For Windows 8.1, a half-step toward a Start button

Microsoft lays out a series of new features and functions for the update to the 7-month-old operating system, including something insiders are calling a "Start tip" that gets users back to their PC Start screen.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
4 min read
It's not quite the Start button, but Microsoft is adding a "Start tip," a Windows logo that pops up when users hover their cursor in the lower left corner of Windows 8.1. When users click on it, they jump to a customized Start screen. Microsoft

When Microsoft rolls out Windows 8.1, the update to its struggling, 7-month-old operating system franchise, the company will not be bringing back the Start button as many users have been requesting.

But the company has acquiesced some. The company announced this morning that it will introduce something that a person close to Windows engineering is calling a "Start tip" that users can click on to go back to the Start screen in Windows 8.1. The "tip" is a Windows logo that that sits on the left hand side of the toolbar when Windows 8 users are working in the traditional desktop mode. When they are using the touch-focused tile-based interface, users will have to hover over the lower left corner for the "tip" to pop up.

What's new in Windows 8.1 (pictures)

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But clicking on the "tip" won't launch the familiar menus that the Start button did in previous versions of Windows. Instead, it will take users to their Start screen. With Windows 8.1, users can customize that Start screen to replicate something close to the old Start menus, listing all of the applications that are available to them, if they want.

It's unclear if the Start tip will be enough to quiet critics who are clamoring for the ease of use that comes with familiarity. The Start tip is a bit of a half-step toward a Start button. Microsoft seems to be giving a nod to its critics but not quite giving them all they had wanted.

Earlier this month, Tami Reller, the chief marketing officer and chief financial officer of the Windows division, told ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley that the company is being "principled, not stubborn" about modifying Windows 8 based on user feedback.

One area where Microsoft will give traditionalists what they've sought is the ability to have their computers boot directly to the familiar desktop mode. Windows 8 computers automatically boot to the tile-based interface, requiring users to take an extra step to get to the old desktop. With Windows 8.1, they can choose to set the default to boot directly to the desktop mode.

Windows 8.1 will offer more opportunities to personalize devices, including the ability to choose desktop backgrounds as Start screen backgrounds, as well as a selection of new large and small tile sizes that let users customize their Start screens. Microsoft
Many of the biggest changes in Windows 8.1, which had been known by its codename "Blue," center on customization. In addition to choosing the mode in which the computer boots, users can also more deeply personalize the look of the Windows interface. Microsoft is adding more colors and backgrounds for the Start screen, including ones with motion. Users can choose the background they use in desktop mode as the background for their tile-based Start screen. And Microsoft is adding new tile sizes to let users organize their Start screen in a greater variety of ways.

In watching how people used Windows 8, Microsoft found that some folks accidentally moved tiles on Start screen. With Windows 8.1, users will have to press and hold a tile with their finger, or right click with a mouse, to move tiles around. Users will also be able to select multiple apps all at once to uninstall them, or to resize or rearrange their tiles.

Microsoft has also tweaked the Search charm, the box into which users type queries to find find apps, settings, and files on their PCs. In Windows 8.1, it will include results from Bing, Microsoft's Web search engine, as well, giving people one spot to search for whatever they need. A Microsoft spokeswoman said that users will not be able to change the Web search engine in the Search charm to, say, Google, though they could still search the Web with Google through their browser.

Another new feature: the ability to resize apps to any size, and share the screen between two apps. With Windows 8, users can have two apps running at the same time. But one app will be smaller on the screen than another. In Windows 8.1, users can resize apps to any size they want, while sharing the screen between two apps. Users can also snap apps together, such as an Outlook mail application and a Web page in Internet Explorer.

Microsoft also plans several other updates to Windows 8 including:

  • binding Windows more closely to its Web storage service, SkyDrive. In Windows 8.1, files can be saved directly to SkyDrive, But users can still have access to those files when they are not online.
  • baking the upcoming Internet Explorer 11 into Windows 8.1, something that has been rumored. Users will be able to have as many open tabs as they want, and they can adjust the appearance of the browser to always show the address bar.
  • updating the Windows Store, where users can acquire apps, in order to show more information. The listings will be more descriptive, and will include related apps.
  • adding new editing features to its Photos app that comes with Windows 8.1, offering the ability to edit snaps when viewed in the apps. The Music app has been completely redesigned, though Microsoft offered no details about its new look.

A preview version of Windows 8.1 will come out at the time of Microsoft's Build developer conference at the end of June, and Microsoft says Windows 8.1 will arrive for consumers later this year.