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Windows 8.1: Microsoft doubles down on new touch interface

Windows 8, a touch-friendly reimagining of Microsoft's age-old point-and-click operating system, still seems to have a problem winning people over. To that end, Windows 8.1 — announced Thursday but not available until late 2013 — will bring new functionality, while smoothing over some of the prickliest areas of the touchscreen interface.

Before we get any further, let me answer the biggest question: Did Windows bring back the "Start" button? That is, in the desktop view, can you click "Start" to get a pop-up menu of folders, apps and controls? No.

Second biggest question: Can you boot into the classic Windows desktop instead of the Windows 8 Start screen? Yes, you can do that.

Many Microsoft watchers had hoped that 8.1 would provide the means to spend more time in the classic Windows desktop environment (and some new tweaks may help people do that). But during my walkthrough with Antoine Leblond, Microsoft's Corporate VP for Windows and Jensen Harris, who heads up the Windows User Experience team, the focus was on how much had been improved on the "Modern" touch interface side of things.

A Start button would have made the return to classic Windows complete — but it also would have demoted the Modern UI's Start screen to the status of add-on, a screensaver rather than the core of the experience that Microsoft wants it to be.

"We made a bet that the PC landscape was going to go through a huge transformation motivated by an increase in mobility," Leblond told me, and he says Microsoft is still confident in the bet. "We have a strong conviction to continue down the path that we started on with Windows 8."

That said, Leblond admits that the team had "some misses," such as not predicting that 7- to 8-inch tablets would edge out 10-inch tablets like the iPad and the Surface RT. And as for the user interface itself, Leblond says, "There are places where there's some room for us to refine."

And refine they did. Whether Windows 8.1 will help sales momentum, or if Windows 8 will be a victim of the world's apparent declining interest in PCs, I can't say. Probably nobody can. But the improvements are genuine, and address key complaints many had when Windows 8 launched. It's a sign that Microsoft is listening to its customers, at the very least.

Here are my favorite new features:

More Modern control panels: When Windows 8 came out, one of my chief frustrations was constantly having to go into the classic desktop to adjust settings and perform other admin tasks. With 8.1, nearly every control panel tool has been added to the touch interface.

Lock screen extras: Taking a page from smartphones, Windows 8.1 tablets and PCs will let you take a picture or answer a Skype call without having to log in — just swipe the screen and go.

Start screen tiles: Not only is there a new super-sized tile and a super-teeny tile, but moving them around no longer requires sleight of hand. You tap and hold a tile to make it movable. You can select multiple after you tap and hold the first. And now you can perform bulk tasks, like dumping a bunch of tiles all at once.

Desktop wallpaper on Start screen: Windows 8 sometimes feels like two operating systems — the Modern UI and the classic Windows desktop — awkwardly glued together. But in 8.1, by choosing the same wallpaper for both desktop and Start screen, you can achieve a surprising mental cohesiveness. Shifting back and forth isn't so jarring, and both become pieces of a whole.

Universal search: Nowadays, "search" can mean local files, Internet videos and everything in between. So in 8.1, search results include the likeliest files and actions on your local drive, other files on your cloud drive and all kinds of things from out on the Web, all in a logical drop-down menu. Select a song and it just starts playing.

Search "heroes": Microsoft also adds something called "heroes" to its search. Type "Marilyn Monroe" and you get a little dossier of her, including photos, local video and music, Web news clippings and more. Searches for celebrities, cities, bands, movies and other similarly identifiable terms may generate a hero. At first, fewer than 10 percent of your queries will have heroes, but Microsoft anticipates up to 30 percent of queries being eventually hero-ified.

Multi-"windowing" and multiple monitors: If you, like me, plug a laptop into an external monitor at work, get ready to be happy: With 8.1, you can keep the classic desktop in one screen and the Modern UI in the other. Better still, you can shove up to four Modern apps together in one screen, each app as wide or narrow as you please.

Better file management: Among the many wonky 8.1 improvements are two that benefit tablet users with limited storage: SD cards will get indexed, so music and photos stored on them appear in Modern apps; and you can save files directly to SkyDrive from any app.

In addition to the OS improvements, Microsoft is upgrading the pre-installed apps, and adding new ones. Here's a super-quick sampling:

  • Xbox Music has a redesigned interface that shows more of your own music.
  • Internet Explorer now lets you keep open tabs in view at all times.
  • The Photos app lets you perform basic editing functions.
  • Reading List lets you aggregate anything that uses the "Share" charm.
  • Food and Drink lets you page through recipes hands-free, using a standard tablet or laptop camera.

Look, I'm not going to say all this will save Microsoft's bacon.

The improvements are necessary, but they just make the place brighter, to attract more consumers, not to mention developers who will fuel the interest with newer, better apps and games. The consumers and developers may never come.

Nevertheless, those who wished for a return to something more like Windows 7 are missing the bigger issue: Windows knows it has to compete hard in the uncertain tablet world, not just return to its roots and face certain extinction.

Microsoft will make 8.1 available to beta testers at its Build conference in San Francisco starting June 26. The company has not promised a specific availability date other than "before the end of the year." However the update, free to all Windows 8 and RT device owners, may well arrive as early as October — fittingly in time for Windows 8's first birthday.

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital Group. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.