Windows 8.1 a big improvement
A free update of Microsoft's eight-month-old Windows 8 operating system that adds new features to the software, including the restoration of the Start button to the Windows desktop, has arrived in preview form.
The Windows 8.1 Preview, known as Windows Blue when it was in development, is available as a free update in the Windows 8 and Windows RT Store in US English.
There are instructions on how to update Windows 8 to the Windows 8.1 Preview via the Windows Store at microsoft.com, so long as your system language is set to English US, but a bug meant this was not possible on my HP Pavilion DV6 notebook.
It can also be downloaded from windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-8/preview-download and burned to a DVD to update a previous version of Windows but if you decide to do this create recovery discs on your computer first and back up all of your personal data. The 8.1 Preview will wipe your hard disc drive and stop working when the commercial version arrives "this holiday season".
Microsoft headed in a bold new direction with Windows 8 last October by creating a dual purpose operating system that worked on every form factor of computer from old desktops to new tablets. The main change was replacing the Start button on the Windows desktop, which had been in every version of Windows since 1995, with a modern Start screen which displays a touch tile for each of the main applications displaying live information about the app.
Those running Windows 8 on tablets loved it, since the new Start screen was built for them, but those wanting to use the old Start menu from the desktop were disappointed since it had gone.
The Windows 8.1 Preview includes a new look Start button on the desktop, but clicking it doesn't bring up the old style menu rather it returns you to the new style Start screen.
Windows 8.1 can run five tile-style applications side by side, compared to the two Windows 8 could run, but the Windows desktop's multi-tasking abilities remain unchanged - you can have as many windows open as your machine's central processing unit can handle.
A definite improvement in 8.1 is the ability, in Settings, to have your desktop wallpaper appear behind the apps on the new start screen as well. It makes the transition between the Start screen and the desktop a lot smoother and makes the two modes of Windows 8.1 seem more related.
Just how big you make those live tiles has also changed, with far more options. The Desktop tile, for example, can be large, wide, medium or small.
It's easier, too, to get to apps like Calculator, Paint, Snipping Tool and Windows Media Player, in 8.1. You swipe down to get to the full list rather than having to swipe to the bottom right and then search for each app by name.
In short, it's a much better user experience - but some won't like the big change from previous versions of Windows.
Microsoft removed the ability for Windows Media Player to play DVDs from Windows 8 in October, forcing anyone who wanted to do that on their machine to buy Media Centre or other third party applications. Media Player and the Video app in Windows 8 will play video files, however, just not directly from DVD. Unfortunately it's still absent from the Windows 8.1