Microsoft Previews Windows 8.1’s Changes (Yes, the Start Button Is Back — Sort of)

The first major Windows 8 update is mostly focused on refinements to the operating system's radically new interface.

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Windows 8.1's changes include more flexible juggling of multiple on-screen apps and the return, more or less, of the Start button

On June 26th, Microsoft is releasing a preview version of Windows 8.1 code-named “Windows Blue” — the first meaningful update to Windows 8. In a blog post today, the company is publishing brief details on the new version’s changes, which it shared with me in advance.

There’s no way to talk about them without beginning with one particular tweak. For many people, the symbol of how radically different Windows 8 was from its predecessors was its elimination of Windows’ Start button and Start menu, perhaps the operating system’s most iconic features. If you were skittish about major change, their absence served as a convenient excuse to postpone even thinking about upgrading.

In Windows 8.1, the Start button is back, more or less. If you’re in Desktop mode — the part of Windows 8.1 which looks and works like classic Windows — the Taskbar will sport a Windows logo where the Start button has lived since the Windows 95 days. And if you’re on the newfangled Start screen, shoving the mouse pointer down to the lower left-hand corner will also cause the Windows logo to appear.

But: Microsoft isn’t completely rolling back Windows 8’s removal of the old approach to Start. Judging from the blog post, pressing the new pseudo-Start button won’t get you an old-style Start menu. Instead, you’ll still be shuttled to the full-screen, formerly-known-as-Metro Start screen, which means that it’s impossible to live entirely inside Desktop mode and pretend that Microsoft didn’t make major changes to the Windows interface. That makes the return of the Start button more of a minor visual adjustment than anything.

As my colleague Doug Aamoth reported yesterday, Windows superblogger Paul Thurrott had the scoop on these changes in a post on Wednesday. Thurrott also said that Windows 8.1 would allow users to boot their PCs directly into Desktop mode, bypassing the Start screen. Microsoft’s blog post doesn’t explicitly promise that option, but does make a vaguer reference to the ability to boot into things other than the Start screen. Here’s hoping.

What else is new in Windows 8.1? Quite a bit, it sounds like. For me, the most intriguing changes involve Snap mode, which until now has permitted you to tuck a simplified version of a Windows 8 app to one side of the primary app you’re using. Now you’ll be able to resize the windows, to put three apps on screen at once and to work with two on-screen instances of one app (such as two Internet Explorer windows).

Another much-needed fix: There’s now a full-featured Windows 8 PC Settings feature, so you don’t need to hop between PC Settings and the old-style Control Panel to get to all of the operating system’s configuration and customization options.

The Start screen has a new Apps view that shows all your installed programs, letting you reserve the primary view for only your favorites. (That reminds me of Windows Phone’s and Android’s approaches.) There are more sizes of tiles for the Start screen, and you can dress it up with custom wallpaper.

The search feature is now a universal search feature: it returns files, apps, Bing web results and more. New web stuff includes Internet Explorer 11, deeper integration of Microsoft’s SkyDrive storage and the ability to log into any Windows 8.1 machine with your Microsoft account and get all your settings.

There’s more, but there’s only so much you can understand about an operating-system upgrade by perusing a features list. In a little less than a month, anyone who’s interested will be able to try Windows 8.1 for himself or herself, for free.

Current Windows 8 users will likely be happy to get it, but the big question about Windows 8.1 is whether it’ll convince folks who have actively avoided Windows 8 to give it a try. Can it make Windows 8 doubters into Windows 8.1 believers?

On first blush, it seems like there’s a good chance that it will appeal to those who have been intrigued but wanted to wait for Microsoft’s first major polish on all its new ideas. But the company, it seems, is only going to go so far to cater to hardcore Windows 8 skeptics. They can have their Start button back, but otherwise, the company is still focusing on trying to make the new way of doing things attractive.

I wouldn’t count on that approach promptly quashing the general sense of uncertainty surrounding Windows 8, but it’s probably good for Windows’ long game. If you were paying attention, it should have been obvious all along that Microsoft was never going to convince the planet to upgrade to this strikingly new take on Windows in one fell swoop. Windows 8.1 is a necessary second swoop — and it may take several more before the transition feels even halfway complete.