As many of you know, Windows 8 wasn’t particularly well-received when it launched, with things like the absence of the Start Button, a Windows staple for the past 18 years and its replacement by the Start Screen causing consternation that led to the OS not being adopted as enthusiastically as Microsoft had hoped.

This week sees the official release of Windows 8.1, the big patch Microsoft is rolling out for Windows 8 that is intended to address many of those issues. Here are the important bits you should know about it.

How to get it

Microsoft will make the 8.1 update available via the Windows Store on October 17, 1pm South African time. To get it, you need to open the Store from your Windows 8 PC, click the link that you will see and follow the instructions. Once the files have been downloaded, the install process will kick off automatically, and ask you to reboot your machine once it’s done.

Alternatively, if you want to do a fresh installation of Windows 8.1 all in one go, Microsoft will give you the option to download the .ISO image with the full version of Windows 8.1 on it that you can use to install everything from scratch. The ISO is much bigger than the update, and is anything from 2.8GB to 3.8GB depending on the version you need.

What to do if you are running the Windows 8.1 Preview

If you downloaded and installed the preview of the 8.1 patch at any point since its release in June, you’re going to have to perform a complete reinstallation of Windows, as it’s not possible to upgrade to the final release version of the update. You will need to download the Windows 8.1 ISO, or simply reinstall your original copy of Windows 8 and then upgrade to 8.1 via the Windows Store.

What has changed

Many, many things. Here are the ten changes we believe are the most important.

1. The return of the Start Button


It’s back! The Start Button makes a reappearance in this update, and while that’s fantastic news to those of us who missed it so much we bought Start8 from Stardock for five dollars, it just takes you to the Start Screen when clicked.

2. The Start Screen is different


Microsoft has made it possible to customise the Start Screen to a greater extent than in vanilla Windows 8. There are more colours and backgrounds to choose from, and even a few that move. If you love your desktop background, you can also choose to make it the background for your Start Screen.

3. Live Tiles Re-jig


You’ll be able to resize the tiles in your Start Screen. Not all apps will support it, though, they will need to be designed specifically to take advantage of the option. Tiles can also be arranged according to groups, and users won’t be able to accidentally move them around: in 8.1, you will need to press and hold or right-click on tiles in order to move them from place to place. Your apps will also be in one place, not scattered around the Start Screen, and to view them, all you need to do is swipe up from the bottom of your screen. Neat!

4. Better Search


How anyone approved the original search function on Windows 8 is unimaginable – it was annoyingly obtuse, requiring you to click on the category of the thing your’re searching for before it would appear in your search results. In 8.1, that is no longer the case. Search now searches everywhere for your query, including online using Bing. There is also now a Search Charm on the desktop, and you’re no longer booted over to the Start Screen every time you want to look for something.

5. More ways to snap apps


The ability to snap windows on the desktop into a side-by-side position is one of the most useful features of Windows 7 and 8, which makes Windows 8’s inability allow the same for its full screen apps all the more annoying. That changes in 8.1, as it introduces a 50:50 snap view for apps as well as the option to have three apps open on a single screen.

6. Better SkyDrive


SkyDrive is completely integrated into Windows 8.1 – it’s no longer a separate download. Microsoft is also making it possible to access SkyDrive files even when you’re not connected to the internet.

7. New Internet Explorer


Windows 8.1 will come with Internet Explorer 11. It offers a better touch experience and the option to have more tabs open at once, promises faster age loads and will allow you to keep the address bar on-screen all the time. If you own more than one Windows 8.1 device, you’ll also be able to synchronise open tabs across all of them.

8. Boot straight to the desktop


For many of us accustomed to Windows, being directed to the Start Screen when Windows 8 boots up proved a minor annoyance that got progressively more irritating the longer we used the new OS. Windows 8.1 now considerately lets you choose to boot directly to the desktop, and even more impressively lets you customise just what the corners of the screen do when you hover over them with your mouse or swipe them with your finger, including disabling them entirely.

9. Windows Explorer is different

Windows Explorer

When you open Windows Explorer in 8.1, you won’t see the Libraries you saw in Windows 8. While Libraries are still accessible, Windows 8.1 shows you Documents and Pictures from SkyDrive instead. Microsoft has also continued the evolution of how they refer to your computer, moving from My Computer (Windows 95 to XP) to Computer (Windows Vista & 7) to This Computer in 8.1.

10. Native support for 3D printing


If you’ve been reading Adam’s posts on 3D printing, you are probably of the opinion that it’s a thing that’s gaining popularity. And it is. So much so that Microsoft has baked native support for 3D printing into Windows 8.1 to make it easier for professionals already working with the technology to create and print their masterpieces using Windows. With a new 3D printing pipeline built into 8.1 that handles all of the data needed to print in 3D, it’s now possible to print in three dimensions as easily as it is to print in two: by simply clicking File->Print. Win!

There are other enhancements to this updated version of Windows, of course, but these ten are the ones we here at are most excited about.

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.