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Microsoft has released Windows 8.1 – an update to its Windows 8 operating system – during a keynote speech at its annual developers conference in San Francisco.

The free test version of the update is available to download now and the full version will be released to Windows 8 users later this year.

Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer also confirmed that the start button has been reinstated in Windows 8.1 after it was controversially removed from Windows 8 last October.

“Let’s make it easier to start applications in the way we are used to,” said Steve Ballmer, to cheers from the audience.

“We will bring back the start button, and you can boot straight to the desktop if you want to.

“We have refined the blend of our desktop experience and our modern app experience.”

Microsoft came under fire for its controversial “start screen” in Windows 8, which gave users a series of tiles instead of a traditional desktop PC menu with a start button.

This left many confused, and caused a slower than expected uptake of the new software – which also faced increasing competition from Apple and the tablet market.

However, Steve Ballmer said Microsoft was not abandoning its start menu and said it was slowly beginning to attract app developers to Windows 8.

“Within this month we’ll pass the 100,000 app mark in the Windows store,” said Steve Ballmer.

Flipboard, Facebook and the NFL all revealed new apps.

The new Windows 8.1 includes a vastly improved “search” function, which lets users search for documents, apps, or items on the Internet from a single search bar.

The feature resembles Apple’s Spotlight feature.

Microsoft has released Windows 8.1 during a keynote speech at its annual developers conference in San Francisco

Microsoft has released Windows 8.1 during a keynote speech at its annual developers conference in San Francisco

Another new feature in Windows 8.1 also allows users to easily see a list of all their apps simply by swiping up on the screen.

“This update shows how much more responsive our engineering has become,” said Julie Larson-Green, head of Windows at Microsoft.

“We’ve had over 800 updates to Windows 8 since we launched it.”

Julie Larson-Green showed off a new Acer 8.1inch tablet running Windows 8.1 – designed to take on the iPad mini.

It uses new gestures such as being able to slide along the screen’s space bar to select menu items.

Julie Larson-Green also showed off a range of touchscreen PCs running Windows 8.1.

“Pretty much every screen you own is going to be touch,” she said.

She demonstrated a convertible Windows 8 laptop that also works as tablet, and large touchscreen machines.

There were also laptops with touchscreens plus an 18inch tablet from Dell that doubles as a desktop computer when docked.

Microsoft has additionally built direct support for 3D printers and even Lego robotic kits into Windows 8.1.

During her speech, Julie Larson-Green unveiled a redesigned the Xbox Music app, a music-streaming service, integrated into all versions of Windows 8, too.

The Spotify-killer app lets owners stream and buy music from anywhere in Windows.

Elsewhere, users can customize the start screen much more easily, changing sizes of app icon “tiles” or controlling which apps appear.

For the first time, it will be possible to open two windows simultaneously in the new-look interface.

Steve Ballmer promised the firm would continue tweaking the software to make it easier to use.

“Rapid release is the new norm for everything we do, from Windows to hardware,” he said.

Windows 8.1 includes Microsoft’s latest browser, Internet Explorer 11, and lets the user restore the address bar and tabs to the screen view.

Earlier this month Microsoft released a preview video showcasing all these new features.

Microsoft removed the button from the Windows 8 operating system when it was released last year but many customers complained and demanded it was put back.

Screenshots leaked in May suggested that Microsoft would be reinstating the button and an official preview video at the start of June confirmed it – albeit not directly.

During the preview demonstration, Harris swipes between screens and lands on the Desktop view.

A Windows logo is shown in the bottom left-hand corner.

Although it will not be labelled “start”, the leaked screenshots suggested that Windows logo would takes the user straight to a grid of applications.

To catch a glimpse of the button, skip to 2.11 in the video above.

That feature was missing in the initial version of Windows 8, which was designed to make the most of limited screen space on a tablet but tended to disorient traditional mouse and keyboard users.

Executives say the plan is now to update Windows periodically, rather than waiting three years or so between big releases.

The world’s largest software company is hoping to kickstart sales of its latest Windows version, which has not made the splash with computer users it was hoping for.

Although Microsoft has sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses since October, broadly in line with Windows 7 three years ago, the company must tackle a dwindling PC user base and its inability to make a mark in the exploding tablet market.

