Microsoft has begun to seed the Windows 8.1 (codename “Blue”) release preview to developers and interested consumers willing to try it out. It will be made available through the Windows Store and ISO images for installing on a system or virtual machine will be coming soon.
Windows 8.1 Preview is a little different to what Windows 8 users are currently used to. There’s the return of a Start button (although it’s still not the one you know and love from Windows 7) and a host of changes to DPI scaling, screen resolution support, hardware optimisations (including support for Intel’s Haswell deep sleep states) and other tweaks to the UI and Modern UI layout.
Top of the changes that users are going to welcome is the return of the Start button and the option to boot to the desktop without going through Modern UI. Its not going to deprecate the use of third-party software like Classic Shell or Start8 from Startdock, but it is going to help a lot of people switching from older OS such as Windows XP and Vista. You can now right-click the Start button for the administrative context menu, but it mostly remains the same experience as before.
Also changing the landscape significantly is the new Portrait mode orientation. Microsoft has reworked the UI to allow for use in portrait orientations, which means that they’re ready for smaller tablets in the 8-inch and smaller form factors.
Its clear that Microsoft is moving slowly towards their end goal of uniting the experience of Windows Phone with Windows on the desktop, laptop, or tablet. Blue represents a slow growth in the areas that most needed addressing, like optimisations to the UI to make searching and navigation easier, along with making the OS more accessible to people coming from older machines.
There’s still a lot of work left to be done while Microsoft waits for LCD and device manufacturers to start bundling higher-resolution screens with their devices. You’ll notice that despite the 1080p resolution on Paul Thurrot’s Surface Pro (screenshots above), the whole screen isn’t always used to provide information in a slightly more condensed format. Bing news has had a re-work and looks good, but Xbox Music still wastes a lot of screen real estate.
For those of you interested in exploring the Release Preview, you can grab it from Microsoft here as an optional update. Please note that this effectively nukes your install, as the Preview build cannot be updated to the final build that will be releasing later this year. It’s better in that regard to wait for the release of the ISO files and run this on a separate partition or in a virtual machine.