Meet Windows 8.1

On Thursday, Microsoft pushed out its latest update to the Windows operating system, Windows 8.1. This is an incremental update that focuses on cleaning up the design of Windows 8 just a bit, while adding many small changes to how the OS runs. Here we walk you through what's new in Windows 8.1.

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Start button is back!

Microsoft endured the ire of many Windows fans when it removed the Start menu in Windows 8 -- a feature that's been around since Windows 95.

As a bit of a compromise, Microsoft reintroduced the Start button in Windows 8.1 in the lower-left corner of the desktop view. If you left-click on it (or tap it on a touch screen), it sends you back to the Start screen. You can right-click the button (or tap and hold on touch screens) to display a small menu with power user settings (my words, not Microsoft's), such as the Task Manager, Network Connections, and power controls. It's hardly the Start menu we remember from Windows 7 and before, but it does collect common settings in a central place that's easy to access.

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New live tiles

Microsoft added two new live tile sizes to the Start screen to help you fit more apps on the screen at once, called small and large.

The small tile looks identical to the smallest tiles on Windows Phone 8, with a tiny app icon and a colored background. The large tile is a large square the size of four-by-four small tiles.

The two sizes that were already available in Windows 8 are now called medium and wide. Medium is the size of two-by-two small tiles, while wide is two-by-four. Lastly, there is a large size option that's four-by-four. All sizes except small will show live information where available.

To change the size of any tile, just right-click it or tap and hold and select resize to bring up the size options.

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Fine-tune the Start screen

Windows 8.1 gets new Start screen backgrounds and new color choices. First, there are a handful of new backgrounds included with the OS that will move when you scroll through your tiles. For example, one option has a set of gears that turn as you swipe along the screen (or scroll with a mouse).

Second, there are more color options when customizing the included backgrounds. You could already customize the colors of each included Start screen background in Windows 8, but now you can pick from more shades of a certain hue for both the background and accent colors.

Lastly, you can forgo Microsoft's preinstalled options altogether by setting your Start screen background to match your desktop wallpaper.

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Find your apps faster

Microsoft added another screen below the Start screen that houses all of your apps. It's dead simple to get to it, just swipe up on a touch screen, or, if you're on a PC, scroll the tile interface to the right and click on the little arrow that pops up.

That list shows all of the apps that come with Windows 8.1, the ones you've downloaded from the Windows store, and all of your desktop apps. You can still use the search charm to find your apps as well.

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Snap View goes big

In Windows 8, you could display two apps side by side on your screen at the same time. Now you can display up to four apps side by side in Snap view, depending on your monitor's resolution. And as you move one app around, the other app views will automatically resize and move around content to fit the space.

Additionally, you can now place two apps side by side with each taking up half of the screen in a 50-50 view. In Windows 8, one app would dominate the screen, while the other would show up in a much smaller column next to it.

Photo by: Microsoft

Smart search

When you used the search charm in Windows 8, it would only search for apps and files on your hard drive. Now, the search charm will pull in results from your computer and from all across the Web via Bing. What's more, if you search for major attractions, cities, celebrities, musicians, restaurants, or hotels, you'll get a special search results page with photos, maps, and other tidbits of information. For example, if you search for Niagara Falls, you'll get a map of its location, photos of the falls, and links to visitor information. Search for Justin Timberlake and you'll see his photo, age, hometown, and a list of his top music tracks, which you can listen to in the preinstalled Xbox Music app.

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Revamped app store

Microsoft's Windows Store gets a new look in 8.1. The home page shows new and rising apps, plus recommendations for you based on your download and purchase history. If you swipe down from the top of the screen, you'll get a menu with categories of apps and an option to view your account.

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Xbox Music

Xbox Music also gets a new design with the update. Instead of the previous tiled look, the app now has a menu on the right side that includes your Collection (music library), search bar, and playlists. The main screen features artists at the top, with the newest albums below. You can stream ad-supported music for free from Xbox Music, or you can pay $10 per month (or $100 per year) to get your music without ads.

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SkyDrive gets more a bit more robust on Windows 8.1. In the app, you can make some or all of your SkyDrive files and folders available offline, so you can view and edit them offline. SkyDrive also shows up in the desktop file menu in the sidebar, with your other local folders.

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Photos app

Another app that underwent a face-lift in 8.1 is Photos. It has a simpler design than its predecessor, which makes it much easier to view your photo collections. You also get new editing features, which include photo filters, lighting controls, and a retouching tool.

Photo by: Microsoft

Available October 17

Windows 8.1 is available starting October 17. It's a free download for anyone who's already running Windows 8: just head over to the Windows Store to download it. The OS will be available boxed in retail stores and on new devices starting October 18.

If you're not already running Windows 8, the "Core" version of 8.1 will cost you $119.99, and Windows 8.1 Pro will cost $199.99.

Photo by: Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET
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