Shipments of traditional PCs – the most reliable gauge of Windows’ popularity – are expected to fall almost 8 percent this year, while Microsoft’s Surface has taken less than 2% of the tablet market.

Windows 8 was designed to be used both on touch-screen tablets and traditional PCs.

But while touch-screen users tend to like the new “tile”-based interface, many mouse and keyboard users complained that the new design was confusing.

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The Start button is returning to Microsoft desktop mode’s taskbar of its Windows 8 operating system, the company has confirmed.

The lack of the facility – which had been in every previous version since Windows 95 – has been one of the most controversial aspects of the software.

However, it will not offer all the functionality previously associated with the feature.

Instead it will bring users to the recently-introduced “Metro” interface.

“We’ve improved the way you navigate to Start with the mouse by changing the Start ‘tip’ to be the familiar Windows logo,” the company said in a blog post.

“The new tip appears anytime you move the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen, and is always visible on the taskbar when on the desktop.”

On current versions of Windows 8, the start tip would only appear when users hovered their cursor over the lower-left corner of their screen.

In the 8.1 update, the area will be more visible.

The Start button is returning to Microsoft desktop mode's taskbar of its Windows 8 operating system

The Start button is returning to Microsoft desktop mode’s taskbar of its Windows 8 operating system

A left-click on the tip will bring up a tile-based Start Screen – formerly known as the Metro interface – designed for touch-screen users.

A right-click will display a small menu of other options such as Event Viewer, Device Manager and Disk Management.

Another change will allow users to boot their computers directly into desktop mode, meaning they can avoid ever using the Start Screen if they wish.

Many users had complained that ditching the traditional Start Menu and introducing the Start Screen had made the system less straight-forward to use, meaning businesses which adopted it would need to retrain staff.

Microsoft had been stung by claims that the expected reintroduction of a Start button would mark a major U-turn.

An article in the Financial Times described the move as one of the “most prominent admissions of failure for a new mass-market consumer product since Coca-Cola’s New Coke fiasco nearly 30 years ago” – making reference to the soft drinks company’s decision to ditch a new recipe after overwhelming customer dissatisfaction.

Microsoft later issued a statement saying it was “unfortunate” the FT did not represent the “good response to date on Windows 8.”

A preview download of Windows 8.1 will be released to the public in June, and a final version before the end of the year. Both will be free of charge to existing users.

Other changes that will appear to users running the update include:

  • Added customization options, with more choice over colours and backgrounds on the Start Screen.
  • An improved search function that covers web content as well as apps, files and settings on the PC.
  • A new version of the firm’s web browser – Internet Explorer 11 – which Microsoft said would offer improved tools for developers.

The Start button, an iconic part of Microsoft’s operating system since it was introduced in Windows 95, is missing from the latest test version of the upcoming Windows 8.

The Start button evolved to become the operating system’s “launchpad”, offering access to software, files and search functions.

Earlier test versions of Windows 8 had flattened the recognizable “orb” – but the new build removes it altogether, according to leaked screenshots from tech site The Verge.

Microsoft has not announced a release date for the new operating system, built to work with touchscreens as well as on conventional PCs, but it’s widely expected to release in the second half of this year.

“Fear not though, the Start button functionality isn’t as dead as it seems,” reports The Verge.

The Start button, an iconic part of Microsoft's operating system, is missing from the latest test version of the upcoming Windows 8

The Start button, an iconic part of Microsoft's operating system, is missing from the latest test version of the upcoming Windows 8

Although the button itself might be absent, the functions are still there, just accessed via a “hot corner” designed to work equally well with touchscreens or computer mice.

“We have confirmed with sources close to Microsoft’s Windows 8 development that a hot corner has replaced the Start button orb,” says The Verge.

A thumbnail-like user interface will appear in Metro or desktop mode, providing a consistent way to access the Windows desktop and Start Screen in Windows 8 regardless of touch or mouse input.

Windows 8 is a radical reinvention of Microsoft’s operating system.

Windows 8 is built to operate on tablets as well as PCs, and looks more like the Windows Phone operating system – with a tile-based “start” screen akin to the menus of apps offered in smartphone operating systems.

Navigation is done by swiping a finger across a touchscreen – although you can also use a mouse or even the direction keys.

The system will also be built to rely heavily on “cloud” information storage, with a Windows Live login used to access some features, and heavy integration with online storage services such as Microsoft’s SkyDrive.