Windows 8.1 is here, and for the most part, we dig it. The first major update to Microsoft’s Windows 8 OS, Windows 8.1 isn’t a wholesale refresh so much as a series of smaller tuneups that come together to smoothen out its predecessor’s rough edges.
If you’re a staunch anti-Start-screenite, Windows 8.1 won’t change your mind, but it does make a handful of concessions to you and your ilk. And if you’re already down with Microsoft’s new touch-centric ways, the update makes things even better. Either way, there’s more than a few new things to see here, so here’s a quick rundown of how you can take advantage of them.
The New Start Button
The most publicized part of Windows 8.1 is also the least significant. Yes, the Start button is back at home in the bottom left corner of the desktop, but it still doesn’t bring the Windows 7-era Start menu back with it.
Instead, simply tapping or clicking on it will bring you over to the new Start screen. Putting the button back is a nice way to show Microsoft is at least somewhat listening to its audience, but its vision for the future of computing seems to be set in stone.
Booting to the Desktop
Windows 8.1’s new “boot to desktop” option is probably going to be the most useful addition for old-school Windows users. When it’s enabled, it does exactly what its name suggests–instead of going to the Start screen when you boot up your computer, you can go straight into desktop mode and ignore those ‘live tiles’ completely.
To do this, all you have to do is right-click on the desktop taskbar, select Properties, click on the Navigation tab, and then check off the box next to the phrase “When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start.” Hit Apply and OK, and then you’re all ready to ignore the ‘Modern UI’ for as long as you’d like.
Shutting Down Faster
The Win+X menu has gotten a bit of a boost with Windows 8.1 too, but its most useful tuneup is its new quick shut down option. Pressing the Windows and X keys together or right-clicking on the new Start button will bring up, among other things, a “Shut down or sign out” prompt. Select it, and you can, well, shut down or sign out of your PC without having to go through the old convoluted method of powering down from the Start screen. Nothing major, sure, but it might save you a headache or two.
Keeping Your Background Consistent
One of the more aesthetically pleasing upgrades with Windows 8.1 is the ability to make your Start screen background the same as your desktop’s background. There’s no significant step to make it happen–just set an image as your background like you normally would, and it’ll carry over to both sections.
If you want to change the Start screen’s background back to what it was before–or to one of the new colors Microsoft’s included with the Windows 8.1 update–just swipe open the charms bar while you’re on the Start screen, press Settings, then Personalize, and then change away.
Expanding Your Lock Screen
Along those lines, Windows 8.1 also expands the lock screen’s functionality. Now, you can set it to display a photo slideshow by going to Settings from the charms bar, then clicking Change PC Settings, then hitting Lock screen under the Personalization menu, and then swiping the “Play a slideshow on the lock screen” option to on. From there, you can display photos that are either stored locally on your PC or stashed in your SkyDrive account.
In those same settings, you can also choose to access a variety of apps from the lock screen. Microsoft’s native camera app is the most integrated one–once you ensure that the “Swipe down on the lock screen to use the camera” option is turned on, you’ll be able to–you guessed it–swipe down on the lock screen to access your PC’s shooter.
Furthermore, the lock screen settings now let you enable certain apps to show quick notifications while you’re signed out. If you receive a phone call while signed into Skype, for instance, you’ll be able to answer it while your PC is locked.
Skype and the default mail, alarm, and calendar apps will display status updates on the lock screen by default, but the aforementioned settings menu lets you enable notifications from up to three other apps like Twitter, NFL Mobile, and Facebook as well.
Reorganizing Your Start Screen
While those new desktop and lock screen features are worth noting, the majority of Windows 8.1’s upgrades apply to Microsoft’s ‘Modern UI’ interface. More specifically, you can now organize your Start screen in a few new ways.
For one, app tiles on the Start screen can be resized into two new shapes: a smaller square one, and a larger square one. We find the smaller ones to be particularly handy, as you can now fit four small tiles in the same space as one medium one.
But whatever your preference, changing these tile sizes is done the same way as before–just long press or right-click whatever Start screen app you want to change, hit the Resize button that appears on the bottom menu bar, and select its shape.
Long pressing an app will also bring up another one of Windows 8.1’s new features, which is the ability to organize particular apps into a named group. So if you wanted to put Twitter, Facebook, and Skype together under one group called “Social media,” just long press one of those apps, type “Social media” into one of the “Name group” bars that will appear near the top of the screen, and slide over your chosen programs under that new banner.
