A welcome return of the start button

A preview of the much-anticipated update for Windows 8 has finally been released for tech-types and industry pundits to have a pick at.

As promised, among the usual bug-fixes and core-fettling is the welcome return of the Windows start button. While I'd like to think someone at Redmond was taking note of my comments and observations, the simple fact is that many who migrated to Windows 8, especially desktop users, keenly missed the start button and start menu found in previous incarnations of Windows. It's a bit like Ford replacing the steering wheel on all their latest cars with a touchpad; it may well work and some people might even find it cool and intuitive but the vast majority would find it downright unsettling and, if given the choice, would rather have their old-fangled steering wheel back.

However, the news isn't all good; the start button is back but the start menu as we knew it isn't; clicking the new start button simply superimposes whatever tiles you have set up on your Metro interface on to your desktop, allowing access to them from the classic view.

A cooler addition is the start button's right-click menu; this gives access to shutdown and restart commands without having to go through the usual Windows 8 palaver.

■ Windows 8.1, as the new version will be known also has some other swanky new features built-in, such as 3D printing support. In the Star Trek TV show universe, Jean Luc Picard could just walk up to a "replicator" on the wall and order: "Earl Grey, hot" and the device would make it for him, cup and all. 3D printers put us one step closer to our very own replicator. Instead of an ink-based print head, 3D printers have an ultra-fine nozzle from which molten polymer plastic is squirted in carefully controlled blobs.

As well as moving left and right and up and down like an inkjet printer, the print head on a 3D printer can also be positioned closer or further away to the work area allowing layers of plastic to be built up into any possible shape. So far people have 3D printed everything from guitars to shoes and while the printers cost a small fortune today, soon everyone will be able to afford one. Like all technology, there is a dark side; recently a self-professed "crypto-anarchist" developed and successfully test fired a handgun created with a 3D printer.

The gun is made entirely of plastic, except for a small nail used as a firing pin. The developer also uploaded his drawings and plans to the web, meaning anyone with access to the right 3D printing hardware can make their own untraceable and almost undetectable pistol. It seems to me this sort of technology in the wrong hands could be dangerous.

■ Users of the excellent Opera web browser were treated to a nasty surprise recently when hackers exploited an expired security certificate and managed to gain access to Opera Software's internal network for about half an hour. The hackers injected a Trojan-horse style virus into an Opera update file and this update was then automatically pumped out to thousands of Opera users.

Ironically Opera claims to be one of the most secure web browsers, making this unwelcome intrusion and the subsequent fallout doubly embarrassing. The folks at Opera soon had things straightened out but if you use Opera to surf the web (and you should) and have automatic updates enabled, it might pay to manually check for any new updates as soon as possible or visit Opera's website and check you are using the very latest (and virus-free) version.

The Press