Windows 8.1 now available: Everything you need to know before you install

The time has finally come for Windows 8 users to get a break with a slew of fixes courtesy of Microsoft. The company has gradually teased details of the next version of Windows 8, called Windows 8.1, over the last few months, emphasising that it's a free software update.

READ: Windows 8.1 review

The next version of Windows notably brings back the Start Button missing from Windows 8, which it released in October 2012, and it includes a bevy of new features, changes and performance enhancements geared toward overhauling the platform. The company said it developed Windows 8.1 in response to feedback from Windows 8 customers.

With that said, here's what to expect after you've successfully downloaded and installed the software. We've already brought you a brief overview of the OS update, but we plan to go more in-depth when we spend more time with the consumer version. 

From Windows Blue to 8.1

The update was previously called Windows Blue for months ahead of its official confirmation. It's not Blue any longer. It now goes by Windows 8.1.

When is the Windows 8.1 release date?

Microsoft has offered a Windows 8.1 preview release since 26 June, but the full consumer version is now available.

Where can I get Windows 8.1?

The Windows 8.1 update is a free update to Windows 8 for consumers through the Windows Store. You don't need to leave the house to get it, but you will need an internet connection. 

Will Windows 8.1 come pre-installed with my new PC?

Microsoft says PCs sold after 17 October will come with Windows 8.1 pre-installed. It's not clear how much back inventory will still have Windows 8. However, Microsoft says it plans to release regular updates in this way to the Windows 8 operating system, a trick it's already started using with its Windows Phone OS for smartphones. As it's free, any PC you bought prior to 17 October that came with Windows 8 is eligible for the update.

What about if I have Windows 7?

Windows 7 users and below looking to jump on the Windows 8.1 train will need to purchase the base software for $119.99 (£75) and Windows 8.1 Pro for $199.99. If you want to make the jump to Windows 8.1 Pro from just plain Windows 8.1, you'll have to shell out $99.99.

The $119 pricing and above is a "download that does not require a previous version of Windows in order to be installed". New computers and other devices will come pre-installed with Windows 8.1 from 18 October.

Does the start button return?

Kind of. The Windows 8.1 update sort of brings back the Start button which now sits in the lower-left hand corner and is always visible but it doesn't work in the way the Start button does in Windows 7 and earlier. You no longer need to hover with your mouse to make it appear, but it's not the tree of apps that you once knew. 

Does the Windows 8 Start Screen vanish?

No. The Start screen in Windows 8.1 is still there, but it has been enhanced and now offers greater customisation. The Windows 8.1 Start screen now features a variety of tile sizes including a new large and new small tile, and Microsoft has made it easier to name groups and rearrange tiles too.

You can now select multiple apps all at once, resize them, uninstall them, or rearrange them. Realising people were accidentally moving tiles on their Start screen, in Windows 8.1 you now press and hold (or right click) to move things around. 

Furthermore, in an attempt to de-clutter the Start screen, new apps are installed in the apps view rather than automatically adding them to the start screen. It's an approach that is used by Windows Phone, and one that has transferred across here. 

Does it support different screen sizes?

Yes. Windows 8.1 supports a variety of screen sizes from standard laptops to the new Acer Iconia W3 announced at Computex 2013. It's a 8.1-inch tablet come laptop with an Atom processor. 

What new features are in Windows 8.1?

Microsoft released an advert for Windows 8.1 preview during its Build conference to give a sneak peek at the new software. Now you can try them out for yourself.

Microsoft also provided a half-hour preview walk-through of the Windows 8.1 in early June, outlining many features in the new update. You can also read our take on Windows 8.1 - having demoed the new OS at Computex in Taiwan. 

Tiles

Windows 8 supports two tile sizes at the moment, but in Windows 8.1 you get the ability to change these.

The new Start screen in Windows 8.1 features a variety of tile sizes including a new large and new small tile similar to Windows Phone.

Read: Windows 8.1 tips and tricks: Here's what your PC or tablet can do now

Windows Store in Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 gets an improved Windows Store according to Microsoft. The new Store is designed to show more info than before in Windows 8 with detailed lists of top free apps, new releases, and picks for you on the homepage.

App updates install automatically in the background as well as they come through the Store. And search is available in the upper right hand corner for finding the apps you want.

PC Settings charm

The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop.

You can do things like change your display resolution, set power options, see the make and model of my PC, change the product key, let me do Windows Update, and even join a domain - all from PC Settings. 

Background and Lock Screen

Microsoft wants 8.1 to offer more personalisation through enhanced options for customisation. You can now change the Start Screen background color with a new color slider tool, for instance, or you can change it to a photo. The lock screen will also display a slideshow of your photos.

Match your desktop wallpaper in your Start home

Also offering a bit more customisation within Windows 8.1, Microsoft gives the ability to match the desktop wallpaper with the one in Start home. Now though you can choose the same background for both, including custom wallpapers. This way there's a more thematic narrative running through the design, one of your own choosing. In the Charms menu, under settings and then personalise, you will be able to see your current desktop background as one of the options.

Boot to Desktop 

Since the tiled start UI in Windows 8.1 may not be useful if you're on a desktop or laptop, Microsoft has included the ability to start your computer from boot at the traditional Windows desktop. In the new Taskbar and Navigation properties menu screen, which is accessible by right-clicking the taskbar at the bottom of the desktop screen, there is an option under the Navigation tab that you can tick. Click on the box next to "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in", close and restart. You will now automatically boot to desktop.

