Touring through the final Windows 8.1

Woody Leonhard

After much public criticism and internal debate, Microsoft made an abrupt about-face and released Windows 8.1 RTM to TechNet and MSDN subscribers — well before the OS’s public debut.

With release-to-manufacturer, Windows 8.1 is effectively complete and will roll out to Windows 8 users in mid-October.

As reported in a ZDNet story and other sources, Microsoft initially decided that TechNet/MSDN subscribers (Microsoft’s developer “partners” — a term I use loosely) would see official Windows 8 RTM bits at the same time as everyone else — the reported Oct. 18 general-availability release date, when consumers will be able to download the Win8 upgrade.

Developers, support people, and folks who write about Windows 8.1 (like me) hit the roof. Leaving IT professionals in the dark until everyone gets the bits is just (to use Bill G.’s favorite word) “stupid!” But, as noted in a Neowin.net article, sanity eventually prevailed and the near-final, final Win8.1 suddenly appeared on the TechNet and MSDN software-download sites.

That’s fortunate for all of us; we can now take an early look at the official Windows 8.1 RTM and not have to rely on “pirated” copies.

Before going through Windows 8.1, I’ll cut directly to the 30-second summary: if you have Windows 8, you’re going to want to upgrade to Windows 8.1. There are a few gotchas (see below), but by and large Win 8.1 is an improvement.

On the other hand, if you’re still using Windows 7 and you’re on the fence about migrating to Windows 8, nothing in Win8.1 will sway your decision to upgrade. For traditional Windows users who are perfectly happy with a mouse, a nice screen, and a comfortable keyboard — and who prefer to not poke at big, blinking boxes — Win8.1 brings nothing new to the table.

Enhancing Windows 8′s Start screen experience

Win8′s tiled (aka Metro) Start screen is what nearly all users love, hate, or love to hate about the new operating system. For the most part, the Win8.1 Start screen is just like Win8′s — a full-screen, live-tiled, touch-centric counterpoint to the classic Windows desktop. Most of Win8.1′s improvements are somewhat behind the curtains. They include:

  • Tile control: In Windows 8, it’s much too easy to mess up the Start screen. For example, you can accidentally move a tile by tapping it the wrong way. Or you can bring up the tile-delete screen by simply wiping downward.

    In Win8.1, you have to go into a special Customize mode (see Figure 1) before you’re allowed to move or delete tiles — which is good.

    Metro Start customize

    Figure 1. You first must flip into customize mode before you can move or delete tiles on the Win8.1 Start screen.

  • All Apps list: A new down-arrow icon on the Start screen makes it easier to bring up the Apps list. Once there, you can easily re-sort the list by name, date installed, most used, or category. Right-clicking any open space on the All Apps screen pops up the Customize tool, which lets you “Pin to Start” or “Find in Start.”

    In the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog box, accessed through the Desktop (more on it below), you can also select List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it’s sorted by category.

  • Snap View slider: In Win8, Snap View can display two running Metro apps side by side. (The Win8 Desktop counts as one “Metro program.”) One app occupies a 320-pixel stripe on the left or right, the other app takes up the rest of the screen. In Win8.1, you can slide the dividing bar between the two snapped programs, side to side, setting their width to your preference. If you have a monitor more than 1,500 pixels wide, you can now have three Metro apps running side by side.
  • Charms bar changes: Win8.1 has beefed up a couple of charms. For example, the Devices charm now has Play, Print, and Project (as in project on a projector) options. And the Personalize options now show up in the main Charms-bar Settings menu. (It was previously buried in the Change PC settings page.) The new Personalize makes it easier to set background and accent colors — of almost any shade and hue — and lets you apply them to an array of background designs.

    Microsoft might be de-emphasizing the use of the Charms bar. Many of the Win8.1 Metro apps now include their own search boxes. Now, when you do go to the Charms bar, it’s a bit more useful.

  • Metro application improvements: Windows 8.1 RTM reveals some significant changes to its Start screen apps. You can, for example, create folders within the new Mail. I expect we’ll see even more changes to the apps before the OS ships in October.

