New and improved apps
And they really are better.
The Mail app has been significantly updated with this release and can now be considered a full-featured email solution, and not the toy we saw in the initialrelease. This new version support drag-and-drop, finally, and if you use an Outlook.com-based email account (including Hotmail and MSN), you will see some nice integration bits such as Sweep and junk email, special views for Favorite contacts and flagged messages, and special virtual inboxes for newsletters and social updates. You can also arbitrarily "pin" folders you use frequently—such as the Archive folder I've created—so you can more easily triage email.
This one is a major update. Look to Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Mail for more information.
Calendar and People
While the Calendar app has received a very strange new front-end, a "What's next" view that unfortunately looks exactly like the old Photos app and makes no sense whatsoever, once you dig a little deeper, you find that most of it hasn't changed a bit. Which is fine: This app worked well from the get-go. I wish you could just turn off "What's next," but it's not fatal.
People has changed even less, and this app's hidden functionality—it's a nifty interface for connected social networks like Facebook and Twitter—remains as hidden as ever. It's received minor changes only, including a new app bar that looks similar to the new apps bars in some other Windows 8.1 apps. Nothing major.
Check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: People for the full feature rundown.
Where the original shipping version of Windows 8 included a Messaging app that let you connect with Messenger and Facebook friends, Windows 8.1 now ships with the more useful Skype app. This app also lets you connect to Messenger and Facebook, though you'll have to first establish those connections outside of the app—or just sign-in with your Messenger/Microsoft account. But Skype is obviously much more full-featured, with IM, audio and video chat capabilities. And it uses a pretty nice new notification type that lets you choose how to respond to incoming calls.
Internet Explorer 11
Windows 8.1 ships with a major new version of Microsoft's flagship web browser, and it is full of new features in addition to updated internals. Some of the changes will seem subtle at first, but they make for a more cohesive browsing experience, across devices, too. So you can do things like open new tabs, of course. But also open tabs that are open on your other devices. (In the desktop version of IE, this interface is on the New Tab view.)
Microsoft has also reorganized the UI of the Metro version of the browser so that all of the elements you need to interact with are together at the bottom of the screen. Previously, this app features different app bars at the top and bottom of the screen for some reason.
There's actually a lot going in IE 11. Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Internet Explorer 11 has some more info, but I'll need to write more about this platform in the future to cover it all.
The Bing apps were one of the few highlights for Metro apps in Windows 8, which featured beautiful presentations for what were essentially vertical searches: Weather, Finances, News and Sports. (A separate Bing app, for general search, is gone in Windows 8.1 because of Bing integration into Smart Search as described previously.) This time around, we get two new Bing apps—Health & Fitness and Food & Drink—and the presentation is just as nice as before, though the topics aren't quite as generally useful. What's next? Bing Celebrities? (Probably.) Whatever, they're still beautiful to look at and as useful as ever.
I take a very quick look at the new apps in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: New Bing Apps.
Bing also supplies a nice looking Maps app which gets the standard Windows 8.1-style app bar treatment seen elsewhere but works similarly to before.
Windows Store and Games
One of my major complaints about the initial version of Windows 8 was that the Windows Store app was too flat to accommodate the ever-growing app selection, making it impossible to find nice new apps. In Windows 8.1, the presentation is completely different, though still hardly ideal for a large app store. But instead of endless scrolling through every single category of apps from the main display, the app now offers some promoted and personal picks, popular and new releases, and top paid and top free sections instead. The entire category selection is available via that now-familiar new type of app bar we see all over the place in Windows 8.1.
You can find out more in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Windows Store.
Curiously, Windows 8.1 still ships with a separate (Xbox) Games app, which provides a redundant second way to find games (which are just a kind of app and also found in Windows Store) and manage your Xbox Live persona. It's not been updated since Windows 8, though I suspect it will be before general availability. But this app is a weak spot in the system, and doesn't work as a central hub for your installed games as it does in Windows Phone. Worse, when you select a game you don't yet own from this app, it gives you a Play option. Which then loads the landing page for that game in Windows Store. Stupid.
Xbox Music and Video
Xbox Music and Xbox Video have both been updated for Windows 8.1, the former in major ways. (Xbox Video is the same app as before, just with a black background.)
I really like (and use) Xbox Music (both this app and the services it fronts). The new version is better looking and more manageable, and for the most part you'll never need to keep scrolling, scrolling, scrolling horizontally as you did before: It's a single-screen experience.
Xbox Music is a pretty big deal. So check out Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Xbox Music App; I'll be updating Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music with information about this app soon.
Xbox Video works fine as an app, helping you easily find and play your own videos, both on device and previously purchased, and find movies to rent or buy or TV shows to buy. The problem is that the service it sits on top of is terrible and should be avoided at all costs. Xbox Video (the service) offers the worst rental terms in the business and God help you if you ever buy something from Microsoft, as it may simply disappear over time or never be available for download (and thus offline use). Until this changes, I advise staying away from Xbox Video.
There's not much to say, really, but Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Xbox Video App has a bit more info.
Camera and Photos
Given its tablet aspirations, Windows 8.1 includes a Camera app and it works much as before except for a few small and appreciated changes which are mostly UI related. But Camera now includes an integrated panorama functionality that is based on Photosynth and lets you create immersive, almost 3D images of areas. It's a cool feature, though possibly of more limited usefulness on a PC device. (And it's not available on all devices, in my experience.)
You can find out more about this app in Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Camera + Movie Moments.
The Photos app lets you acquire photos from cameras and memory cards as before (and poorly, as before, with no ability to rename photos on import by event name or whatever). And it lets you view photos on your own PC (and then, only in the Photos library) and via SkyDrive, as before. But there are two major changes.
First, Photos now supports some nice editing features. This includes basic rotation and cropping plus a whole stable of automatic and basic fixes and manual controls for light, color and effects, each with previews. This bit is very well done, and while the weird radial controls in here work better with touch, they are usable with a mouse too.
Second, and less happily, Photos has lost the ability to view photos on other services like Facebook and Flickr, and it can't see photos on other PCs on your home network or elsewhere, as it could before.
Basically, Photos has a new mission in Windows 8.1, and Microsoft is relying on separate third party apps to fill the gaps. But Photos will pop-up in many places as an accessory utility of sorts. If someone sends you an email with a photo attachment, that picture will open, snapped, in Photos. Likewise, if you select a photo from the SkyDrive app, it will open in Photos.
Please read Hands-On with Windows 8.1: Photos App for more information about this solution.