Ed Baig, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Microsoft has taken a lot of grief over Windows 8. The company set out to build software that would work equally well on traditional keyboard- and mouse-driven personal computers as well as on tablets that are mainly suited for touch. But many folks thought this radical new operating system was confusing, if not borderline schizophrenic. Computers running Windows 8 haven't exactly been greeted with open arms.
Last week Microsoft released a preview version of Windows 8.1, the first meaningful update to Windows 8 and the company's initial attempt to smooth things over. The software is available now for anyone to try, but keep in mind that a preview is just that, a preview. Indeed, Microsoft cautions that there are risks to downloading 8.1 at this stage. It is also premature to do a formal review of Windows 8.1, so consider this column a preview as well. What I can say after a few days with a Surface Pro loaner tablet is that Microsoft has added a number of pleasing touches. Whether it will be enough to lure the reluctant masses remains to be seen.
In moving from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, we're talking a lot of tweaks here, rather than whopping changes. But, collectively, the improvements are welcome. Key takeaways:
• Start me up. Maybe the biggest change you'll notice is the return of a familiar Start button, located in "Desktop" mode in its customary location at the bottom left corner of the taskbar. Those who had lamented the missing Start button shouldn't go gaga - clicking or tapping on the new Start button returns you to the default Windows 8 Start environment, known as the Modern UI. That's where you'll find the colorful rectangular and square tiles, some with live data (weather, stocks, e-mail, etc.) that have come to define the fresher Windows interface on computers and smartphones, and I'm betting you'll spend plenty of time in that environment.
New to 8.1 is the ability to boot up your PC in the more traditional-looking Desktop environment if you prefer, or sticking with the default Modern look.
Seems to me Microsoft doesn't want you to find the former option, however, because I had to ask the company where to find it. (Right-click on the taskbar in Desktop, choose properties, then navigation tab, and select "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in.")
You have several ways to customize the Modern interface. You can group icons for similar apps and give that cluster of apps a name. You can press and hold your finger against a tile to resize it or unpin it from the Start screen.
Microsoft has also added a Personalize option under Settings for choosing backgrounds and picking colors - you can sample different hues by dragging slider controls. You get to Settings by swiping in from the right, summoning what are known as "charms," controls for searching, sharing and more.
In Windows 8, the tile-based Modern UI and Desktop environments felt like separate entities. With 8.1, the Start screen and Desktop can share the same backgrounds, making them feel more unified. It's a subtle but important change.
By signing in with a Microsoft account, whatever settings you establish on your computer can follow you across other Windows devices, including phones and Xbox consoles. The stuff you save on a Windows 8.1 PC - pictures, documents and other files - can be stored on Microsoft's cloud-based SkyDrive.
Inside Windows 8.1, you can also display up to four apps on the screen at any one time and resize each open window. With a second monitor, you can double the number of open apps, but you'll need a large enough high-resolution monitor. On my test Surface I could see only two open apps at the same time.
• Bing-ing it together. Microsoft takes sweet advantage of Bing in 8.1; The search integration is far better than before. You can swipe to bring up the Search charm or, better yet, just start typing your search query from anywhere within the Modern UI.
Type in a query such as LA Dodger outfielder Yasiel Puig, and you'll see a handsome search result, a layout with pictures and videos of the rookie sensation and a link to his Wikipedia entry. Swipe sideways to see other articles about "Puigmania," including thumbnail views of the Web pages from which those articles originate. Well done.
A no-less-attractive search layout appeared when I typed Alicia Keys' name. Along with pictures, her birth date and a link to her Wikipedia bio, I was able to play some of her full-length top tracks right on the spot, streamed for free via Xbox Music. I could also play music videos right then and there.
Bing search works well for travel, too - a general search on Las Vegas brought up pretty images, weather, current attractions and easy links to make hotel reservations.
Search isn't restricted to the Web. You can easily search across Word documents and other files on the PC or files stored on SkyDrive (Microsoft gives you 7 free gigabytes of SkyDrive storage).
Two new Bing apps show up in 8.1. The foodie-oriented Bing Food & Drink app is a repository for recipes. Bing Health & Fitness sports an exercise and diet tracker and includes a symptom checker for those things that might ail you.
• Windows Store. The Windows Store within 8.1 gets a good-looking makeover, too. Microsoft surfaces apps it thinks you'll be interested in, based on previous purchases or ratings. The joint is approaching 100,000 apps since the launch of Windows 8. Among those Microsoft announced at its recent Build conference are upcoming Windows apps from Facebook, Flipboard and the NFL.
Windows 8.1 also now pre-loads a Reading List app for saving a story you want to read later that you come across on the Web via Internet Explorer. It only works in the Modern UI for now (not Desktop) and, in my view, requires one click too many to save an article you want to read later.
Speaking of IE, Windows 8.1 also comes with a preview of Internet Explorer 11, the next version of its venerable browser.
Closer to its general availability I'll do a more comprehensive review of Windows 8.1. For now I'll say that while it doesn't address every shortcoming of Windows 8, it pushes Microsoft in the right direction.