 8.1 and formerly known as Windows Blue.
Windows 8.1 will be launched at the Microsoft Build developer conference in San Francisco on June 26 and the final version will be available as a free downloadable Windows 8 update.
Microsoft also said last month that there would be a preview version available before full release which we'll get on that day in late June.
The "first look" blog update posted by Microsoft's Antoine Leblond in May doesn't talk about a Start button. It does, however, say that the Start "tip" will change to "be the familiar Windows logo".
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That's pretty much the same as before - so, sorry people, you won't be getting a proper Start menu. "The new tip appears anytime you move the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen, and is always visible on the taskbar when on the desktop," says Leblond.
Leblond is Head of Windows Program Management and references the marked change of tune that TechRadar detected earlier this year: "Not only will Windows 8.1 respond to customer feedback, but it will add new features and functionality that advance the touch experience and mobile computing's potential." The feedback he's talking about is surely the mellowing of the Start screen dream and the reintroduction of a Start button of some sort.
"We're only a bit more than seven months into [a] new, bold approach to computing," continues Leblond. "The response to Windows 8 has been substantial - from new devices to strong app growth to key enhancements to the OS and apps. We've learned from customers in how they are using the product and have received a lot of feedback. We've delivered hundreds of updates to the product and to apps. We're just getting started, and the potential ahead is tremendous.
"We've been watching, we've been listening"
We've picked out the top 10 enhancements in Windows 8.1 along with some quotes from Leblond about each one.
1. Lock screen slideshow
"As people started using Windows 8, we found that people were using their Lock screens to show pictures of their families," Leblond says. So in Windows 8.1, you can turn your PC or tablet into a picture frame by making your Lock screen a slide show of your pictures - either locally on the device or photos from Microsoft SkyDrive. "We also added the ability to take pictures with the built-in camera right from the Lock screen without having to log in."
2. More backgrounds
Windows 8.1 offers more colours and backgrounds for the Start screen - including some with motion. You can also choose your desktop background as your Start screen background.
3. Different tile sizes
As in Windows Phone 8, the Windows 8.1 Start screen features a variety of tile sizes including a new large and new small tile. It's also even easier to name groups and rearrange tiles, says Leblond: "We found people were accidentally moving tiles on their Start screen so in Windows 8.1, you press and hold (or right click) to move things around." You can now select multiple apps all at once, resize them, uninstall them, or rearrange them: "View all apps just by swiping from the bottom to view all apps, and we've added the ability to filter your apps by name, date installed, most used, or by category. You want the Start screen to be about all the things you love. So when you install a new app from the Windows Store, we no longer put that app on your Start screen. Instead, you'll find these apps under apps view as mentioned above and marked as 'new' where you can choose to pin the apps you want to your Start screen."
4. Aggregated search
Instead of having to select an app and then search when you go to the Search charm, Bing now powers an aggregated search system from the web, your files, SkyDrive and elsewhere. Leblond says: "We think this will really change the way you interact with the Web and with Windows making it quicker and easier to get things done. It is the modern version of the command line! Results from local files, apps, and settings are easily accessed in the same convenient view by scrolling to the left."
5. Enhanced apps
New app enhancements are also promised to all the built-in apps. According to Leblond: "The Photos app now has some new editing features that let you quickly edit or adjust photos when you view them in the Photos app or open them from other places like the Mail, SkyDrive, and Camera apps. And our Music app has been completely redesigned to help pick and play music from your collection. We plan to talk more about updates to the built in apps in Windows 8.1 and some brand new apps we will be introducing in [the] future. We're also making improvements for using multiple apps at once in Windows 8.1."
6. More snap views
If, like us, you use Windows 8 a lot, you'll have been frustrated by the lack of 50:50 split snap views. This is the game-changer for Windows 8 apps. "You will have more ways to see multiple apps on the screen at the same time," says Leblond. "You can resize apps to any size you want, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected, you can have different Windows Store apps running on all the displays at the same time and the Start Screen can stay open on one monitor (yes!). This makes multi-tasking even easier. Also in Windows 8.1, you can have multiple windows of the same app snapped together - such as two Internet Explorer windows." We're really looking forward to that.
