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Microsoft lobs second Windows 8.1 preview at enterprise IT admins

Lock down those Start screens!

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Having already teased some of the consumer and small business features of Windows 8.1 with a preview release in June, Microsoft on Tuesday announced a second preview, this one with new features targeting larger IT departments.

"Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview builds on the Window 8.1 Preview which is currently available, adding premium features designed to address mobility, security, management and virtualization needs of today's enterprise," Windows marketing manager Erwin Visser said in a blog post.

Among the major changes, the new release allows IT departments to control the layout of the Start screen – and, optionally, to prevent users from changing the layout themselves – to enforce consistency across workgroups.

Access to apps and files can also be restricted for users or groups, to prevent employees from running unauthorized software on company equipment. Admins can even lock down a device so that it can only run a single Windows Store app in a kiosk-like mode.

Also new in the Enterprise Preview, IT departments can now more easily side-load custom Windows apps onto domain-joined devices. Other versions of Windows 8.1 and earlier versions of Windows 8 have required admins to jump through several hoops to load apps from sources other than the Windows Store, including installing a special product key onto each machine.

Windows 8.1 Enterprise also includes a Windows To Go Creator, which lets admins build a customized Windows 8.1 desktop that can be booted from an external USB drive.

These new enterprise features join the list of Windows 8.1 business features that have been announced previously, at Microsoft's Build and TechEd conferences and elsewhere. Several of these new capabilities also require Windows Server 2012 R2 – which, much like Windows 8.1 itself, isn't expected to ship until later this year.

Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview ISO images are available for download beginning on Tuesday in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Supported languages include Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.

There is one catch, though. Unlike the earlier Windows 8.1 Preview, the Enterprise Preview is available only as a full install image, rather than as a Windows Store download for existing Windows 8 devices, and is meant to be installed on test machines only.

In fact, Microsoft does not even plan to offer an upgrade path from the Enterprise Preview to the final version of Windows 8.1 Enterprise. "Personal data will be kept on your test computer," the release notes explain, "but the Windows OS and your applications will need to be reinstalled when moving from the preview to production bits."

Customers have around four and a half months to test the Enterprise Preview, as it will expire on January 14, 2014. Redmond has not yet confirmed when the final version will ship, but it has previously said that it plans to make the mainstream Windows 8.1 upgrade available to OEMs in late August. ®

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