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In Pictures: Windows Blue - a sneak peek

An update to Windows 8 is in the works, codenamed Windows Blue.

  • An update to Windows 8 is in the works, codenamed Windows Blue. Microsoft has yet to announce if it plans to release it as a free download for current users or as a paid update. Microsoft is expected to make a public beta available in late June. In the meantime, the company has been releasing early builds to Microsoft developers and partners. Here are the most notable new features coming in Windows 8.1. This information is based on Build 9369 of Windows 8 Pro 64-bit, and Builds 9374 and 9385 of Windows 8.1 Pro Preview 32-bit.

  • Larger and smaller Tiles End users will be able to set tiles either four times larger or four times smaller than the standard tile size.

  • Real-time customizing of the Start Screen To change the look of the Start Screen, you invoke a toolbar that appears over the right side of it, with which you can choose background designs and color schemes. Selections you make are applied instantly onto the Start Screen behind this toolbar. (In Windows 8, customizing the Start Screen takes you to a separate configuration page listed under PC Settings where you cannot see changes to your actual Start Screen in real-time.)

  • Five new default apps Windows Blue comes with five new apps that are pinned to the Start Screen: Alarms, Calculate, Files, Movie Moments and Sound Recorder: Alarms can be used as an alarm clock, countdown timer or stopwatch. Calculate features scientific and standard calculator interfaces. Files is a simple file manager for accessing files stored on your system’s local drive. Sound Recorder is a very bare-bones audio recording app. Movie Moments allows you to load video footage and then can trim both the start and end points of your clip.

  • Easier access to apps and customizing of them If you are using a mouse, an icon of a downward-pointing arrow inside a circle will appear on the lower-left of the Start Screen. Click it, and the Start Screen scrolls up to reveal the Apps page listing all of your installed apps. You can use the new search box to find a specific app, or sort this list of them by name, “date installed,” or “most used.” (To reach the Apps page in Windows 8, you have to right-click on the Start Screen, which brings up the App Bar along the bottom of the screen, and click on the Apps icon set on the far right of the App Bar.)

  • Display up to 4 apps on screen at once side-by-side In Windows 8, you can display two apps alongside one another, each getting its own window column, in a mode Microsoft calls SnapView. Now in Windows Blue, you are given more leeway when you move the borderline dividing the two to resize the area one app takes up on the screen relative to the other. SnapView in Window Blue will also let you display.

  • Run only one app upon log-in Called Assigned Access or Kiosk Mode, you can set Windows Blue to automatically run a Windows 8 app after your device starts up and a particular user account has been logged in. This essentially turns your computer or tablet into a single-use device. Why would you want this? For example, you could start a new user account meant solely for customers or other guests you want to have access to your Windows 8.1 device -- but be limited to doing only one thing on it through an app. So you could choose this app listed in Assigned Access (under PC Settings, Users) to run when you log into this account.

  • Set an App to show alarms on the lock screen There is now a third setting under Lock Screen Apps that will let you select an App to show alarms on the lock screen. We are not sure how this feature will work, since it relies on an App with this specific feature written into it. Presumably, such Apps will be made available to utilize this when Windows 8.1 is released.

  • Automatic Web searches and results within the Search Charm toolbar Under Apps in PC Settings, there is an option that when activated will automatically search the Web when you type keywords into the Search Charm, and filter adult content on the Web as it does this. Also, it appears Web-search results will show up below the search box in the Search Charm toolbar itself. In Windows 8, searching the Web takes you to a full screen displaying the results.

  • More settings moved over to the Modern environment’s PC Settings app Windows Blue copies over a few more settings from the Desktop’s Control Panel to the Modern environment’s PC Settings page, and inserts brand new ones: Screen lets you adjust the orientation and resolution of your device’s screen. SkyDrive now has a spot in PC Settings. Under Devices, you can access mouse and trackpad settings. Apps shows you how much space each installed app is taking up on your system’s main storage medium, and lets you uninstall them.

  • More things to sync The sync settings have been relocated under the Users category in PC Settings, and it has a new option to sync your installed apps and Start Screen customization across multiple Windows 8.1 devices that share your user account. You will also be able to sync your tab and tracking protection configuration in Internet Explorer 11, as well as a long list of other things: app secondary Tiles, Bluetooth device associations, Explorer quick links, file history, input personalization, picture password, and tethering.

  • Snap a photo from the lock screen Under PC Settings for the lock screen, there is a switch you can turn on to allow you to take a photo with your computer’s webcam or tablet camera by dragging down on the lock screen.

  • Internet Explorer 11 Windows Blue comes with Internet Explorer 11. The IE11 app for Modern has two new features buried that are already in both the Desktop IE11 and IE10: Suggestions provides suggested sites as you type, based on your browsing history and keystrokes that you permit to be sent to Microsoft. Tracking Protection blocks services online that could be tracking your browsing. The Desktop version of IE11 also comes with improved developer tools.

  • Support for ReFS ReFS is a file system that Microsoft introduced in 2012. It is built upon, and compatible with, NTFS -- the format now commonly used for Windows systems. Windows Blue is the first appearance of this new file system in a client-side version of Windows, where you can select to format a hard drive to use ReFS.

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