Microsoft Releases Windows 8.1, Including Start Button

Now all Windows 8 users can kick the tires on the operating system's new boot-to-desktop, resurrected Start button and small tablet-friendly features.

Starting today, the general public can finally get some hands-on time with Windows 8.1, the first big update for its latest edition of Microsoft's flagship operating system.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took to the stage for the keynote during the Build developer conference on June 26 and encouraged everyone in attendance and viewing the Webcast to "go download the Windows 8.1 Preview edition." More than a collection of improvements and new features, Windows 8.1 is representative of Microsoft's rapid release cadence—a theme Ballmer emphasized as he showcased the operating system update.

Windows 8.1, which will be available as a free update later this year, addresses some issues that have proven unpopular with some Windows 8 users, notably the touch-centric tiled Start screen. Finding little use for the new Start experience, desktop traditionalists have clamored for a direct boot-to-desktop option since the OS was released last fall.

Ballmer drew applause when he announced that in Windows 8.1, "if you want to boot to the desktop, you can boot to the desktop."

The update will also bring back the Windows Start button to the desktop view. The Start menu remains gone, however. In its place is an app selection screen that allows users to view "four times more apps on the screen than you ever could in the start menu," boasted Julie Larson-Green, vice president of Windows Engineering for Microsoft during her time on stage.

Other, more subtle tweaks include a gesture-enabled virtual keyboard that improves common tasks on small tablets, like composing a message or Tweeting.

In a demonstration on an Acer Iconia 8.1-inch tablet—which Microsoft gave away to keynote attendees—Larson-Green showed how users can swipe across the space bar to select from automatic spelling recommendations rather than move their hands up and press the appropriate option. The virtual keyboard also sports shaded numbers on select keys, allowing users to "swipe up" to enter numbers without switching from the QWERTY view.

Larson-Green showed off the operating system's new windowing and multitasking features, including the developer-friendly ability to snap eight Windows across two monitors. Windows 8.1 also does away with the one-third or two-thirds app-snapping constraints, allowing users to freely divvy up their screen real estate.

Windows 8.1, said Larson-Green, is an "update that refines the vision of Windows 8."

As of this writing, the Windows 8.1 Preview is only available in the Windows Store app marketplace. Microsoft plans to release the ISO files "within the next day," according to the company's Website.

While the update process is standard fare for Windows enthusiasts, select users are urged caution. Windows RT users with an installed language pack will want to wait until Microsoft issues a bug fix, warned Brandon LeBlanc, Microsoft communications manager, in a June 26 blog post.

Owners of Windows 8 tablets and PCs that are powered by newer 32-bit Intel Atom processors will need a graphics driver update.

"Those tablets and PCs include the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, ASUS VivoTab TF810C, HP Envy X2, HP ElitePad 900, Samsung ATIV Smart PC and Fujitsu ARROWS Tab. We are working closely with Intel and OEM partners to deliver updated drivers that will allow you to install the Windows 8.1 Preview as soon as possible," wrote LeBlanc.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...