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Windows 8.1: 8 Essential Facts

The Windows 8.1 preview has landed. Is it enough to jumpstart adoption? Consider these eight facts.
8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
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4. Internet Explorer 11 will be fast but it might also be schizophrenic.

Internet Explorer 11 will debut with Windows 8.1, and thanks to its ability to harness a device's GPU, it should provide blazingly fast performance while supporting a host of modern programming languages. Microsoft also claims IE 11 will support up to 100 tabs without putting a strain on battery life.

But like the original version of Windows 8, the update will evidently still include two versions of the Internet browser -- one for the desktop, and one for the Modern UI.

For all the fluidity Microsoft has managed with SkyDrive, the company has struggled to get the two sides of Windows 8 to cohere. In an interview before Build, Forrester analyst Dave Johnson noted to InformationWeek that IE behaves differently in each UI, and that certain defaults, such as the version of IE that will open a link, can be confusing. "It should just be consistent behavior," he said.

Microsoft VP Dean Hachamovich argued at Build that Windows 8 needs two versions of IE because each UI is suited to different use cases and different ways of engaging with content. This is a fair point. But it remains to be seen if users like the way Microsoft has responded to these divergent use cases. If not, the user-centric attitude that Larson-Green described might be tantamount to a good intention executed inconsistently.

5. The Windows Store looks better and will soon include some big-time apps.

Windows 8 launched with a relatively meager selection of mobile apps, and though it now features almost 100,000 titles, the Windows Store is still a long way behind marketplaces for iOS and Android. Worse, according to at least one study, users have been largely indifferent to the Windows 8 apps that are available, many of which cost more than they do on competing platforms.

Nevertheless, things are looking up for Modern apps. At Build, Ballmer said a native Facebook app would soon come to Windows 8, and one keynote also included a preview of PowerPoint for the Modern UI. Slowly but surely, big-name titles are reaching Microsoft's platform.

Users still need to buy these apps, though, and that's where the redesigned Windows Store comes in. It now features a cleaner look that makes better use of space -- an important concept, given that many Modern UI users will rely on tablets with small screens. It also includes a Spotlight section on the front page, as well as areas for recently launched apps, the top paid apps and the top free apps. Personalized recommendations are included, with search functions that now hook into Bing. The Windows Store can also support gift cards.

6. Developers have more tools to build compelling apps for Windows 8.1.

An improved marketplace and the gradual accrual of popular apps should inspire more developers to write for the Modern UI. To provide further encouragement, Microsoft has released a preview version of Visual Studio 2013, a toolkit with which developers can build and test new apps. It also opened Bing as a development platform, including not only search functions but also rich graphics and new ways to display content culled from disparate sources.

Prior to Windows 8.1, the Windows Store was more about catching up to iOS and Android than about cultivating a unique personality. If developers can make the most of Bing, that could change -- and nothing, as the iPad has shown, drives consumer adoption like new and delightful experiences.

7. Windows 8.1 includes hooks to cutting-edge technology, including 3-D printing.

Speaking of new and delightful experiences, Windows 8.1 will include support for a variety of new technologies. At Build, Microsoft executives claimed that users will be able to create 3-D objects on their PCs as easily as they create documents in Word. The keynote included references to low-cost 3-D printers that will soon be available not only at Microsoft's retail stores but also via big-box sellers such as Staples. As these printers creep into the consumer space, Microsoft's enthusiasm for the concept could pay dividends.

Microsoft also showed off a robot built from Lego's Mindstorms EV3 platform. Able to be controlled by a Windows 8 tablet, the robot was composed of the same small bricks most of us used as children, which offers an entirely new way to interact with Windows technology.

8. Installing the Windows 8.1 preview can be tricky.

Microsoft calls Windows 8.1 a "preview," but that's really just a euphemism for "beta." You can download Windows 8.1 right now, in other words, but the update's not finished yet, and to a certain extent, you'll be installing at your own peril. Some apps will work, others won't.

More to the point: Microsoft's FAQ makes clear this update is for tech-savvy users, not curious minds that simply want to take a test drive. The company warns that "uninstalling the preview isn't supported", but that "it may be possible to restore your entire system to its factory condition." If those words mean nothing to you, you probably want to wait for the final release.

If you install the preview on a system running Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7, you'll only be able to get rid of Windows 8.1 by reinstalling the original OS. Windows 8 devices make the process easier, but you'll still probably have to reinstall apps. And if any of the few Windows RT users decides to give the preview a whirl, they will be stuck permanently. WinRT won't allow the preview to be removed; it can only be upgraded to the final version, when it becomes available.

All of the above assumes that you use the Windows Store to install the update. It's also available as an ISO file, but that makes the removal process more complicated, particularly if you use a Windows 8 tablet. If you decide to give Win8.1 an early look, be sure to back up your files first.