How to spend your first hour with Windows 8.1

Woody Leonhard

Windows 8.1, currently available on MS TechNet and MSDN, should roll out on Oct. 17 for both new PCs and Win8 upgrades.

Here’s what every knowledgeable Windows user should know about setting up Win8.1, whether they’re coming from Windows 8, Win7, Vista, or XP.

For anyone already using Windows 8, upgrading to Version 8.1 is a no-brainer. It’s commonly said that Win8.1 is the Windows Microsoft should’ve released last year. And there’s a lot of truth to that observation.

On the other hand, if you’re still on Windows 7 and need a compelling reason to upgrade, there’s nothing new in Windows 8.1 (in my opinion) that justifies the considerable effort required to switch. That said, you still might find yourself staring at a Windows 8.1 screen, if you or someone you know buys new hardware or upgrades. Fortunately, there’s plenty that’s familiar in Windows 8.1 — trust me.

To make your initial Windows 8 experience as pain-free as possible, here’s how you should spend your first hour with the new OS — how to get comfortable with the beast and change it to be more (for lack of a better term) user-friendly. I mean that in a productive Windows-desktop sense, not a mobile-phone sense.

Make sure you have the right operating system

Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 might look the same from the Start screen, but they’re not the same thing — not by a long shot. The Win8.1 is “real” Windows; Windows RT 8.1 is an OS that has just the Metro half of Windows. You might find either one on a tablet or hybrid laptop/tablet computer, and it’s not always easy to tell them apart.

For example, Microsoft’s Surface RT and Surface 2 both run Windows RT. Neither runs standard Windows applications. On the other hand, Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 run full Windows; they’re compatible with almost any app that runs on a traditional Windows desktop PC.

If you’re dealing with Windows RT, I wish you luck. A year after Windows RT officially launched, and almost two years after it hit beta, the choice of Metro apps is still dismal. There are, for example, no Metro apps for Bloomberg, Chrome, E-Trade, Facebook, Firefox, Flipboard, or Foursquare; no Google Maps, HBO Go, LinkedIn, PayPal, etc., etc. You’re left with using the website versions of those popular services, which can be a real pain in the neck.

So before you start making configuration changes to Windows, figure out which version you’re working with. It should be Windows 8.1, not RT.

If you’re hooked into the TechNet or MSDN sites, you’ve probably already upgraded your Windows 8 machine to Windows 8.1. If you’re not among that privileged group, mark the Oct. 17 date on your calendar. As I stated above and explained in the Sept. 19 Top Story, “Touring through the final Windows 8.1,” you should definitely upgrade to Windows 8.1.

Win8 101: A quick refresher on the new Windows

If you’ve never used Windows 8 or 8.1 before but you know Windows 7, take this five-minute exercise to familiarize yourself with the Windows 8 “experience.” I guarantee it’ll help keep your hair where it belongs.

  • Two OSes in one: Some have described Windows 8x as a schizophrenic operating system. When you launch it, you see the tiled (aka Metro) side of Windows. Like your smartphone, it’s a place where programs run full-screen and all of the navigation techniques you’ve used since Windows 3.1 are out the, uh, window. Click the Desktop tile (see Figure 1) and you’re switched to a more familiar world — the desktop you’ve always known, but with a few wrinkles.

    Metro Start screen

    Figure 1. The Metro Start screen displays a tiled selection of applications. The Desktop 'app' is highlighted in yellow.

    To switch back to the Metro Start screen — which you must do from time to time because a few settings reside on the Metro side — just click the Windows button on the left edge of the taskbar. (In Windows 8, you have to blindly hover your cursor in the lower-left corner of the screen.) You can also simply press the Windows key on your keyboard or, if you have a tablet, press the Windows button.

  • Invoke Charms: Hiding on the right side of the Start screen are the five options icons: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings (see Figure 2).

    Windows Charms

    Figure 2. The five hidden Charms offer various system options — including the all-important Settings, where you control and customize some Windows settings.

