Without wasting time, let's make one thing clear: the Windows 8.1 update is fantastic. If you're already a Windows 8 user, the update is going to be a no-brainer. While the inability to switch back to the old tile designs (in the event you don't care for all the color) is a bit disappointing, it's a limitation that's greatly overshadowed by everything else the update brings to the table. And judging by the "Help & Tips" app, it appears the update isn't even 100% complete.
A quick recap: Windows 8.1 brings a boatload of new features to the Start Screen. You're now able to use your desktop wallpaper as the backdrop if you like, or if not, you gain a greater level of flexibility with the color schemes for any of the vectorized choices. You now can turn traditional "wide" tiles into full-blown squares, or take a standard "medium" tile and make it 1/4th of the size. In addition, to you can more easily name your groups, access the All Apps section quicker, enjoy an improved search, and access a number of new configuration options in the Settings area.
Start Screen aside, we also gain the ability to boot directly to the desktop, have quicker access to our libraries after opening up our Computer - ahem, "This PC", and shut our PC down quicker thanks to the hidden menu behind the Start button (oh right - that too!). Of course, we can't discredit the number of new apps that have made it into 8.1, especially Helps & Tips which I am looking very forward to checking out once it's finished.
As much as 8.1 packs in, I do feel that Microsoft's decision to keep it as a free update is a good one. The reason being: this is how Windows 8 should have launched. If it had, then complaints might have been far fewer. But of course, we can't overlook the biggest beef a lot of people had with Windows 8: the Start Screen.
Given the fact that 8.1 packs in a ton of Start Screen improvements, it's obvious that the update is not going to do a lot for some people - namely those who didn't care for the Start Screen before. There's just no reason to believe that your opinion will be changed with 8.1, because it's still the same Start Screen, just better. Microsoft had a chance to reintroduce the Start Menu here, but didn't. In effect, the company is asking you to meet it halfway. It knows you might not love the Start Screen now, but it hopes that it might grow on you in time.
Even still, I never liked the fact that Microsoft in one-fell-swoop decided that the Start Menu was no good, when millions of people have been perfectly content with it. While I believe the company should have reintroduced it here, I'm just glad that the company's gone the extra mile to make the Start Screen better.
Not to mention, some of its apps have seen improvement as well, including the Store:
Check that out... there's actually a search field up there! Yet another example of how Microsoft is trying to make the overall Windows 8 experience a more intuitive (and better) one.
There are still a couple of limitations that are a bit bizarre, however. Many equate the Start Screen to being an interface squarely designed for a mobile device, and I can't disagree. Given that, you'd imagine that renaming a tile would be a simple matter - but not so. While Microsoft could easily give that option alongside the other ones when right-clicking (or holding down) on a tile, it doesn't. Instead, you must go to the "Open File Location" option when you access the tile's properties, and then rename the shortcut there. Hardly elegant.
Further, while adjusting tile sizes is nice, some might prefer to place regular sized tiles inside of a folder to help keep their Start Screen a bit cleaner. As I mentioned before, the sheer size of the Start Screen allows many tiles to be used, which is likely one reason Microsoft doesn't care to implement the functionality, but I'm of the belief it should be an option for those who want it.
Other functions of Windows 8 will still continue to bother some people, like the process of shutting down. Microsoft did improve quite a bit here given you can simply right-click the Start Button and access the option in there, but again, this isn't an elegant-looking solution. To be fair, it doesn't really have to be, but nothing stops Microsoft from putting a shutdown / restart button right inside of the Start Screen, negating the need for people to hover over the Settings icon in the Charms bar and doing it that way.
Admittedly, all of these issues are fairly minor, but they do highlight simple things Microsoft could have added / changed if it wanted to. It clearly didn't, as it would prefer all of us to adjust to the "modern interface". It's not a great thing, but at least major improvements have been made.
Given all we've discussed, coming up with a conclusion as to whether or not 8.1 is going to suddenly fix Microsoft's image or sales should be simple - but it isn't. As mentioned above, the Start Screen is still here, as are some minor niggles, so there's no reason that anyone who disliked those before is suddenly going to feel different with 8.1. However, because 8.1 is such an improvement, the reaction is likely to be very good, which may cause some to reconsider Windows 8 as their next OS, despite the caveats.
As a Windows 8 user since launch, I can honestly say that I'm extremely pleased with what the 8.1 update brings to the table. I'd even go as far as to say that it's a refreshing update. It's clear to me that Microsoft has some determination to right its wrongs and make sure it's doing all it can to encourage people to give Windows 8 a try. While I wouldn't call all of the moves it's made ideal, I do believe we're headed in the right direction.
What Windows 8 really needs now to succeed is improved developer support. The Store for Windows 8-specific apps is still littered with middling and sub-par apps, and that's not a great thing. Things are undoubtedly improving, but I do feel that some developers are doing little to help the OS. Instead, it seems like some developers just rush an app out the door, just to put something in the store, and then forget about it. That's hardly a healthy thing to occur when Microsoft's greatest interest is developing a rich ecosystem a la Google's Play Store or Apple's App Store. Hopefully, these improvements will happen sooner rather than later.