Microsoft has released the preview edition of its free Windows 8.1 update
, making it available to download
. The prerelease version of the codenamed Windows Blue software introduces an improved search system, a revised Windows Store, and updated core apps, as well as the previously hinted-at interface tweaks, and the return of the Start button.
The Start button
will not work in the same way as older versions of the operating system, in that it will load up the full-screen Metro-style Start Screen rather than a smaller tray of applications and folders. Users will be able to set Windows to boot to desktop instead of the Start Screen, as presently done in Windows 8, and can also set the background to be the same on the Start Screen as the one on the desktop itself. Live tiles now have two additional sizes, with one being larger than the current tiles, and the other being much smaller, and depending on the app, varying amounts of information shown depending on the size of the tile.
The lock screen now has a choice of effects available to users. A slideshow can be set to run when the system is locked, showing images from the local storage and a SkyDrive account, selecting photographs taken at around the same time of year in the past. Device cameras can be used while the system is locked, with Skype calls also able to be answered in this mode.
The option to snap an application to one part of the screen returns with more options. The previous split can now be adjusted, allowing a few more window ratios to be used. This now allows for multiple monitors, letting two applications be displayed on one screen with another pair shown on a second.
The Search charm has been updated to show more usable results, including individual settings alongside file and app results. Web results are also added, with some media-based results viewable or playable within Search itself.
The new Windows Store is a major visible upgrade, with a more flattened design that shows new app charts and per-app details. Microsoft has also included app recommendations, offering suggestions for other apps alongside currently selected ones. The new Reading List app stores sites for later viewing, the Camera app adds panoramic photography, Xbox Music
gets its previously reported facelift, and both Sound Recorder and Calculator make a reappearance with Metro stylings.
Microsoft recommends that "only experienced PC users download Windows 8.1 Preview or Windows RT 8.1 Preview." Users of Windows RT will not be able to restore their software if they want to change back, and will have to wait for the final version to be released, Windows 8 can use PC Refresh to remove the preview, which may delete some installed apps in the process, while earlier versions will be forced to perform a full reinstall of their operating system if they wish to return to their previous OS.