With the return of the Start button, a new search function, Skype and quicker access to cloud data, Windows 8.1 is packed with changes — both large and small — which its predecessor lacked.

Windows 8 users can update for free from their operating system’s app store. An overview of some of the key changes follows.

THE START BUTTON: The most obvious new feature is the Start button. What was missing from Windows 8 has now returned, but in a trimmed-down version. Clicking on it doesn’t pull up a list of installed programmes, but sends users to a start menu with the by-now-familiar tile interface.

But the button isn’t useless. Right-clicking on it opens up a lot of useful features more quickly than was possible before, including the option for shutting down.

ONE SHARED BACKGROUND: Windows 8.1 can be set so that the Tile interface and the old, familiar desktop both use the same background.

It might not sound like much, but it makes a big difference. The switch between interfaces no longer feels as abrupt. Windows 8.1 can also be set so the computer starts up on the desktop, and not in the Tiles start menu.

SEARCHES, LOCAL AND ONLINE: The Windows search is no longer restricted to the hard drive, but will take advantage of an active internet connection to open up Microsoft’s search engine, Bing. The function can be disabled.

NEW APPS: Windows 8.1 includes a few new programmes for the operating system. There’s a new Facebook app. There are also some novelties like a calculator, an alarm clock and a new assistant that shows new users how to interact with the Tiles.

EVERYTHING AT A GLANCE: Windows 8.1 allows users to have four apps open simultaneously. Previously, the limit was two. Users can also decide which programme gets how much space. There are also more options for organizing Tiles in the start menu in the new version.

SKYPE AND CLOUD INTEGRATED: Skype calls can now be initiated directly from the contact list or Internet Explorer. Its messenger is embedded directly into the operating system, but can be turned off.

Microsoft’s cloud service SkyDrive is also integrated so users can take information directly from Explorer and put it into the cloud or call it up from the cloud. Pictures and other files in the cloud are stored in thumbnail versions on the hard drive and only called up when needed, so as to save space.