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Windows 8.1 Improvements Demoed

At Computex, Microsoft also showed off a growing number of devices for its newest OS.

Windows 8.1 continues to take shape, and Microsoft continues to push it as a more user-friendly version of Windows 8.

In addition to an updated OS, there are a host of new form factors coming out on which to run it. These were two of the main takeaways from the Computex keynote address earlier this week.

The keynote talks by four Microsoft execs at the Taipei, Taiwan-based event described new hardware form factors that are starting to emerge running Windows 8. Also included was the first demo of Windows 8.1, showing off features that were recently announced.

Tami Reller, Microsoft chief marketing officer and chief financial officer, offered up a number of statistics that were perhaps aimed at assuring Microsoft's hardware and developer partners in the audience that Windows 8 is something to get behind. One of the more surprising things she said is that x86 machines running Windows will come with Microsoft Office, and that original equipment manufacturers can start offering those bundled systems by this fall's school year or earlier. The bundled offerings won't just support higher priced tablets but will be seen on lower end models, too, she added.

Another surprising announcement from Reller was Microsoft's plans to add Outlook to its Windows RT 8.1 update, which is scheduled to arrive sometime this year, with a preview in late June. Outlook just wasn't available before on Windows RT machines.

Windows 8 Progress
Windows 8 adoption, in recent months, has been described as being lower than Windows Vista. However, Reller offered some numbers suggesting progress. In May, Microsoft had sold 100 million Windows 8 licenses, she said -- up from 60 million in January. There are now 80,000 apps in the Windows Store, with 94 percent of them capable of running on both x86 and ARM hardware. She described a faster product update process, saying that there have been 900 Windows 8 updates and hundreds of updates to the apps that ship with Windows 8 since the launch of the OS. There are now 3,200 certified Windows devices, up from 2,000 at the Windows 8 October launch date.

Nick Parker, corporate vice president of the Original Equipment Manufacturer Division, added a few mobile OS stats to the mix. He said that Windows Embedded is on a billion units today and Microsoft is targeting two billion units by 2016. He claimed that Microsoft holds 86 percent of the handheld device OS market and that Windows Embedded is used in 88 percent of all of the world's point-of-sale devices. The Windows Phone Store holds more than 145,000 apps, delivering across 191 markets. Steve Guggenheimer, corporate vice president of the Developer Platform Evangelism Division, tallied up the apps, saying that there are over 220,000 apps across the Windows and Windows Phone stores.

Windows 8.1 Demo
Windows 8.1 features were shown in a 26-minute on-stage demo by Antoine Leblond, corporate vice president of Windows program management. He showed user-interface improvements for mouse and keyboard users, search improvements and the new start-button-like "start tip" that appears on the Desktop side of Windows 8.1, all of which Microsoft has previously announced. The demo didn't include some of the new networking aspects of Windows 8.1 that were shown during Microsoft's recent TechEd keynote.

This Microsoft-produced YouTube video shows some of the usability improvements in Windows 8.1 that were demonstrated by Leblond.

With Windows 8.1, users get Skype call notifications on the lock screen now and they don't have to log into the OS to take an incoming call. The tiles can be sized in a large format to show more live updated information, or they can be shrunk for power users wanting to have "hundreds of apps" showing on the start screen, Leblond said. Microsoft has built its SkyDrive cloud-based storage application into Windows 8.1, so users don't have to add it as they did with Windows 8. The built-in SkyDrive facilitates file sharing in the cloud, as well as supporting the ability to roam user profiles and settings across devices, Leblond explained.

Windows 8.1 solves a Windows 8 problem with running apps on devices held in a "portrait" position that was specific to devices with smaller screens. Typically, Windows 8 tablet devices were optimized for 10-inch or 11-inch screens. However, when it came to running apps in a portrait orientation with smaller screens, there were issues. Leblond commented that "we didn't do all of the work we needed in Windows 8 to make this work really well." Now, the portrait orientation is supported for apps running in Windows 8.1 for screens at 8.1 inches, he explained.

New Form Factors
Device screen sizes tapping Windows 8 are now all over the map, including the smaller form factors that Microsoft talked about in April. One of the featured devices on stage was the 8.1-inch Acer Iconia W3, which will be available in June with 32 GB or 64 GB storage options. On stage, Microsoft also showed off an 8.0-inch tablet with an AMD Temash processor. They provided a "sneak peek" of an 8.0-inch Lenovo Mix 8 device, which will have 3G connectivity. Even smaller still was a 7.0-inch Inventex device running Windows 8.1.

Some of the devices shown had larger screens, such as the 13-inch HP Envy X2 or the Dell XPS 18 with an 18.4-inch display.

The one device shown that used Intel's new fourth-generation Core processor, announced yesterday, was the Sony Vaio Pro 11 PC. Intel indicated that consumer and business versions of these fourth-generation Core processors are available now, but that it plans to have versions available for traditional laptops and desktops, portable all-in-ones, and 2-in-1 ultrabooks sometime this summer. Intel is touting the low-power capabilities of the new chips, with up to 50 percent battery power savings when users visit Websites or watch movies. Also announced yesterday by Intel was its Xeon E3-1200 v3 processor for use in microservers. This new Xeon chip is described as having an 18-percent better energy performance than earlier generation Xeon chips.

Reller said that Microsoft is committed to supporting the latest chip technologies. She specifically pointed to Intel's Bay Trail-T, Qualcomm's 8974 chip and Nvidia's T40.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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