    Charms are somewhat useful on the Metro side of Win8. They can also be invoked while in the Desktop app; but in my opinion, they’re mostly useless. Fortunately, the Desktop has more powerful alternatives — such as the Control Panel — that will no doubt be familiar.

    There are various ways to reveal the Charms, such as hovering the cursor in the upper-right corner of the screen, but the easiest method is to simply press Windows key + C. (On the Desktop, the Charms have an annoying habit of popping up when the cursor inadvertently lands in the upper-right corner.)

  • Switch programs sensibly: Windows 8x provides clever ways to flip through running programs. But if you’re working mostly in the Desktop, they just get in the way. To switch among all running programs (both Metro and classic Windows) in a more familiar way, use the method that’s been around since Windows 95: hold down the Alt key and press Tab to cycle through running apps. It works on both the Metro and Desktop sides. (Of course, apps running on the Desktop can also be accessed via the Taskbar. Keep in mind that Win8x does not have Win7′s Start menu.)
  • Bring up the WinX menu: Windows 8 introduced the “Power-user” menu, accessed by pressing Windows key + X. (Most users now simply refer to it as the WinX menu.) As shown in Figure 3, WinX has a few of Windows 7′s Start-menu options plus some Control Panel applets such as Programs and Features and Device Manager.

    WinX menu

    Figure 3. Pressing the Windows key + X pops up a menu of common Windows tasks.

    In Windows 8.1, you can also invoke WinX by right-clicking the new Windows logo at the edge of the taskbar. (This is the new non-Start menu, called “Start menu.” Clicking it simply takes you to the Metro Start screen.) In Windows 8, you have to right-click an ill-defined region in the lower-left corner of the Desktop screen.

That completes my whirlwind introduction to Windows 8.1 navigation for Windows 7 users. There are about a dozen other navigation options including hotkeys, coldkeys, lukewarmkeys, pinches, slides, and stabs. But the few controls discussed above will let most Windows 7 users work with Win8x with relative ease.

Set up the right kinds of accounts

Windows 8 and 8.1 have two types of accounts — Microsoft and local — and choosing one over the other isn’t especially easy. I discussed Microsoft accounts in detail in the Nov. 15, 2012, Top Story, “Microsoft Accounts: The good, bad, and indifferent.”

Mostly it’s a question of privacy, or lack thereof, vs. convenience. If you aren’t at all concerned that Microsoft might track every search you make on your computer — the better to serve you ads — you have nothing to worry about.

Don’t bother mentioning Microsoft’s Scroogled ads. Microsoft probably snoops just as much personal information as does Google. However, while Google might scan the contents of all emails (both in and out of Gmail), Microsoft scans all the mail coming and going through Hotmail/Outlook.com, too. The only difference: Microsoft claims it doesn’t retain details about mail content for use in setting up ads.

Microsoft reportedly does keep track of the sender/recipients and the subject line. And, like every other email handler, it examines the body of mail to guard against malware.

That said, Microsoft can, by default in Win8.1, track all searches on your computer — both Internet and local.

I discussed how to turn off “Smart Search” in the Sept. 19 Top Story, “Touring through the final Windows 8.1.” (See the subsection, “Some Windows 8.1 ‘features’ best avoided.”) But even with it off, when you sign in to Windows with a Microsoft account, the company can keep a record of when and where you signed in. That doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy.

Of course, there’s some benefit to signing in to Windows with an MS account; it will automatically update the Metro-based Mail, Calendar, and People apps. It also signs you in to SkyDrive and Skype. Moreover, using a Microsoft account lets you carry your settings from one computer to another (a feature I personally find worse than useless, because I rarely want to see my desktop tiles, wallpaper, Metro-app status, or other settings automatically carried over to my tablet.)

Using a local account doesn’t make those automatic connections to Microsoft. But Windows will nag you to associate your local account with a Microsoft account. It is, after all, the only way you’ll be able to use SkyDrive storage, purchase apps at the Windows Store, or pick up a wonderful new track from Metro Xbox Music. (If you stay mostly on the desktop and ignore SkyDrive, you won’t be nagged very often.)