    Certainly, Xbox Music and Xbox Video are in for changes — they’re almost as useless in Win8.1 RTM as they are with Windows 8. Many Windows 8 users have complained about the lack of useful Metro apps. (What’s offered in the Windows Store is more of an endorsement for iOS apps and their Android counterparts.) But to make Win8.1 (and the Windows 8 platform in general) succeed, Microsoft must deliver a solid library of compelling Metro software. Otherwise, many Win8x users will simply bypass the Start screen altogether by adding a third-party Start menu to the Win8x Desktop.

  • Some odds and ends: Other “enhancements” to the Start screen include a lock screen that can cycle through a folder full of pictures, plus the ability to take a photo without signing in to the Metro Camera app (now that’s a feature I really need on my desktop).

    System setting might be even more bifurcated (trifurcated?) in Win8.1 than in Win8. As noted above with Personalize, the main Charms Settings tab has additional options; the PC settings page has been reorganized — possibly for the better; and then there’s still the classic Control Panel, which seems to know nothing about the Metro side of Windows.

A bit of tinkering with the classic desktop

I turn rabid when I read reviews stating that the Win7-style Start menu is back on the desktop. That just isn’t true — it’s not even close to true. In Windows 8.1, there’s an icon on the left side of the taskbar that resembles the new Windows icon. If you click on the “Start button” — Microsoft’s term for it — you get hurled straight back to the Start screen. It’s essentially the same as clicking in the lower-left corner of the Win8 Desktop screen. Only the feeble-minded would mistake that for a Win7-style Start button.

That said, the new ersatz Start button does have one redeeming feature. If you right-click it, you can Sign out, Shut down, or Restart (or Sleep, if you’re using a laptop) without making a trip back to the depths of the Start screen.

If you want a real Start menu, you still need to install a separate, third-party application. (See the Feb. 28 Windows 8 story, “Four apps that restore the Start menu in Win8,” (paid content). They all reportedly work in Windows 8.1 as well. I still swear by Start8 (site), which I know works fine in Windows 8.1. It’ll set you back all of U.S. $5.

Most of the important improvements to the Desktop are concentrated in one, somewhat hard-to-find dialog box — the Navigation tab in Taskbar and Navigation properties (see Figure 2).

The Navigation properties tab

Figure 2. If you find Win8.1's hot corners intrusive, disable them with this new dialog box.

To find that dialog box, right-click any empty spot on the Desktop taskbar, choose Properties, and then click the Navigation tab. (No, you won’t find these settings in the Control Panel or the Start screen’s PC Settings page.)

In the Corner navigation section, uncheck the box When I point to the upper-right corner, show the charms. This will prevent the Charms bar from popping up if you hover your mouse too long in the upper-right corner of the Desktop — for example, when you’re trying to click the X to close a window. (I hate that!)

If you leave the second box checked, Win8.1 will show you the list of currently running programs when you do an upper-left corner hover. If you uncheck the box, Win8.1 lets you hover in the upper-left corner all you like without springing the app list on you. (Tip: Alt + Tab works just as well as it always has for switching among running apps.)

That same dialog box also offers Start screen controls. Those who live in the Desktop will want to check the When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start box. (As a Start screen option, this applies only to shutting down Metro apps; it has no effect on Desktop applications.) Uncheck that box, and you’ll start booting directly to the desktop — where most Windows users prefer to reside.

A few improvements to both sides of the fence

I described Microsoft accounts in the Nov. 15, 2012, Woody’s Windows (paid content). If you sign in to Win8.1 with a Microsoft account, SkyDrive appears in all its glory — both on the Metro side (where there’s a new Metro SkyDrive app) and the Desktop side (where SkyDrive appears in File Explorer).

The Internet-based version of SkyDrive still has the most features, but the Metro SkyDrive app is at least capable of navigating your local disk, making it the closest thing to a Metro-based File Explorer that Microsoft offers.

Skype is included with Windows 8.1, and the Metro-style version is actually usable. Windows 8′s Metro Messaging, however, is gone, replaced by the messaging capabilities in Skype. That, too, is a good thing.

