‘PC settings’ gets major makeover in Win8.1

Fred Langa

Microsoft made a host of changes to the commands and options on Windows 8.1’s PC settings page, adding new functions and moving or renaming others.

The result is a better user experience — but one that’s undeniably confusing at first. Here’s a guide to the most important changes.

Windows 8’s disorganized array of settings

Windows 8.0 was roundly — and fairly — criticized for its split personality. The most obvious manifestation of this was the tile-based Metro/Modern interface with full-screen applications versus the more-or-less classic Windows Desktop and multiple application windows.

But users who dug deeper into Windows 8 — including the many Windows Secrets readers who migrated to the new OS — quickly discovered an equally confusing schism in the dozens of common system settings used for personalization, privacy, screen size and resolution, accessing Windows Update, backup/recovery options, and so on. Some of those features now resided in a new Metro-based PC settings page; others, such as the Control Panel, remained in their traditional location.

There was no obvious rhyme or reason to where things ended up. Some options, such as Privacy, were on the Metro side; others were accessed only via the Desktop. Some ended up in both locations. For example, Win8.0’s Metro version of Windows Update let you check for and install Important Windows fixes. But you had to navigate to the classic Windows Update (typically, via Desktop/Control Panel) to see whether there were any optional updates available. (Most experienced Windows users probably went straight to Control Panel/Windows Update and never saw the Metro version.)

In other words, Win8.0 put related controls in different, separately accessed locations. Dumb!

Windows Update is just one example of Win8.0’s poorly designed system-settings schema. There were — and still are — many others.

Windows 8.1 cleans up much of the mess

Although the traditional Control Panel remains available for those who prefer it, Win8.1’s Metro-based PC settings pages now offer a wider and more complete array of important functions and features. You now can configure most Windows settings entirely within the PC Settings pages — there’s no need to jump back and forth between two different control windows, modes, or schemas.

Microsoft also gave the options and commands within PC settings better naming conventions and a more logical layout.

For example, in the Win8.0 layout, Microsoft (somewhat absurdly) lumped critical system-maintenance items — such as Refresh your PC without affecting your files and Remove everything and reinstall Windows — into the same category as relatively trivial items such as Highlight misspelled words. What were they thinking?

Win8.1’s PC settings page now has a separate and clearly named Update and Recovery heading, which, logically enough, now includes Windows Update and the Refresh and Remove options. Much better!

Unfortunately, those of us who eventually learned how to navigate Win8.0’s PC settings now face a time-consuming transition; as Figures 1 and 2 show in part, many of the categories and commands have been moved, renamed, or otherwise altered.

Win8.0's PC Settings

Figure 1. Win8.0's PC settings page contains a relatively small number of options in numerous and seemingly arbitrary groupings.

Win8.1's PC Settings

Figure 2. Win8.1 reorganizes and expands the number of system settings offered in its PC settings page, making it far more logical and complete.

The rest of this article will summarize the changes in PC settings. To help make the information easier to digest, I’ve split it into two parts.

First, for the benefit of Win8.0 early adopters, I’ll focus on what’s been moved or renamed in Windows 8.1. This will help avoid the “where did it go?” confusion that can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming.

Then, I’ll list the major additions to Win8.1’s PC settings — and there are many! Whether you’re already using Windows 8 or will be upgrading from an earlier Windows version, this section will provide a solid overview of Win8.1’s PC settings. It could save you time and effort by revealing features and functions you thought were found elsewhere (such as in Control Panel).

In short, you’ll know where things are in Win8.1’s PC settings — before you have to go hunting for them!

What’s moved/renamed in PC settings, Version 8.1

You access the Win8.1 PC settings just as you did in Version 8.0 — open the Charms bar, click the Settings gear icon, and then click the Change PC Settings link at the bottom of the Settings bar.

As mentioned above, many PC settings components have been renamed or relocated; here’s an item-by-item breakdown of where they’ve gone:

  • Personalize: The Personalize functions have been extensively altered. Although a superficial vestige of the Win8.0 Personalize heading remains in Win8.1’s PC Settings/Personalize page, that screen really just contains shortcuts to the primary Personalize functions, now relocated to other areas in Win8.1’s PC Settings.
    • Lock screen (for changing lock-screen image and apps) has now been relocated to PC and Devices/Lock Screen.
    • Start Screen has been removed from PC Settings entirely. But it’s also been improved; you now can use any image — including your normal Desktop background — as the Start screen image.

      To change the Start screen image in Win8.1, switch to the Desktop, right-click the taskbar, and select Properties. Select the Navigation tab and then select Show my desktop background on Start in the Start screen section.

    • Account picture is now located under the Accounts heading.
  • Users: Win8.0’s Users category has been completely eliminated, and its major functions have moved into Win8.1’s Accounts. (Some also are duplicated in the Top settings area, as shown above in Figure 2.)

    Other categories moved to Win8.1’s Accounts heading include Your Account (local or Microsoft sign-in), Sign-in (password options), and Other users (add or delete user accounts on your PC).

