11 highlights from Microsoft's BUILD conference

Microsoft kicked off it's BUILD developers conference Wednesday with a two hour keynote. Here are some of the takeaways.

Microsoft kicked off its BUILD developers conference on Wednesday with CEO Steve Ballmer showing off new Windows 8.1 devices and by inviting everyone at the conference to download the newly available Windows 8.1 preview. Included with Windows 8.1 are numerous upgrades that users will appreciate, though the look and feel of the user interface remains largely unchanged. Here are some highlights from the BUILD conference. 

(Note: The images for this slideshow were taken from the live streaming of the BUILD conference)

The Start button is back

Returning to Windows 8.1 is the much-missed Start button. The Start button is not exactly the same one users remember from Windows 7, but right clicking it does give you quick access to the Control Panel, Task Manager or search. You can also shut down your computer from the Start button. 

Desktop view

You can also set your device to boot directly to your desktop or to your Apps view, depending on your preference. Desktop users, especially, will appreciate the ability to set your PC to open directly to the desktop. 

App view

The App view is easier to organize in Windows 8.1. A drop-down menu lets you decide if you want your apps organized by name, date installed, most used or category. Microsoft also says that users can view four times more apps in the All Apps view than before. 

Bing

Bing gets a few changes with the upgrade to Windows 8.1. Using the search charm to do a search brings back multiple categories of information, in addition to typical web searches. Search for a city and you will get the weather in that city, images you may have taken there that are saved on your computer, and the expected web search results. Search for people and you come up with Bing Heroes, a full screen result that shows images, songs, albums and images. Scroll to the right to get to your web search results, with a handy preview image of what the page looks like. 

Xbox music

Following what others are doing, Microsoft introduced a Pandora-like streaming music feature to Xbox music, and it’s available even without an Xbox music subscription.

Another new feature demonstrated at the BUILD conference was the ability to turn websites into playlists. By clicking the Share charm and then music when you visit a website for music -- even one with multiple artists or with a Top 10 list -- Xbox music will scan the page for artist name and songs to compile the playlist. Though this feature is not yet available in the Windows 8.1 preview, Microsoft said it will launch by the end of the year.

Multitasking

Microsoft also introduced enhanced multitasking abilities. Users can now set the size of their windows and have more than two windows open at any time. Modern and desktop apps can also run side by side. This updated feature will work particularly well for multiple monitors; during the demo we saw eight apps open across two screens. 

App store

The Windows App store gets a makeover. Tiles are less crowded and the apps include a short written description, making browsing easier. The app categories have also changed, so that you immediately see apps recommended specifically for you. Scrolling to the right brings you to trending apps, new releases and top picks.

Maps

Microsoft revealed 3D mapping, which developers can embed into their applications (and which have integrated voice command with Bing). For instance, Bing Vice President Gurdeep Singh Pall, while looking at a building, asked who was the architect. Bing did a search directly from the map for the answer. 

Connected apps

Microsoft, through Visual Studio, is working to help developers build mobile and connected apps. For instance, Visual Studio now includes tools that can profile energy and memory usage, which are important to keep in mind when building mobile apps. Also, applications will rely partially on the cloud to sync data across multiple devices, providing a more seamless transition for users. 

Robot

Microsoft teamed up with Lego Education to show us this robot, a Mindstorms EV3 with a Surface tablet. The robot is meant to encourage kids to learn about programming and other STEM related subjects. The Surface tablet connects directly to the Lego base and wirelessly to another Surface tablet, which controls it. Not necessarily what you would expect to see at a developers conference, but it’s cool nevertheless.

3D printing

Microsoft also debuted native 3D printing. Windows 8.1 now has built-in support for 3D printers and will be selling the desktop 3D printer Makerbot Replicator 2 in its San Francisco and Palo Alto stores. That printer will cost around $2,200, but a smaller 3D printer, called the 3D Systems’ Cube, will soon be on sale at Staples for under $1,300.  

Related story: Windows 8.1 first look: Finally, Windows the way you want it