7. An enhanced Windows Store
App updates will now install automatically in the background as they come through the Store. And search is available in the upper right hand corner for finding the apps you want. Leblond elaborates: "The improved Windows Store is designed to show more info than before in Windows 8 with detailed lists of top free apps, new releases, and picks for you on the homepage. The app listing is more descriptive and informative and includes an area for related apps to help with app discovery."
8. Save direct to SkyDrive, plus offline files
In Windows 8.1 your files can be saved directly to SkyDrive. The SkyDrive app will also get a new update so that files are available even when offline - as in the desktop version.
9. You no longer need the desktop Control Panel
The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop. "You can do things like change your display resolution, set power options, see the make and model of my PC, change the product key, let me do Windows Update, and even join a domain – all from PC Settings," says Leblond. You can also manage SkyDrive from PC Settings as well.
10. A new Internet Explorer
Internet Explorer 11 will ship with Windows 8.1. "IE11 will offer even better touch performance, faster page load times and several other new features we think you will enjoy," says Leblond. "For example, you can now adjust the appearance of modern IE11 to always show the address bar and you can have as many open tabs as you like. And you can access your open tabs in sync across your other Windows 8.1 devices."
11. Better with a mouse and keyboard
For devices without touch, Windows 8.1 features a number of improvements for easier navigation using a mouse and keyboard. "PCs today are evolving for a world of mobile computing where people interact with their devices through touch, and we designed Windows 8 for this," explains Leblond. "But we also recognize there are many non-touch devices in use today - especially in the commercial setting."
12. A change to the Start 'tip'
You've already heard about this one, right? Leblond adds that there are also options to change what the corners do, and options to boot into alternate screens: "For example, if you prefer to see the Apps view versus all the tiles, you can choose to have the Start screen go directly to Apps view."
Microsoft says it will be releasing more Windows 8.1 details "in the coming weeks. As you've heard us talk about before, Windows 8.1 will be available later this year as a free update."
Microsoft also says that it will also be sharing more about Windows Embedded at Build. Embedded will be
"updated in the same timeframe as Windows 8.1. We're aligning the platforms even more to bring Windows to form factors of all types, including not only tablets and PCs, but also the growing category of devices such as ATMs, point of service (POS) terminals, and kiosks."
Here are our earlier Windows 8.1 rumors
Windows 8.1 release date
The final Windows Blue release date is late 2013, while there will also be some new Windows Blue hardware.
In a post on the official Windows blog early in May, Tamy Reller, Microsoft's chief marketing office and chief financial officer, confirmed what we already knew - the update will be available "later this year", and certainly by Christmas.
Reller went on to say that the update will provide "more options for businesses, and give consumers more options for work and play". Microsoft now has more than 70,000 Metro/Windows 8-style apps in the Windows Store.
Reller later confirmed the Windows 8.1 name during a conference call with J.P. Morgan, where plans for the operating system were discussed.
Quite how the upcoming preview release will work in practice remains to be seen, but you might not be able to install it straight into an existing Windows 8 install.
If you happen to be one of the small number of users who have a Windows RT device like Surface RT, we're sure you'll be thrilled to know that the Windows 8.1 update will also be coming to your device.
There aren't likely to be too many massive surprises from Blue, which our writer Kate Solomon says "we feel a bit guilty for passing off as a minor Windows update" now that we've seen plenty of Windows Blue screenshots.
Windows Blue is actually Windows 8.1
Windows Blue, we now know for sure that Windows Blue will not be the software's official name. Shame. Instead Windows Blue is just the internal name for the software.
Windows Blue will officially be deemed Windows 8.1, first revealed in early April. Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet's All About Microsoft blog said the original Windows 8.1 tip came from a reliable source and screenshots of the About Windows screen also appeared on Twitter - see below.
