Windows 8.1 release date arrives and is available to download now

What is Windows 8.1? Windows Blue as it has been codenamed, is Microsoft's first major upgrade to the Windows 8 desktop operating system.

The launch of 8.1 will mark a change in strategy for Microsoft. Instead of releasing new editions of Windows after lengthy development cycles, going forward Redmond is expected to refresh its OS on a yearly basis. Windows 8.1 will offer much more than a traditional "Service Pack", makingit comparable to Apple's annual OS X updates.

So what can users expect from Windows 8.1 Preview?In a blogpost, Microsoft confirmed a number of features which will appear and we run through a list of key features below.

Lockscreen Microsoft already allows users to set a picture password. With Windows 8.1, this feature will be expanded so the lockscreen can be turned into a picture frame by pulling images from local storage or SkyDrive galleries. It will also be possible to take pictures with the camera without having to log into the device.

Start button As has been widely reported, the Start button will return. However, Microsoft has been ambiguous about the functionality it will offer.

Redmond claims the Start button will always be visible on the desktop and when in the Live Tile interface it will appear when mouse is moved to the bottom left-hand corner. It is highly unlikely the Start Button will have the same functionality as Windows 7.

Return of unified search

One of the biggest bugbears of Windows 8 is the search functionality. When searching the app only returns results from "Apps" by default and users have to manually click to search for settings and files. With 8.1, unified search will return as default.

Booting to alternate screens

Another feature which has been craved is the ability to boot straight to the desktop. Although Microsoft has stopped short of confirming this, it has said there will be options to boot to alternate screens.

"For example, if you prefer to see the Apps view versus all the tiles, you can choose to have the Start screen go directly to Apps view," said Antoine Leblond,corporate VP of the Windows program management said.Internet Explorer 11

Microsoft has noted that IE 11, debut with Windows 8.1. Improvements touted include better touch performance and faster page loading times. Users will also be able to choose whether they always want the address bar to show and have an unlimited number of tabs open at the same time. Tabs can also be synced across Windows 8.1 devices.

Microsoft has introduced different sizes including the large and small tile. It is also possible to select multiple apps at the same time and resize, uninstall or rearrange them.

You can view all apps just by swiping from the bottom to view all apps, and we've added the ability to filter your apps by name, date installed, most used, or by category.

Files will automatically be saved to SkyDrive and Microsoft also stated that the refreshed app will grant offline access to documents.

It will be easier to use multiple apps in Windows 8.1. Microsoft claims users will be able to resize apps to any size, share the screen between two apps, or have up to three apps on each screen if you have a multiple displays connected.

Users will multiple displays will also be able to run different Windows Store apps on screens as well as the Start Screen. Windows 8.1 also allows you can have multiple windows of the same app snapped together such as two Internet Explorer windows.PC Settings

The Settings features has been beefed up, meaning you will not have to go into your Control Panel. It will be possible to change your display resolution, set power options, see the make and model of the device, change product key, update Windows Update, and join domains.

Users will also be able to manage SkyDrive accounts from this menu.Price and upgrading

Microsoft will not charge users to upgrade to Windows 8.1.

However, installing could pose problems for some users. Microsoft has gone on record as stating that users who download the Windows 8.1 Preview edition will have to reinstall of their applications when they upgrade to the final version of 8.1. Redmond claims that all account information and data will remain unaffected.

Release date

Microsoft has now released the public preview, and the full version is expected to follow in the Autumn.

NB. This article was updated on the 14/8/13 to the official announcement of the release date.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.