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Microsoft releases Windows 8.1 - and restores start button

Update to Microsoft's operating system also includes better search functionality and improved multi-tasking
  • @jjvincent

Microsoft has released Windows 8.1, the long-awaited update to its current operating system Windows 8. The update will be free to those already running Windows 8 but cost £75 for those running Windows 7.

(Click here to read our guide to installing Windows 8.1)

The new software, which is now available for download from the Windows Store, addresses several criticisms of Windows 8; restoring the start button and the option for a traditional desktop style interface.

Windows 8’s user interface was essentially a series of tiles, designed to unify the operating system’s aesthetic across multiple Microsoft platforms including mobile devices and the Xbox.

However, it’s reliance on touch as a navigation method proved unpopular, with critics and the public demanding the return of a more traditional interface. Windows 8.1 is still a compromise between traditional mouse and keyboard in put and touch, but Microsoft will be hoping that this time they've got the balance right.

The update comes at an uncertain time for the company, with CEO Steve Ballmer slated to retire in less than a year; a decision that was announced just two months after he outlined a vision for Microsoft’s future.

Ballmer’s ‘ One Strategy, One Microsoft’ plan hinges on focusing the company on “devices and services”, but its their key device, the laptop-tablet hybrid Surface, that has failed to take off with consumers.

It’s hoped that the update will improve sales of the new Surface 2 device as well as stem the general decline of PC sales, a market that has been overwhelmed by smartphones and tablets.

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Windows 8.1 includes an update search function powered by Bing that aggregates online and computer-based content.

Windows 8.1: what’s new?

  • The start button has returned but not as the traditional start menu – but users can click it to move back and forth between a desktop and tiled layout. One long press accesses system settings.
  • A new app locker can be accessed by swiping down on the start screen – an arrangement familiar to Android users
  • An upgraded search function (powered by Bing) lets you search your hard drive and the internet at the same time
  • Better multi-tasking functionality allows users to view multiple apps at once, tweaking how much screen space each takes up
  • Users can choose to boot to their app locker or their desktop – not just to the start menu
  • The lock screen can be turned into a slideshow with pictures store on the hard drive or sky drive
  • New customization options including backgrounds that move as you swipe the screen and extra colour themes
  • Updated start screen gives more variation for tile sizes – including both an extra small and an extra large option