(MoneyWatch) Microsoft has revealed the details of what's under the hood in Windows 8.1, and there's a surprising wealth of new and improved features to be had. Indeed, Windows 8.1 might well be the Windows that Windows 8 should have been. If it's not too late for Redmond to undo the damage that the company inflicted on itself with its new operating system last year, that is.
First, the best news: If you are a Windows 8 user, you can install the preview version of Windows 8.1 right now. It's quite easy to do; just visit the Windows 8.1 Preview site and follow the installation instructions.
If you do choose to install Windows 8.1, be advised: It is, of course, a beta, so you should be sure to back up your PC before proceeding. And when you eventually install the final version of Windows 8.1, you will need to reinstall all of your apps (both desktop and modern). If you don't install the preview edition of 8.1, you can avoid reinstalling stuff later.
So what can you expect in Windows 8.1? Here's a quick summary of the most compelling features in the update:
The Start button is back. In a sense. Yes, Microsoft has put back the Start button on the desktop, but it opens the new modern Start Screen, not the traditional start menu. It's as if someone wasn't specific enough when making a wish to a genie.
Faster shutdown. The new Windows 8 shutdown process is a cumbersome five-gestures-and-clicks affair. Microsoft has now put a shutdown option in the menu that appears when you right-click on the Start button. Not easily found, but great once you know about it.
Improved personalization. There are a host of ways Microsoft now makes Windows 8 feel more customizable. Chief among them: The desktop and modern interfaces can now share a common background, which makes them seem less like two different operating systems clumsily thrown together and more like two faces of the same system.
Boot direct to desktop. If you've heard anything about Windows 8.1, you probably know this. You can configure Windows to boot directly to the desktop. That said, finding this option is akin to locating a dropped contact lens on a shiny tile floor.
Better Snap. The old Widows 8 modern Snap -- where one app would occupy a quarter of the screen and the other took the remaining three quarters -- has been blown up. Now you have a lot more flexibility for making modern apps appear side by side on the screen, much like desktop apps.
Hypercustomization. There's a new Navigation settings option (get to it by right-clicking the taskbar and choosing Options) that lets you specify how the new Windows 8 conventions (like the Charms Bar) behave.
Better cloud integration. Microsoft has taken the opportunity to make SkyDrive a more cohesive part of the operating system. Now you can tell Windows to automatically back up your documents to SkyDrive, for example.
3D printer support. While you're probably not on the verge ofquite yet, it's great to see that Microsoft has gotten well out in front and introduced support for 3D printers in Windows 8.1. When 3D printers do go mainstream, Windows will already be there with native plug-and-play integration.