NEW YORK — Not quite a year later, Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 arrives with considerably less drama than Windows 8, and that is to be expected—the changes are far less radical than they were for consumers who made the leap from Windows 7 to Windows 8.
But the latest software promises to be a worthwhile update for anyone who bought a PC and/or tablet with the Windows 8 operating system. And it represents a critical test for Microsoft as it attempts to satiate critics, address Windows 8 shortcomings, and ultimately improve the company’s standing in both the tablet and more traditional PC businesses.
The 8.1-update starts to arrive in the Windows Store at 7 a.m. ET Thursday, and will be rolled out globally over the next 24 hours, Microsoft says. Windows 8.1 will be available on new devices and in standalone retail packaging on Friday.
So what doth the upgrade bring? The newest version is more customizable than its predecessor, with more background colors, and more variable sizes for the live tiles that have come to define the Windows 8 experience, on computers and for that matter smartphones.
Perhaps 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. It’s not like you’re completely going back to the future — clicking on the new Start button returns you to the default tile-based Windows 8 Start environment, known as the Modern UI with those colorful rectangular and square tiles, some with live data for such things as weather, stocks, e-mail and so on.
Microsoft in 8.1 also lets you boot up your PC in the more traditional-looking Desktop environment if you prefer, or stick with the default tile interface.
Microsoft’s better-integrated Sky Drive cloud-based locker takes on a more prominent role in 8.1, and so does Bing search. If while searching, say, for a performer such as Alicia Keys, you’ll be able to stream some of her top tracks in their entirety for free, provided via XBox Music. You’ll also see pictures of the artist, her birth date and a link to her Wikipedia bio.
Multitasking gets better too in 8.1. Depending on the size of your computer screen, you can display up to four apps side by side, with the ability to alter the sizes of the windows that those apps appear in.
The Windows Store where you’ll find the new upgrade also gets a design makeover. Microsoft says there are now 110,000 apps in there, up from about 10,000 about a year ago. New and updated apps are also continually being delivered to the place, a list that includes Evernote, Facebook, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and NOOK.
It remains to be seen, of course, how consumers and critics take to the changes, aesthetically and feature-wise. But if you already bought into the Windows 8 ecosystem, the 8.1-update is in the end a pretty big deal.