In stores, the update will still be called simply Windows 8 - that means Microsoft isn't about to start naming its incremental OS refreshes like Apple does (like OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion). But it does indicate a new attitude to the type of software updates that it has previously called Service Packs.
Windows 8.1 Start menu
There has been a lot of speculation over whether Windows 8.1 will actually introduce a Start Button and on May 30 we saw a preview of what the brand new button will look like, thanks to Paul Thurrott at Windows SuperSite.
However, we'd like to point out a big caveat with this screenshot - the new button shown by Thurrott looks awfully like Stardock's Start button replacement tool Start8. Will we actually get a Start button in Windows 8.1?
Credit: Windows SuperSite
New Windows 8 apps
As well as the operating system itself, Microsoft is apparently building some new Windows 8 apps, looking at new ways to run apps side-by-side on smaller-screened devices without needing hefty black-box-level resolution. That's in addition to the March updates for standard Windows 8 apps.
Blue is also bringing in new Snap Views so you can share your screen 50:50 between different apps rather than the current 70:30, including across multiple monitors.
As expected, Microsoft is upping the Sky Drive integration, with some new treats like auto-camera uploads and more back-up options, as well as tab sync which will see your tabs mirrored across devices.
The grabs also reveal the inclusion of IE11 but not much detail on the next iteration of browser beyond that.
And for the personalisation fans, the grabs show a quick and easy menu of options for customising your desktop background and other design elements
Windows Blue desktop
Could Windows Blue enable users to boot straight to the desktop? Some rumours think so. You can't boot straight to the desktop in Windows 8, though you can resume to it.
Some coden supposedly includes an option that disables the start screen so users would jump straight to the desktop layout - known as "CanSuppressStartScreen".
Certainly there are no plans to ditch the desktop any time soon. In an interview with TechRadar, Windows Product Manager Ian Moulster was candid about the desktop's important role in Windows.
"To be honest I don't have an answer because I don't know. I'm loathe to speculate. It seems highly unlikely to me. I haven't seen anything either way. I'd be surprised, but that's my personal view."
"I think it's a continuation of us always building on what's there. Windows 8 is built on Windows 7 and starts from where Windows 7 stops, and I don't think there will be a change to that approach. We'd be crazy to throw anything away.
"But what form that takes we'll have to wait and see I suppose. I think we have said that we'll be releasing updates more frequently, but precisely what that means I don't know. There's the apps as well, we've released plenty of updates to our apps."
Windows Blue sync
Further Windows development
According to a February 15 job posting on the Microsoft Careers site, the software giant is seeking an engineer to join its Windows Core Experience Team.
That part of the operation will be working on improving the centrepiece of the new Windows UI, including the start screen, application lifecycle, windowing and personalisation, according to the post.
This seems to suggest that Windows Blue will bring more than a few tweaks under the bonnet and offer tangible visual enhancements to the Windows 8 software.
Indeed, the post mentions Windows Blue by name and says the updates will look to "build on and improve Windows 8" as time goes on.
An excerpt reads: "We're looking for an excellent, experienced SDET to join the Core Experience team in Windows Sustained Engineering (WinSE). The Core Experience features are the centerpiece of the new Windows UI, representing most of what customers touch and see in the OS, including: the start screen; application lifecycle; windowing; and personalization. Windows Blue promises to build and improve upon these aspects of the OS, enhancing ease of use and the overall user experience on devices and PCs worldwide."
Windows Blue will extend to other platforms
It is also thought that Windows Blue updates will be extended to multiple Microsoft platforms, including Windows server, the mobile OS Windows Phone 8 and applications like SkyDrive and Outlook.com.
Indeed, another post on Microsoft's job site mentions Windows Phone Blue by name, so that is definitely on the horizon.
The plan from Microsoft's point of view is reportedly to move towards a more regular update pace, rather than the three year gap that separated Windows 7 and Windows 8, with little improvements in between.
Apple has enjoyed great success in this arena, gradually adding new strings to the bow of Mac OS X every year, through its feline-themed updates.