Hands on with Windows 8.1 Preview

Microsoft announced interesting updates with Windows 8.1. From the “return” of the Start Button and updates to apps, Windows 8.1 is not a significant update to the operating system but more of a polishing of  Microsoft’s services. There are some new apps like Bing Food & Drink and Bing Health & Fitness, but they don’t add much extra content.

The Preview build released doesn’t contain the more useful updates like 3D Maps or Outlook gestures and is more of a look into operating system’s updates.

Essentially the same on the Surface

The Modern UI remains the same in Windows 8.1. There are more customization options like Live Tile management. You can resize titles, though the size options aren’t available to all apps pinned to the Start screen. Pinning apps is also easier because you can select multiple apps rather than individually like in Windows 8.

First party apps continue to have notifications update in the Live Tiles, depending on the app. It’s definitely not as visual as Microsoft demoed during Build, however. This will all depend on the apps and services you have connected to your Microsoft account.

Windows 8.1 Preview includes the redesigned app drawer, which offers  much better organization than before. Native apps are sorted in one main section and compatible Windows 8 apps are sorted by name like the Programs list in Windows 7.

This view also shows a lot information for managing your computer like direct links for System Information, Task Scheduler, and Windows Firewall with Advanced Security. These apps still load in the Desktop, however.

Redesigned and new apps

The Windows Store received a redesign to make the interface easier to navigate. Instead of separating apps into different categories, it highlights apps, shows “Picks for You” that you can reply to if they aren’t interesting, popular apps, new releases, and top lists for paid and free apps.

It also improves the options in Settings by having a direct app update link, which is much improved over the hidden and slow to refresh Windows Store app .

One small problem is app discovery because it relies on your existing library of apps and what’s trending in the store.

Xbox Music and Bing in everything

Xbox Music also got an updated user interface. It focuses a lot on your personal collection with options for exploring new music. You can upload your own music collection with the Xbox Music Pass, similar to Google Play Music.

It’s not as visually striking as iTunes or Google Play Music and also doesn’t feature many options. In the Build Keynote, Microsoft showed how to create playlists from websites directly within the app, which was interesting. But with a lot of users using Spotify and other streaming services, Xbox Music doesn’t offer a compelling reason to switch unless you want to use the app on Xbox 360.

Controls for Xbox Music are still lacking with playback controls not optimized and the Live Tile is very basic.

While looking at Xbox Music, I tried searching through Windows 8.1 with Bing. Microsoft said that it would pull information from multiple sources when searching and my search for the artist, “Dumbfoundead”, actually had some good results. It wasn’t as good as the demos that Microsoft showed, but it did pull information from Wikipedia (with an option to install the app) and music I had on the laptop.

General searching in Windows 8.1 is much easier and since search also pulls results from the web, it makes finding relevant information simple. It makes sense that there’s still work to be done to accurately import all relevant information through Bing, but it works well in the Windows 8.1 Preview.

Food, Drink, and Fitness

Microsoft also showed off the new Bing Food & Drink and Health & Fitness apps for Windows 8.1. Food & Drink is an interesting app, which features the ability to add recipes to Collections or manually create a recipe. There also a shopping list built in and the ability to create meal plans.

Food & Drink looks like it could be useful, but there’s a lot of manual input required for creating collections and adding recipes. One nice feature is the ability to look at recipes and add them to meal plans or add ingredients to a shopping list. There’s a lot of potential for use in Food & Drink, but I think there’s too much manual data input required before it’s becomes truly useful.

Bing Health & Fitness includes three separate apps in one. The Diet Tracker, Health Tracker, and Exercise Tracker are all tools to monitor your health.

All three trackers are connected to Microsoft’s HealthVault service, which contains apps from over 140 providers that will import your information. However, a lot of these apps aren’t standard health apps and are released by specific health providers. This is actually a big benefit because it will bridge mobile and Windows 8.1 together so your data is collected and synced easily.

The Health Tracker collects all your medical information and syncs it with HealthVault. It looks like your medical history all collected in one place. Diet Tracker functions as your food intake calculator. With over 200,000 foods with nutrition profiles, it shows the amount of calories that your diet contains and helps create goals.

Exercise Tracker is a database that keeps information on your exercise. Combined with Diet Tracker, it can calculate information on how much exercise is necessary in relation to the food you eat.

While Food & Drink is more of a simple food app, there is great potential with the Health & Fitness app.

If the all three apps inside Health & Fitness are used, then you can get an excellent database of health information that can provide accurate data for doctors.

The “return” of the Start Button

Windows 8.1 reintroduces the Start Button to the Desktop of Windows. On the Modern UI, it shows up briefly and fades away, which is a bit confusing. One of the major changes is the ability to boot directly to the desktop in Windows 8.1, allowing users to bypass the Start screen.

The Desktop is a necessity for apps that are not native to the Modern UI, an issue that Microsoft has been attempting to correct by building better Modern UI apps.

While many people celebrated the return of the Start Button, there’s more applause for the ability to bypass the Modern UI entirely.

Incremental update

Windows 8.1 address some user concerns while also adding new features to entice users to upgrade. The updates to the UI are mainly cosmetic, including the Start Button and redesigned apps like Xbox Music don’t change the core functionality of the operating system.

Bing integration into the core of the operating system is great for users because it allows for quick searches within 8.1, but users who use Google primarily may not find the results as useful. Microsoft is attempting to give a reason to move into its ecosystem, but it isn’t there in Windows 8.1.

Windows 8 is still a tough sell, especially to those who are content with the features and interface of Windows 7.

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