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Windows 8.1 update adds new features, but not enough

Microsoft has released the long-awaited update to Windows 8. Windows 8.1 adds features that were sorely missing from the initial software, but the changes aren't likely to be enough to entice already-annoyed PC users.

Microsoft has released the long-awaited update to its current Windows 8 operating system. Windows 8.1 adds features that were sorely missing from the initial software, but the changes aren't likely to be enough to entice already-annoyed PC users.

(Credit: Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET)

A year after the first release of Windows 8, Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update brings back the Start button, as well as other features that were bafflingly omitted from the initial roll-out of the operating system. The software giant's strategy of radically redesigning its desktop interface and pushing users by default to an interactive, tile-based app drawer, rather than the desktop they were familiar with, drew criticism from a wide range of users.

Windows 8's first incarnation fell victim to an attempt to prioritise tablet and touchscreen users' wants over the company's entrenched PC user base, with the default tiled-grid "Metro" interface designed to be operated with taps and swipes from a finger, rather than the movements of a mouse. (The Metro name was eventually dropped after legal threats from a German retailer of the same name.)

The Windows 8.1 update lets users choose to boot directly to the traditional desktop mode and brings back the Start button that was missing from the previous Windows 8 desktop taskbar. This move may appease the millions of users who could potentially have upgraded from a previous version of Windows but were turned away by the compromised tiled interface. The return of the Start button isn't complete, though; the interface is different to the familiar menu seen in Windows 7, and some apps are only available through the existing tiled menu.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

Windows 8.1 still has a heavy skew towards touchscreen use in its Modern (née Metro) interface, which has been updated with improved preloaded apps and a more flexible interface, with options to resize tiles over a wider range and to move multiple tiles in groups. This interface will remain the default choice on tablets like Microsoft's own Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2.

Despite that, Windows 8.1 is still split between catering towards tablet users and traditional PCs. Windows tablets made up only 5 per cent of worldwide market share in Q2 2013, while overall PC demand is expected to drop a full 10 per cent this year. IDC analyst Al Gillen told CNET, "This has been a little bit of a wake-up call for Microsoft. It couldn't just come into the tablet market and be dominant on day one. It will have to fight for market share."

Over 40 million people worldwide bought a copy of Windows 8 outright or pre-installed on a desktop, laptop or tablet computer in the first month after the operating system's October 2012 launch. Sales slowed after the first month, with May 2013 figures showing around 100 million sales in total.

Microsoft is hoping that the Windows 8.1 update will draw in existing customers, appease anyone unhappy with Windows 8 and make Windows more appealing to potential buyers looking to choose a new PC or tablet. The update is available now on any Windows 8 device and can be found through a prominent link in the Store app.