This morning at the Build conference in San Francisco, Microsoft announced the availability of the Windows 8.1 Preview. This is big news as it’s the first chance for Surface customers to experience the new update, which moves the Windows 8 vision forward with new features and improvements. There will be much more to share about Windows 8.1, but at the most basic level it will make your Surface more intuitive, more efficient, more fun, and more productive. I’ve installed the Windows RT 8.1 Preview on my Surface RT and want to share a list of things that have made a strong first impression.
A word of caution before I proceed for those who are considering installing the preview, this is a preview, not a final release. Before doing anything, you should first read my friend Brandon LeBlanc’s post on the Windows Blog and review the Windows 8.1 Preview FAQ (frequently asked questions) to decide if you’re a good candidate and if the preview is available in your language. The Windows Blog post also has instructions on getting and installing the preview, so I won’t go through those again here. For those who install the preview and need support, it is available via the Microsoft Community Forums for 8.1 Preview and RT 8.1 Preview. Since the download went live earlier today we have had some feedback on difficulties encountered during the install process, and these forums are the best source of support information. Finally, those who want more detail on what’s in the Preview can download the Windows 8.1 Preview Product Guide.
With that out of the way, I’ll get right to it. I’m only few hours into using my Surface RT with the preview installed, but I’m already digging on a few key features. Of these 5, the arrival of Outlook 2013 RT is the only one that is unique to Surface RT (Surface Pro users will continue to purchase the version of Outlook they want separately)
Search: You may remember the early days of online searching, when certain people were just better at it than others. They knew where to look, they were better at thinking up keywords, etc. Search in the Windows 8.1 Preview is better than those people ever dreamed of being, and the results that are served up are instantly useful. When I search using a keyword or phrase I see results from the web, from documents on my device and on SkyDrive, as well as apps in the Windows Store. Even the most organized people I know lead a fragmented digital existence – storing and seeking information in a lot of different places. Search now pulls more of that information together in response to a simple query and serves it up in a way that is easy to act on. From the results I easily launch an app, play a song, open a file, or browse. At the risk of an explanation making a simple thing sound complicated, here are a few examples of searches:
Searching Amsterdam, I instantly see weather, popular attractions, and can jump to a map of the city. If I were to scroll over I’d see photos from my days there and documents that were picked up in the search.
Searching Fitz and the TantrumsI get straight to info about the band and can instantly play one of their songs Monyegrabber in this case using Xbox Music.
The Start screen – I now have a lot more flexibility to make my Start screen just what I need it to be. From the screenshot below you’ll see that I can now see tiles in 4 different sizes, with large and small sizes added to the wide and medium tiles available in Windows 8. It’s a subtle change, but one that lets me see more and richer information in the live tiles I care most about while also putting more of the apps I use daily on the screen at once.
Also new is the ability to select multiple apps at once and either move them together, create a new grouping with them, unpin them all, uninstall them all, resize them all, or turn all the live tiles on or off at once. I have a lot of apps and I use multiple Windows devices, so this is going to be a huge timesaver.
Select and manage multiple apps at once
Access to the Apps view is also made easier with a simple gesture. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen presents a single view of all of my apps in once place. New apps are no longer pinned to the Start screen automatically (like they are in Windows 8), which will help me keep my Start screen a bit more focused. The Apps view gives me quick access to all my apps, and with a single touch I can sort them by name, category, most used, or date installed so if I just bought something it’s easily found and pinned to the Start screen.
Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access the Apps view
Outlook 2013 RT Surface RT users already had Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for times when serious work was to be done. The Windows RT 8.1 Preview also includes Outlook 2013 RT. I send and receive far more e-mail than is healthy, and I use a lot of the power features that are served up via the ribbon at the top of the screen (! anyone?). This is a huge addition to Surface RT for me. Remember that Surface Pro customers will still purchase Office separately.
Reading List I work. One consequence of working is that I can’t read every cool story that a friend posts to Facebook, or that whizzes by on a Twitter feed, or that I quickly spot as a headline. I’m constantly trying to recall the title or source of a story so that I can get back to it when I’ve got a few minutes. Reading List in the Windows 8.1 Preview uses the Share charm to capture the things I want to read and collects them for when I have time. To add items to Reading List, I swipe in from the right of the screen (with the article open) and select share, then Reading List. It works with web content on Internet Explorer as well as articles within apps like News and Wikipedia. It also syncs across my other Windows 8.1 Preview devices, so if I capture it on my work machine I can read it later on the all-in-one at home.
Adding a story from the News app to my Reading List using the Share charm
One last touch that makes Reading List great – when I open an article, Reading List automatically snaps to the left of the screen and launches the app with the article to the right. This means that if I get bored with an article, I can instantly open another one.
Typing using the onscreen keyboard Typing on the onscreen keyboard isn’t as fast as a physical keyboard. This is why there are Touch and Type covers for Surface. That said, there are still a lot of times when I type onscreen. The Windows RT 8.1 Preview onscreen keyboard anticipates what I’m writing and offers up three words as options while I type. I can ignore these and muscle through to write the whole word myself, I can stop typing and touch the word I want OR I can swipe through the options by a quick right- or left- swipe on the spacebar. A tap on the spacebar selects the word, adds an extra space, and I continue on. I know that on some level my junior high keyboarding teacher would deeply disapprove, but it’s brilliant in practice. I took just a few minutes to get a feel for the swipe motion and I’m already a lot faster. It will be great for typing on Surface.
This is a very quick list of things that I’ve become smitten with in the hours since I installed the preview on my Surface RT. There is a lot to love here for Surface customers. From personalized radio stations in Xbox Music to easy 360 panoramas using the Camera app to a bunch of improvements for business users to a bevy of new and upcoming apps. The net result is a Surface experience that is made even better thanks to great work done by the Windows team.
Again a final note. If you’re thinking of installing the preview on either your Surface RT or your Surface Pro. Please read through the instructions and cautions in the Windows Blog post and read the FAQ to set yourself up for success. And enjoy!
Senior Manager- Microsoft Surface