If you want to change it back, you'll have to un-tick the same option.

Search 

When swiping from right to left on the screen in Windows 8.1 you will still get the Search charm, but selecting it and entering a search term serves some different results. In Windows 8.1, the Search charm will provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources (the web, apps, files, SkyDrive, actions you can take) to provide the best “answer” for your query. If you aren't online you will still get the local results by scrolling to the left. 

50/50 split screen apps

Windows 8.1 will allow you to run two apps side by side rather than one thin and one large as is the case with Windows 8.

"You can resize apps to any size you want, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected, you can have different Windows Store apps running on all the displays at the same time and the Start Screen can stay open on one monitor," says Microsoft. 

On higher-resolution devices you can run three or four app windows side by side for those who really want to embrace multitasking on the same screen at the same time.

Internet Explorer 11

Yep, a new OS update means a new version of Internet Explorer. IE11 offers even better touch performance, faster page load times and several other new features we think you will enjoy. For example, you can now adjust the appearance of modern IE11 to always show the address bar and you can have as many open tabs as you like.

SkyDrive improvements

The new SkyDrive app gives you access to your files that are on your device or in the cloud, and files are accessible even when offline says Microsoft. Expect features like auto picture uploads and being able to set the SkyDrive as the default location for your files. Like Apple's iCloud for the iPhone and iPad, there is also a suggestion that you'll be able to backup your entire device to SkyDrive.

You will also now be able manage your SkyDrive from the PC Settings as well and see how much available storage you have, and of course buy more if needed.

Better Syncing

Expect sync'ed tabs and greater sharing of details between the PCs you own. Microsoft has told Pocket-lint many times that in the future we will just be able to log in and get working straight away and Windows 8.1 could see the start of that becoming a reality. 

With Windows 8.1, when you log on to your device with your Microsoft account (Outlook.com by default), your device "magically becomes personalised" says Microsoft with your settings and apps.

New Microsoft apps

Expect new apps from Microsoft. So far details on the web suggest a new Sound Recorder app, a Calculator app (exciting), and some new Alarm features. 

READ: Movie Moments with Windows 8.1: What it is and what it can do

There is also talk of something called Movie Moments, and features which, like Apple Mountain Lion, will let you turn on a Do Not Disturb feature so you don't get bothered by notifications when you are trying to focus on that all important presentation.

Kiosk mode

The idea here is that users are able to lock down a device to a single application so the computer Windows 8.1 is running on can not be used in store or in an office where you don't want them messing around surfing the internet.

Swipe up for Apps

According to leaked build versions of Windows 8.1 you are now able to swipe up to reveal your apps list. Easy.

Picture frame and camera access on Lock Screen

Like the iPad you'll be able to turn your Windows 8.1 tablet into a picture frame when you aren't using it, and likewise also set whether you want access to the camera when the screen is locked. It's a feature already used in Windows Phone 8 so it makes sense to see it here too, especially for tablets.

New drivers

Yep, boring, but essential.

Greater touch support

Microsoft has already openly confirmed that touch gets even more focus in Windows 8.1. In a Microsoft Research video demoing Fresh Paint for Windows Blue at TechFest 2013 Microsoft said it was looking to "extend touch in even more dramatic fashion".

Camera app

Alongside the new Paint app, the Camera app has also been updated. It will notably capture a photo before and after you hit the shutter button, ensuring you won't miss a good shot.

Miracast support

Microsoft has confirmed, at TechEd North America, that Windows 8.1 gets Miracast support built in. 

"Present your work wirelessly without any dongles needed; simply project your content to a Miracast-enabled device by pairing the device through Bluetooth or NFC. Miracast will then use the available Wi-Fi connection to let you lean back and project wire-free," the company has announced. 

NFC tap-to-pair printing 

Users can now tap their Windows 8.1 device against an enterprise NFC-enabled printer and you’re all set to print. You don’t need to buy new printers to take advantage of this; you can simply put an NFC tag on your existing printers to enable this functionality.

Wi-Fi Direct printing 

Windows 8.1 will allow you to connect to Wi-Fi Direct printers without adding additional drivers or software on your Windows 8.1 device, forming a peer-to-peer network between your device and the printer. Nice. 

Broadband tethering 

This will let you turn your Windows 8.1 mobile broadband-enabled PC or tablet into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing other devices to connect and access the internet - handy if you've got a SIM car in it. 

Mouse support

Microsoft has made it easier to use Windows without a touchscreen. When you hover a mouse in the corners, for instance, you can customise the function so it brings you to the all apps page or back to a previous app. 

No more downloading Skype

You won't have to download Skype anymore. Anyone who hasn't tried Skype will get it when they upgrade their operating system to Windows 8.1 or purchase a Windows 8.1 PC. Once you have Windows 8.1, just log on to access Skype on the Start Screen. It'll be available as the default communications experience in Windows 8.1, replacing Microsoft's Windows 8 Messaging app.

Reading List brings Read It Later

Windows 8.1 has added a Reading List app that runs with Internet Explorer. Like OS X Mavericks does with Safari, it allows you to save a virtual reading list of articles from around the web.