Windows 8.1 desktopEarlier this week I become embroiled in a slightly heated Facebook discussion – it was sparked by me posting about installing the Windows 8.1 preview and stating that “it has a start button for those who require it”. By this I implied that I don’t need it and personally didn’t think the return of the start button was necessary. Why? Because most computers that aren’t Apple Macs have a Windows key which invokes the Windows 8 start screen, and the re-instated start button is in exactly the same place as the hot corner which allows one click to get back to the start screen. All the re-instated start button does is provide a reassuring thing to click on. But if that makes a lot of people happier, so be it. Click on the small image here to view the larger version, and there’s that start button in the bottom-left corner.

You’ll notice that I say that it invokes the start screen and not the start menu. The start menu, which has been around since Windows ’95, has not made a return – Microsoft are sticking to their guns with the start screen which was introduced with Windows 8. This has also been the subject of controversy and some negative feedback – during the Facebook discussion it was described as “the silly Fisher-Price start screen” – but I think some of the new goodies in Windows 8.1 will make it more palatable.

Windows 8.1 start screenFirstly, there’s now more control over the appearance of the start screen. You can change the background colour and the accent colour, and there’s also two new tile sizes, large and small (to go with wide and medium). The small tile size means you can fit more applications into the start screen without having to scroll, so you’ll have more accessible immediately. But I think that the best feature for start screen haters is being able to use the Windows desktop background as the start screen background – when you invoke the start screen the apps and live tiles feel like they’ve been overlaid on the desktop rather than you moving to a separate screen, so the experience feels more integrated.

Windows 8.1 apps screenThere’s also improvements to the ‘Apps’ screen. In Windows 8 it was a little inaccessible, but in Windows 8.1 there’s two ways of getting there – a down-arrow on the start screen or (for users of touch devices) swiping up from the bottom… which actually feels more like pushing the start screen up. All of the apps and applications (the traditional Windows programs) can be found here and can be sorted by most used, by name, by category and by date installed (newest first). As with the start screen, you can type part of a word to find the app / program quickly.

Windows 8.1 searchAway from the start screen and the return of the start button, there’s some other nice stuff. The Windows 8.1 launch at the //Build event and Jensen Harris’ YouTube demo showed off the new search experience, and Jensen demonstrates using a search for Marilyn Monroe. I thought at the time, that’s nice but will you get those kind of nicely-formatted results for everything. The answer is no, not everything, but you will see those types of results often. I went through a few less mainstream search topics, and I searched on Todd Rundgren (my pal Dave Howkins went to Todd’s London gig recently) – you can see results here displaying Todd’s songs, videos, albums, videos, and further to the right (not shown here) photos, his official web site, his Wikipedia and MySpace pages, and other related pages.