Making Better Use of Apps View
The Apps view is back and can still be accessed by swiping down on the Start screen, but it’s worth mentioning that apps can now organized by the date they were installed, how frequently they’re used, and their category (Kindle is a “Books & Reference” app, Evernote and Calendar are “Productivity” apps, etc.). These options can be accessed by tapping “by name” (or however you have it organized at any given time) at the top of the Apps view screen.
By right-clicking on the desktop taskbar, clicking Properties, and going to the Navigation tab, you can further change the way you use the Apps view too. There, you can check off boxes to make Apps view the default view when you hit any Start button, to make it so desktop apps are automatically listed first in the Apps view, and to make it so searching in Apps view returns results from everywhere on your PC rather than just your apps themselves.
Preparing for Quiet Hours
Windows 8.1 expands the Modern UI app catalogue, but it also gives you the ability to turn off any notifications you receive from those apps for a select period of time. It’s a feature that’s been done before, but Microsoft calls it “Quiet Hours,” and it can be accessed in the same Change PC Settings menu we mentioned earlier. From there, you go to Search and Apps, and then Notifications. Then you can change your particular Quiet Hours, or turn the setting on or off entirely.
Reshaping Your Apps
One of the most obvious complaints with Windows 8’s Modern UI was its poor multitasking capabilities, but Microsoft has at least made some steps towards fixing things this time around. Instead of only being able to have a maximum of two apps on screen at once, you can now have up to five–provided that your monitor(s) have enough room, at least.
Even if they don’t, though, Windows 8.1 gives you a little more control over the window sizes of whatever apps you have going on. Instead of strictly taking up either half or a third of your display, the apps can now take up as little or as large amount of space as you’d like when you adjust the sliders on screen. Any app can now have more than one of these “snapped” windows open at once as well.
‘Smart’ Searching with Bing
Windows 8.1’s most impressive new feature is also its easiest to use. Microsoft’s essentially baked its Bing search engine into the OS itself, and the result is an attractive and highly practical search function that can give you info from your PC, apps, and the web all at once. Activating it is done the same way as before–either select Search from the charms bar or just start typing your query at any point while you’re on the Start screen–but the improvements here make search more unified, intelligent, and accessible than it was in Windows 8.
Taking Your SkyDrive Docs Offline
As it did with Bing, Microsoft has made it a point to make SkyDrive a fundamental part of Windows 8.1. If you use Dropbox or Google Drive, there’s not much for you here. But if you’re already on Microsoft’s cloud storage bandwagon, Windows 8.1 will let you save and sync all of your files from your PC by default–if you’re online, that is.
Thankfully, though, Microsoft has also added in the ability to easily save your SkyDrive docs for offline viewing and editing. If you’re in the SkyDrive folder in File Explorer, just right click on a file and select the “Make available offline” prompt. And if you’re in the SkyDrive Modern UI app, just swipe any files and select the “Make offline” option that will appear at the bottom. If those offline files end up taking up too much local storage space for your liking, you’re able to make them online-only again.
Saving Good Reads in Reading List
Microsoft’s fine tuned a wide variety of Windows’ built-in apps with the 8.1 update, with everything from Mail to Xbox Music to Internet Explorer becoming noticeably more functional.
A few new native apps were added as well, though, and our favorite of the bunch is Reading List. The reading app is essentially Microsoft’s take on Pocket, but like the updated Bing and SkyDrive apps, it impresses by being so deeply integrated with the OS itself.
It can be accessed like any other app, but adding articles and other snippets from the web to your Reading List is quite simple. When you’re in the Modern UI’s Internet Explorer app, just select the Share option from the charms bar, and you’ll see an icon to bookmark your current web page for later reading. Hit it, and it’ll be saved in Reading List for later.
It’s also worth noting that the Modern UI version of Internet Explorer supports a new “Reading View” option that presents web pages in a warmer and (generally) more aesthetically pleasing format. You can access that for articles and the like by clicking on the little book icon next to the bottom-based address bar in IE 11.
There are a few other goodies included with Windows 8.1, but the acts of using them are mostly self-explanatory. The Windows Store is better looking, a handful of new apps have been added, and the whole thing runs like a dream on Windows 8 machines. It doesn’t fix all of the larger-scale issues with Windows 8, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Take advantage of all the new things it has to offer, and you just might come around on Microsoft’s new methods. Maybe.