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The imminent launch of the Windows 8.1 Preview just got more interesting – because Microsoft has released a video that confirms many of the expected new features. Here’s what we now know for certain will be in the next major update to Windows 8.

Start button returns

The video, posted by Windows Team member Jensen Harris, confirms what has long been expected – that the Start button will indeed return to the Windows Desktop. In the video the Windows logo is clearly visible at the far left of the Taskbar, though Harris doesn’t mention its presence or purpose. However, it is has been previously confirmed by Paul Thurrot’s Supersite for Windows blog that this is the Start button – but clicking it simply returns to the Start screen, rather than opening the traditional Start menu.

The Start button is back on the Windows 8.1 Desktop

Better multitasking with Metro apps

Perhaps the next most significant improvement is to Windows 8’s Snap feature. Currently, this allows only two new-style (Metro) apps to be launched side by side but Harris reveals that in Windows 8.1, users will be able to snap “three or even four” apps at once – though you’d presumably need a large screen for this to be practical.

Users will be able to snap more than two apps in Windows 8.1

Simpler Search, better searches

The Search tool has also undergone a major revamp in Windows 8.1. Now, typing from the Start screen presents a simple list of all matches found on your PC, rather than the current categorised results list that sometimes requires extra clicks to find what you want.

Pressing Enter, meanwhile, displays a “curated” results page that brings together content found on your PC with matches found on the web. In also includes a clever image-search element that lets users hunt for pictures more easily. For example, it’s possible to search for photographs that match a particular colour.

Windows 8.1's Search tool includes results from your PC and the web

More tile options, improved organisation

Two new tile sizes – large and small – are another welcome arrival in Windows 8.1, to accompany the existing square and rectangle tiles. As well, users will be able to select and move multiple tiles at once, speeding Start screen organisation.

Users will get to choose from four tile sizes in Windows 8.1

Final flourishes

Along with these major updates, Microsoft has revealed that Windows 8.1 will include a number of nips and tucks.

Hensen says that users will have the option to turn the lock screen into a “cloud-powered photo frame” that displays images drawn from their PC, SkyDrive or smartphone. It will also be possible to have the Windows 8 Start screen’s background match the Windows Desktop wallpaper, which might make the switch between the two modes a little less jarring.

Finally, Hensen’s video reveals that Windows 8.1 will introduce a new Start screen touch gesture – swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Do this, and the PC will display a list of all installed apps. This list can be sorted so you can quickly find the most-recently-installed or most-used apps, for example.

Windows 8.1's lock screen can serve as a digital photo gallery

Desktop wallpaper can also be used as the Start screen background in Windows 8.1

Swipe up from Windows 8.1's Start screen to reveal the Apps screen

Line up, line up

Microsoft will make the Windows 8.1 Preview available for the public to download from June 26, with the finished version expected to be released later this year. Microsoft has previously announced that existing Windows 8 users will be able to download the update to Windows 8.1 free of charge, from the Windows Store. If you’re keen to get your hands on Windows 8.1 Preview just as soon as it’s available, read this blog post from Microsoft’s Mary Jo Foley.

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