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Windows 8.1 preview: Start button debacle shames Microsoft

Microsoft has heard all your feedback about the Start button, but it isn't quite ready to admit it's wrong, a new preview reveals.

The Start button's making a comeback -- but Microsoft is pretty embarrassed about the whole thing and would rather you didn't notice. The software giant has given its most in-depth preview yet of what to expect from Windows 8's first major update, Windows 8.1, and while it's keen to stress it's listening to user gripes, it only hints that it's fixing the biggest beef everyone had.

In one screenshot featured halfway down a blogpost by Antoine Leblond, senior vice president for Windows Web Services, there's a cheeky little skewiff white window in the bottom left (pictured above, with helpful arrow).

Otherwise, the screenshots featured are completely Start-button free, because they're showing the Start screen itself -- Microsoft's not willing to give up on the Start screen as a separate thing to the desktop, it seems.

"We've improved the way you navigate to Start with the mouse by changing the Start 'tip' to be the familiar Windows logo," Leblond says, in the very last item of his post. "The new tip appears anytime you move the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen," so the Start button isn't there normally, you have to mouse over it.

That's in contrast to leaked shots of the new desktop grabbed by Paul Thurrott on his Supersite for Windows, which show a standard Windows 7-ish dock with that new white Start button where you'd expect it to be (pictured below). He also confirms the rumoured ability to boot to desktop, although you'll have to rummage around in the settings to turn it on.

"We've learned from customers in how they are using the product and have received a lot of feedback," says Leblond. "We've delivered hundreds of updates to the product and to apps. We're just getting started, and the potential ahead is tremendous.

"It's Windows 8 even better," Leblond boasts. "Not only will Windows 8.1 respond to customer feedback, but it will add new features and functionality that advance the touch experience and mobile computing's potential. Windows 8.1 will deliver improvements and enhancements in key areas like personalisation, search, the built-in apps, Windows Store experience, and cloud connectivity."

But whereas many people bemoaned Windows 8's over-reliance on touch input, the major changes seem to be to make it even more like a tablet operating system. There are moving backgrounds, like in Android, and you can choose your desktop background as your Start screen background so your apps are more like an overlay.

"You can turn your PC or tablet into a picture frame by making your Lock screen a slide show of your pictures -- either locally on the device or photos from the cloud in SkyDrive," Leblond explains.

The Start screen's tiles are also being overhauled, with new large and small tile sizes available. You can also select several apps at the same time and rearrange them, resize them or uninstall them all together. The Photos app now has some new editing features and the music app has had a total overhaul.

Like Android and iOS, you now press and hold ("or right-click," he helpfully adds, for us old-timers still using a geriatric mouse) to move apps around. Swiping up from the bottom shows you all your apps.

Search, meanwhile, aggregates what's on your computer in your apps and files with what's on the Internet, in SkyDrive cloud storage or on websites. "It is the modern version of the command line!" Leblond chirps.

Microsoft brought the Start button back in a literal, physical way recently with a new mouse that has a horrible blue Start button on the side.

The updated OS will be on show at Microsoft's Build conference in late June, and will roll out as a free update later in the year. What do you think of it? Start something in the comments below, or over on our startling Facebook page.