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By | Neil McAllister 26th June 2013 23:44

Microsoft talks up devices, Windows 8.1 at developer shindig

Win8's long awaited overhaul is here, but will it satisfy?

Build 2013 Everything is beautiful at Microsoft's Build developer conference this year. Beautiful, gorgeous, delightful, beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

These days, Redmond's mouthpieces seem to stammer out the word "beautiful" about as often as most speakers say "uh." But beyond all the disingenuous awe and self-congratulation, Wednesday morning's Build keynote showed off some welcome product updates and demonstrated a reinvigorated Microsoft that's determined not to rest on its laurels.

"Rapid release," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bellowed as he took the stage at San Francisco's Moscone Center. "Rapid release!"

Reminding attendees that it's only been eight months since Windows 8 launched, Ballmer talked up the big announcement for this year's Build show – Windows 8.1 – and said that such short upgrade cycles would be "the new norm" for Microsoft, beyond just Windows.

"Rapid release cadence is absolutely fundamental to what we're doing – and, frankly, the way we need to mobilize our ecosystem of hardware and software development partners," Ballmer said.

Windows, Windows everywhere...

To demonstrate how hardware OEMs have been keeping up with Microsoft's cadence, Ballmer showed off a range of Windows devices in a variety of form factors, including several that didn't exist before the Windows 8 launch.

Holding up an 8.1-inch Acer Iconia tablet, Ballmer described it as a new kind of device – one that he said he "wouldn't call a Windows PC," but that still runs full Windows 8 and is part of the larger Windows ecosystem.

Photo of Steve Ballmer at Build 2013

Ballmer showed off the diverse range of Windows devices in his Build 2013 keynote

"This is innovation that had to be unlocked," Ballmer said. "We had to do work on Windows, and our partners had to do work in the semiconductors and in the system designs to really bring the small tablet form factor to light."

Incidentally, Build attendees will all be able to poke and prod at that innovation for themselves, as each will be getting an Iconia tablet, as well as a Surface Pro.

Ballmer also showed off what he described as "workhorse two-in-one tablets," dockable touchscreen devices that include high-powered Intel processors and other hardware features that previously had been reserved for more traditional form factors.

"Should we call that a PC? Should we call it a tablet?" Ballmer asked, positioning for the inevitable punch line. "I call it all Windows, all the time."

One thing that all of the devices onstage shared in common was that they were all touch-enabled – a feature that Ballmer admitted was sorely lacking from most devices that were available when Windows 8 launched.

"Customers who have Windows 8 on touch systems are much, much happier than other Windows 8 customers," Ballmer emphasized, "and in fact they're even happier than our Windows 7 customers."

The Microsoft boss said to expect "literally an outpouring" of new touch devices from Redmond's OEM partners, including ones in the traditional PC form factors, where Ballmer said touch was still "incredibly valuable."

Later in the keynote, Windows VP Antoine Leblond emphasized that these devices would be available at the full range of price points, too. By way of example, he offered a forthcoming Acer notebook and a convertible tablet from Dell, each of which he said was priced under $400.

But all of this talk about hardware was really just the appetizer. Windows 8.1 was what attendees really wanted to hear about – would it really do anything to fix any of customers' grumbles about Windows 8? Fortunately, Microsoft does seem to have made some worthwhile improvements, albeit mostly incremental ones.

Windows 8.1, here at last

Yes, there is a Start button. We knew about that. We also knew that it would be no big deal – just an onscreen version of the Windows key you already have on your keyboard. There's also an option to skip the Start Screen and boot directly to the desktop, as promised, if you know where to find it. Both features earned cheers at the Build keynote.

Where to find the boot-to-desktop option in Windows 8.1

Looking for the boot-to-desktop option? Here's a hint

Even more interesting, however, were the other changes Microsoft has made to make the desktop and The Interface Formerly Known as Metro (TIFKAM) UIs into more equal siblings in Windows 8.1, as well as to make working with TIFKAM apps more attractive to people who are more accustomed to old-style apps.

"We got a lot of feedback from users of those millions of desktop applications that said, if I was to put it in coffee terms, 'Why don't you go refine the blend here?'"

Among Microsoft's refinements, gone are the arbitrary restrictions on how much screen real estate Windows Store apps must fill. In place of Windows 8's awkward and frustrating Snap feature, TIFKAM apps can now be scaled to arbitrary sizes, and you can run more of them at once – Windows chief Julie Larson-Green demonstrated eight of them running on a dual-monitor machine.

It's also now much easier to access the All Apps view to launch applications, which Larson-Green pointed out shows you more icons than the old Start menu ever did.

Beyond those up-front changes, however, Microsoft has sprinkled a generous helping of improvements across many aspects of the OS. The Search Charm, for example, has been enhanced with results from Bing, so that it becomes "the one box that does it all" when you want to find anything, from your own apps and documents to Wikipedia articles and maps.

Various of the built-in Windows Store apps have been updated, including Mail and the Photos app, and Microsoft has rolled out a few new ones to coincide with the Windows 8.1 Preview, including Bing Food & Drink and Bing Health & Fitness. And Windows Store apps now update automatically in Windows 8.1 – no more navigating to the store and updating them by hand.

Perhaps more important, Microsoft has been lobbying major online companies to release Windows 8 versions of their mobile apps, apparently with some success. Soon you won't need to launch a browser to access Facebook on a Windows 8 device, Ballmer said – though he gave no hint as to when a Facebook app might actually appear in the Windows Store.

Other user-facing enhancements include a much-improved onscreen keyboard that has word auto-completion and helpful gestures; new options for the login screen, the lock screen, and the Start Screen background; and, of course, the debut of Internet Explorer 11, which introduces support for WebGL and MPEG DASH.

Still other changes have been made under the hood, such as support for tiled resources for 3D graphics, which allows for incredibly high-resolution 3D rendered images. In fact, Leblond said there are literally 5,000 new APIs in Windows 8.1 – a staggering figure, and one we plan to explore in detail in the future.

Where to get it

You'll hear much more about all of these aspects of Windows 8.1 from The Register soon, in fact, including a detailed review after we've had a chance to properly kick the tires.

In the meantime, current Windows 8 users can get the update here. You'll need to install a small patch and then restart, after which you'll be guided to the Windows Store to grab the Windows 8.1 Preview bits themselves.

Screenshot of the Windows 8.1 Preview installer

Installing the Windows 8.1 Preview works a little differently than most updates (click to enlarge)

Alternatively, if you're on an earlier version of Windows, a version of Windows in an unsupported language, or you just don't want to install from the Windows Store, you will soon be able to download an ISO file for a clean install. The ISO image wasn't available on Wednesday, but Microsoft's website says it will appear in the coming days.

Be warned, however – Microsoft's servers seemed to be heavily burdened on Wednesday, and installing the update on a Surface Pro took around two hours. Also, be advised that if you do install the Preview, you will need to reinstall all of your Windows Store apps once you update to the final version of Windows 8.1, which isn't due until later this year.

But if you're brave, go ahead and take it out for a spin. We'll be interested to hear whether you think everything about Windows 8.1 is as "beautiful" as Microsoft employees think it is. ®

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