If you want to change the account type you started with, you’re better off simply setting up an entirely new user account. (It’s somewhat analogous to setting up admin and standard-user accounts in older versions of Windows.) You can do so by selecting Charms/Settings/Change PC settings/Users or by going through the Control Panel. In either case, you’re shuffled over to the Metro-style user-setup applet, where Windows will try hard to get you to use a Microsoft account. The only way out is to select the Sign in without a Microsoft account (not recommended) link at the bottom of page.

At least now you know why it’s not recommended.

Take some of the Metro out of Windows 8.1

For those who prefer the classic desktop, Windows 8.1 makes life a bit easier. With a few settings changes, you can boot straight to the desktop and disable the hot corners at the top of the screen that invariably get in the way when using a mouse.

As detailed in the Sept. 19 Top Story, you make the changes in an obscure dialog box (see Figure 4) accessed by right-clicking an empty spot on the taskbar, clicking Properties, and then the Navigation tab.

Taskbar and Navigation properties

Figure 4. In Windows 8.1, the first Start Screen option in Taskbar and Navigation properties lets you go directly to the Win8 Desktop on startup.

Finally, if you really miss the now-classic Windows 7 Start menu, as I certainly do, download one of the many good, third-party, Start menu add-ons. My favorite is Stardock’s Start8 (U.S. $5; site), but other popular and free apps can be found at sites such as Start Menu 8, Classic Shell, and StartIsBack. (While you’re on the Stardock site, look for ModernMix; it lets you run Metro programs on the Desktop.)

Check your security and privacy perimeter

Before you finish this hour-long intro to Windows 8.1, take a few seconds to make sure that the machine you’re using is reasonably locked down. Here are two suggestions:

  • Turn off Automatic Updates: Microsoft reissued 12 botched security patches in September (that’s no exaggeration). It’s not unusual for Microsoft to release flawed updates, but this past month was over the top, as reported in the Sept. 26 Patch Watch column and in a recent InfoWorld story. If you set up a computer for someone who won’t look after it, then by all means, turn on automatic updates. But most Windows Secrets readers are savvy enough to control their own update destiny.
  • Turn off Smart Search: I discussed this above, but it bears repeating. I think Smart Search is the most intrusive, privacy-busting “feature” ever put into Windows. (Keep in mind that it’s new to Windows 8.1 — it was not in Win8.) To turn it off, select Charms/Settings/Change PC settings/Search and apps/Search. Move the Get search suggestions and Web results from Bing slider to Off.

It’s a hell of an upgrade when the two top-priority security changes help protect you from Microsoft.

Install a desktop app from start to finish

As a final exercise, you should try installing a classic Windows desktop application or two — just to take back the file-name extensions automatically grabbed by the Metro side of Windows 8. If you don’t have Start8 running, you’ll also get a chance to see how Windows 8.1 dumps a tile for a newly installed program in the Metro-side, All Apps list, which you can see by clicking the new down arrow in the lower-left corner area of the Metro Start screen.

Here’s my list of must-have desktop apps I always install on Windows (the links go to the download sites):

  • VLC media player: Let it take over all supported audio-/video-file formats.
  • PDF-XChange Viewer: I was using Foxit as my free PDF viewer, but too many people have complained to me — rightly — that the Foxit installer tries to sneak junk apps onto your computer. PDF-Change works great, and there’s no slimy side effect.
  • IrfanView: Excellent for viewing pictures.
  • 7-Zip: It not only creates and opens many types of compressed files, it includes encryption to protect your files from prying eyes. 7-Zip should be part of every emailer’s toolkit.

That concludes our hour-long recon trip through Windows 8.1. It’s an improvement over Windows 8, and it makes it relatively easy for those who prefer classic Windows to stay out of Metro hell. Add a third-party Start menu add-on, and you will probably grow to like Windows 8.1.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-10-03:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.