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Microsoft shows off Windows 8.1

Microsoft is giving people a peek into Windows 8.1, a free update that promises to address some of the gripes people have with the latest version of the company's flagship operating system.

Microsoft is giving people a peek into Windows 8.1, a free update that promises to address some of the gripes people have with the latest version of the company's flagship operating system.

Although the preview version of Windows 8.1 is meant for Microsoft's partners and other technology developers, anyone will be able to download it for free starting today, exactly eight months since desktops, laptops and tablets with Windows 8 went on sale. The version of the Windows 8.1 update meant for the general public will come out later in the year, though a specific date hasn't been announced.

Many of the new features have been shown off already. A three-day Build conference, which starts today in San Francisco, will give Microsoft developers a chance to learn more about the new system and try it out. It also will give the company a chance to explain some of the reasoning behind the update and sell developers on Microsoft's ambitions to regain relevance lost to Apple's iPad and various devices running Google's Android software.

There's also speculation that Microsoft could show off a new, smaller version of its Surface tablet computers. One of the new features in Windows 8.1 is the ability to work well on smaller-screen devices.

Windows 8, which was released on October 26, was meant to be Microsoft's answer to changing customer behaviours and the rise of tablet computers. The operating system emphasises touch controls over the mouse and the keyboard, which had been the main way people have interacted with their personal computers since the 1980s.

But some people have been put off by the radical makeover.

Although Microsoft has said it has sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses so far, some analysts have blamed the lackluster response to the operating system for a steep drop in PC sales in the first three months of the year, the worst drop since tracking by outside research firms began in 1994.

Among the complaints: the lack of a Start button on the lower left corner of the screen. In previous versions of Windows, that button gave people quick access to programs, settings and other tasks. Microsoft replaced that with a tablet-style, full-screen start page, but that covered up whatever programs people were working on, and it had only favourite programs. Extra steps were needed to access less-used programs. Settings, a search box and other functions were hidden away in a menu that had to be pulled out from the right. How to do that changed depending on whether a mouse or touch was used.

And while Microsoft has encouraged people to use the new tablet-style layout, many programs - including Microsoft's latest Office software package - are designed for the older, desktop mode. People were forced into the tablet layout when they start up the machine and had to manually switch the desktop mode each time.

Windows 8.1 will allow people to start in the desktop mode automatically. In that mode, it is restoring a button that resembles the old Start button. Although the Start button will now take people back to the new tablet-style start screen, rather than the old Start menu, the re-introduction of the familiar button may make it easier for longtime Windows users to get accustomed to the changes.

Other new features of Windows 8.1 include more options to use multiple apps. People will get more options to determine how much of the screen each app takes while showing up to four different programs, rather than just two.

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