Windows 8.1, which will be available for download in a preview version on June 26, will feature the good old Start button in desktop mode. Users who dislike the new Modern UI/Metro interface will also be able to boot right to the desktop. While rumors about the return of the Start button had long been making the rounds, Antoine Leblond, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Windows Program Management, made the official announcement on the Windows Blog this morning.
Given all the criticism Microsoft had to endure for removing the Start button, it’s not a huge surprise that it will return in Windows 8.1. Microsoft assumed that touchscreens would be a bit more mainstream by now, I think. Leblond notes that Microsoft has recognized that there are still many non-touch devices in use today. That’s a bit of an understatement, of course. The reality is that most Windows PCs don’t have touchscreens. Leblond especially stresses that this is true for commercial settings.
So to help mouse and keyboard users, Microsoft is making a few more changes beyond bringing back the Start button in desktop mode. It will be on by default, but if you don’t like it, you will be able to remove it.
Leblond doesn’t say this in the blog post, but a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to us that you will have the option to boot directly into the desktop, too, without having to go through the fullscreen Start menu first. You will also be able to boot into the Modern UI, but with the Apps list view open as the default.
The Return Of The Start Button – But Not The Start Menu
One question that was probably on many people’s mind, though, was what the Start button would actually do. This may come as a bit of a disappointment to many, but a click on the Start button will take you to the regular Start screen. There’s no Windows 7-like pop-up menu that appears.
If you have personalized the Start screen to the app list view, however (another new feature in Windows 8.1), you will see that instead of the usual live tile view. This view will give you one-click access to all of your apps.
Microsoft will also change the Windows 8.1 Start “tip,” which appears when you move your mouse into the lower left corner of the screen, to be the usual Windows logo and not, as it is today, a representation of the Modern UI Start screen. In addition, you will be able to change what each of the screen’s corners will do.
Flexible Snap View And Multi-Screen Support
That’s not the only concession Microsoft is making to its users, though. It’s also improving how the operating system handles multiple Metro/Windows Store apps that run at the same time. Currently, you can only run two apps at the same time (and only on one screen). One of those apps currently has to be the main app and take over about four-fifth of the screen while the other is relegated to the other fifth.
Windows 8.1, however, will allow you to size these snap views any way you want. The limit for apps that run on the same screen is also now three instead of two. You can also snap together multiple windows of the same app (say Internet Explorer), which should make multitasking with Windows Store apps a bit easier.
For users with multiple screens, Windows currently only allows Windows Store apps to run on one screen. This will change in Windows 8.1. Windows Store apps can now run on one screen and the other screen can show the Start menu.
Search Charm Now Includes Results From Bing And SkyDrive
Another area where Microsoft is making quite a few changes is in how the Search charm will work in Windows 8.1. According to Leblond, this search feature will now pull in results from Bing and also show aggregate results from apps, files and SkyDrive. It will also show actions you can take. If the web results feature a Wikipedia link, for example, you can ask Windows to read it out aloud. You can also play music files right from this view and there will probably a few more actions you can take that Microsoft hasn’t disclosed yet.
Unsurprisingly, Windows 8.1 will also feature Internet Explorer 11. The next version of the browser, Leblond writes, will offer better touch performance, faster page load times and “other new features.” Microsoft remains pretty tight-lipped about what these “new features” are, but Leblond does say that you will be able to change the appearance of the modern IE11 to always show the address bar (it currently auto-hides). He also says that you will be able to sync open tabs across your Windows 8.1 devices.
Also New: Saving To SkyDrive, Smarter Lock Screen, More Personalization Options
There are obviously quite a few additional features in Windows 8.1, too (and Microsoft says it still has a few more tricks up its sleeve, too). Windows 8.1 will will, for example, allow you to save files directly to SkyDrive without the need to install a separate app.
There are also a slew of new personalization options. The Lock Screen, for example, can now show a slide show of your images (both from SkyDrive and your local storage). In addition, the Lock Screen will now allow you to take Skype calls or take pictures without having to log in.
Other personalization options include the ability to choose your desktop background as your Start screen background (which should make switching back and forth between the Start screen and desktop mode a bit less jarring). Start screen backgrounds can now also be animated, similar to the backgrounds we’ve become accustomed to on Android. Microsoft says the Start screen tiles now come in more different sizes and it’s easier to select multiple files at once to resize them, move them and uninstall them. Because Microsoft found that users often moved tiles accidentally, you now have to press and hold (or use a right-click) to move them around.
The Right Direction
Overall, Microsoft is moving in the right direction with Windows 8.1. The operating system will get many of the much-needed features that will make it easier to use and remove some of the more baffling design decision from Windows 8.
Leblond says Microsoft has been listening to its customers. He also says, however, that Microsoft remains committed to its vision and its “touch-first” approach to Windows 8. In reality, however, the company is making quite a few concessions to its users, who weren’t quite ready for this vision yet.