Some Windows 8.1 ‘features’ best avoided

Windows 8′s search charm is a bit funky — it doesn’t work the way most people would expect, but at least it isn’t a stoolie for Microsoft. In Windows 8.1, that changes drastically. By default, when you enter search terms into the Charms bar search box, Win8.1 uses the new “Smart Search” feature to search Everywhere — not just your local system but the Internet, too. If you don’t remember to change the drop-down filter box to something else (such as Files), Smart Search sends every search string you enter to Microsoft. Search your files for “pregnant” or “Aryan nation” or “Anonymous” or “HIV,” and those search terms are passed along — with your Microsoft account information — to the company.

Microsoft promotes Smart Search as a way to retrieve information from the Internet that might (but also might not) match your local search. For example, enter steve ballmer into the Charms search box and press Enter without changing the search filter from Everything, and you end up with a Bing-produced bio page, as shown in Figure 3.

Default smart search

Figure 3. Using the default Charms-bar Search settings might cost you your privacy.

All the better to Bing you with later. When Microsoft talks to consumers about Smart Search, the marketing folks use terms such as “innovative” and “giving people a faster way to find, discover, and do.” But when the company talks to advertisers about this feature, here’s what it promotes:

“Bing Ads will be an integral part of the new Windows 8.1 Smart Search experience. Now, with a single campaign setup, advertisers can connect with consumers across Bing, Yahoo! and the new Windows Search with highly relevant ads for their search queries. In addition, Bing Ads will include web previews of websites and the latest features like site links, location and call extensions, making it easier for consumers to complete tasks and for advertisers to drive qualified leads.”

That’s how your private search information is being sold in Windows 8.1.

To turn off Smart Search, go to the Start screen, bring up the Settings charm, click Change PC settings/Search and apps/Search. Move the Get search suggestions and Web results from Bing to off.

My other big beef with Windows 8.1 is its de-emphasis of Win7-style libraries.

Both Windows 7 and Windows 8 build very useful default libraries for you. Your Documents Library, for example, includes the \Documents folder as well as the \Public\Documents folder; Music Library includes \Music and \Public\Music — and so on with Pictures and Videos.

That makes it easy to find and share files. If you want to share a file, just stick it into one of the \Public folders; it’s immediately available to other users on your computer and network. (Fred Langa discusses Windows Libraries in detail in the March 10, 2011, Top Story.)

Libraries have been around for a long time, but Microsoft appears to be killing them, starting with Windows 8.1. If you sign in to Windows 8.1 with a Microsoft account that’s already been used on Windows 8, your libraries come through as you set them up. The same Windows technology that syncs settings between computers also syncs your libraries between Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.

But if you sign in to Windows 8.1 with a new Microsoft account — or with a local account — your libraries turn into a shambles. Assuming you signed up for SkyDrive during the installation of Win8.1, your Documents Library now includes \Documents and \SkyDrive\Documents, with the \SkyDrive\Documents folder set as the default. Thus, if you have a program that saves files to the Documents Library (for example, Word or WordPad), your new files are saved to SkyDrive, not to your \Documents or \Public\Documents folder.

Of course, Microsoft charges you for exceeding the limited free SkyDrive allotment. Ka-ching!

In this brave new anti-libraries world, your default Music Library includes only \Music. Same for Pictures and Videos. So, for example, if you use Windows Media Player to get at your Music Library, you won’t see music stored in the \Public\Music folder unless you manually add that folder to your Music Library. And the only easy way to share those tunes — short of fixing the lousy libraries — is to put them in SkyDrive. Ka-ching!

Microsoft’s dissing of libraries is all the more amazing because the Metro Photos app uses the Pictures Library — which is clobbered in Win8.1. I guess somebody on the Metro Photos dev team didn’t get the memo.

To show your libraries in Windows 8.1′s File Explorer, click on the View tab; under the Navigation pane icon, check the item marked Show Libraries.

To put your libraries back the way they should be, follow the instructions in Fred’s article to add the \Public\Documents folder to your Documents Library, add your \Public\Pictures folder to the Pictures Library — and so on for the Music and Videos Public folders.

Bottom line: The new Windows is obviously an ongoing project — even for Microsoft. Win8.1 fixes a few of the more egregious omissions in Windows 8, but there’s obviously much more to come. Given Microsoft’s recent reorganization, exactly when those changes will come and where Windows will go next even Microsoft might not know at this point.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-09-19:

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.