  • Notifications: All the major Notification settings (on/off/adjust) are now found under Search and apps/Notifications.
  • Search: The settings to adjust Win8.1’s search tool are now located under Search and apps/Search.
  • Share: Settings to adjust sharing options (such as which apps should be used for sharing) are now found under Search and apps/Share.
  • General: The Win8.0 General category was a badly organized catch-all that placed items of major and minor consequence on an equal footing. The General category has been removed completely. Its components are redistributed elsewhere as follows:
    • Time settings (time, date, and daylight-saving adjustment) are now under the Time and language/Date and time heading.
    • App Switching settings have been relocated to PC and devices/Corners and edges.
    • Spelling settings are now under PC and devices/Typing/Spelling.
    • Language settings are now under Time and language.
    • Available storage has been renamed and relocated to Search and apps/App sizes.
    • Refresh your PC without affecting your files has been moved to Update and recovery/Recovery.
    • Remove everything and reinstall Windows is also under Update and recovery/Recovery.
    • Advanced startup options may now be accessed under Update and recovery/Recovery.
  • Privacy: This category keeps its name and has been expanded, as explained in the next section. (Some Privacy settings are also duplicated in the Top settings area, as shown in Figure 2, above.)
  • Devices: These settings are now located under PC and devices/Devices.
  • Wireless: The components of the Wireless category have been split. Wi-Fi and Ethernet settings are now found under Network; Bluetooth settings are now under PC and devices/Bluetooth.
  • Sync your settings: This control is now a SkyDrive subcategory called Sync settings.
  • HomeGroup: Look for this under Network/HomeGroup.
  • Windows Update: This all-important tool has been relocated to Update and recovery/Windows Update.

New items added to Win8.1’s PC Settings

There isn’t room here to list all the additions in Windows 8.1’s PC settings menus. Here are the most significant new features and functions:

  • PC and Devices:
    • Lock screen lets you turn on/off slideshows for the Lock screen background, control the use of a built-in or attached camera when the PC is otherwise locked, and allow specific apps to set alarms that appear on the Lock screen.
    • Display lets you customize a PC’s display resolution and orientation; configure multiple displays; connect or disconnect to a wireless display screen; and, on compatible displays, control the size of applications, text, and so forth.
    • Bluetooth. On systems that support this wireless protocol, you can enable/disable Bluetooth and control pairing options.
    • Devices. A truly significant new feature, it gives you the ability to set a custom save location — such as an external drive — for movies, photos, and music.
    • Mouse and touchpad adds basic mouse adjustments to PC Settings — select the primary mouse button, set the number of lines scrolled at one time, set touchpad delay/sensitivity, and so on.
    • Corners and edges combines Win8.0-style app-switching options with new corner navigation settings. Use the latter to enable/disable the upper-corner hotspots. (If enabled, the upper-right corner reveals the Charms bar; the upper-left corner switches to the most recently used app.)
    • Power and sleep offers simple screen- and system-timeout options when a PC is plugged into AC. On portable devices, it adds additional screen/system timeouts when running on battery.
    • Autoplay lets you enable/disable autoplay in general plus set what a autoplay-capable device should do when it’s recognized by your system
    • PC info. Look here for basic system information, such as Windows version, bittedness, RAM, CPU, product key, and so on.
  • SkyDrive (a completely new category):
    • File Storage lets you enable/disable the use of SkyDrive as your PC’s default save-to location, shows you how much space your SkyDrive account has available, and lets you view your SkyDrive files.
    • Camera roll lets you enable/disable the default uploading of copies of your photos and videos to your SkyDrive account. It also controls the resolution (size) of uploaded items.
  • Search and Apps: Use this setting to control whether Bing is the default search engine and whether Bing will have access to your local searches and location information. You also can control how Microsoft will generate personalized ads for you — and to what degree SafeSearch will filter your results.
  • Privacy: New controls allow apps to use (or disallow apps from using) your webcam and microphone. It also includes several lesser privacy-enhancing tweaks.
  • Network: It now includes features that were formerly available only through Control Panel or the Network and Sharing Center. For example, it includes Wi-Fi/Ethernet connection info, airplane mode, and your PC’s Find devices and content settings.
  • Ease of Access: This category gives more extensive control over Narrator, Magnifier, High Contrast, and Mouse settings.
  • Update and recovery: It logically groups the following under one heading: Update, File History, Refresh your PC without affecting your files, Remove everything and reinstall Windows, and Advanced startup.

Confusing initially — but definitely better

These changes, and many minor ones too numerous to include here, are a long step in the right direction. Most of Win8.1’s major adjustments are now available within the PC Settings pages. And you can still find them in their traditional locations, such as the Control Panel or the Network and Sharing Center.

We no longer have to memorize arbitrary locations for important settings; we can, once again, find them in familiar and logical places. In Windows 8.1, PC Settings is less hindrance and more help.

Although Win8 still feels a little schizoid to me — with one foot in the conventional desktop world and the other in the Metro/Modern world — it’s getting easier to use. There’s less mode-switching required, and when you do have to switch modes, the transition is far less disruptive.

That’s a very welcome change!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.