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Windows 8.1: 8 Essential Tips, Tricks

Microsoft Windows 8.1 is highly customizable -- but only if you know your way around its menus. Our tips help you get more from the new OS.

Windows 8 was all about touch -- which is to say, if you didn't have a touchscreen device, using Win 8 could be an aggravating experience. Windows 8.1 is different; it can still be about touch, but it's also a much more successful embodiment of a hybrid OS's true potential: choice.

Windows 8's defenders will point out that the OS has always been customizable -- which is only partly true. As many ways it could be customized, it also represented Microsoft's attempt to shove Live Tiles down users' throats. The new version not only offers a much more satisfying Live Tiles experience but also dispenses with its predecessor's most draconian restrictions: If you want to boot to the desktop or shut down from the Start button, Windows 8.1 lets you do so.

InformationWeek has already covered some of the basic features that let Win 8.1 users choose between a touch-oriented UI and one driven by a trusty keyboard-mouse combo. But the OS includes scores of additional controls to let you tune the experience to your liking.

Here are eight tips and tricks to help you graduate from mere Windows 8.1 user to full-fledged Win 8.1 ninja.

[ Is Windows 8 right for you? Read Windows 8.1: 10 Essential Upgrade Facts. ]

1. Decide how you want to access applications and menus
Windows 8.1 might not have a Start menu, but it provides myriad tools that control how and when applications and menus are displayed.

Your first decision: whether to enable boot to desktop. If you want to do so, you'll need the Taskbar and Navigation menu. With a mouse, you can access the menu directly from the desktop by right-clicking the taskbar and selecting Properties. Otherwise, you can access Taskbar and Navigation by summoning the charms bar from the desktop, selecting Settings, and then choosing Personalization from the subsequent pop-up menu. Touchscreen users can activate charms by swiping from the right side, and users with a keyboard and mouse can do so by typing Windows-i or navigating to the top-right corner.

Next, figure out how you want to access your apps. If you plan to use the Start screen, be aware that it can look cluttered and chaotic if filled with your entire app catalogue. One smart approach: Pin only your most-used apps to Start, which will confine less-used titles to the All Apps view. You can activate All Apps from the Start screen by swiping up from the middle of the screen or navigating the mouse to the bottom left of the Live Tiles and clicking the downward arrow that appears. With the proper configurations in the Taskbar and Navigation menu, the Start button can also trigger the All Apps mode. You can also pin desktop apps to the Start screen; when you click them, Windows 8.1 will move you back to the desktop UI before launching the software.

Speaking of the All Apps view, it can be configured to display apps according to name, usage, installation date, or category -- the last of which enables desktop titles to be listed first. Users can also access a given application by simply typing its name while on the Start screen.

In addition to offering numerous ways to activate the Settings charm or launch applications, Windows 8.1 lets you activate commands using many of the keyboard shortcuts from previous versions of Windows. Windows-e will bring up the desktop's Windows Explorer file navigation window, for example.

2. Manage local storage by listing modern apps according to how much space they take up
If you're running Windows 8.1 on a tablet or ultrathin laptop, chances are your device doesn't come with much built-in storage. Users can manage this problem a couple ways. One is to embrace cloud storage, with Microsoft's baked-in SkyDrive service offering an obvious and generally useful option (see item four in this list). The other option is to remove apps that are eating more space than they're currently worth.

Windows 8.1 makes this second approach fairly easy -- once you've learned where Microsoft has stashed the necessary controls. You'll need the PC Settings menu, which you can access via the charms bar described above. From there, select Settings, then Change PC settings, then Search and Apps, and finally App Sizes.

3. Learn how to interpret and filter Bing Smart Search results
Windows 8.1 integrates Bing directly into the OS; search terms can be entered via the charms bar or by simply typing from the Start screen. Results are shown in a fluid, single-page view that incorporates, not only local returns, but also SkyDrive files and images, videos, sites, and other returns from the Web. Smart Search also keeps track of your preferences over time, which should theoretically help it offer more useful results. All in all, it's a potentially powerful tool, especially for somewhat open-ended queries. But it's not the best option for all searches, or for all users.

To tweak Smart Search settings, you'll need the Search and Apps submenu again, explained in item two above. From here, navigate to the Search menu. This view will let you determine the extent to which Bing uses personal data, such as your location, to tailor search returns. It also includes SafeSearch controls for filtering out adult content, and Metered Connection settings to help users with monthly data caps avoid overages.

You can further refine searches using a drop-down menu that appears above the Search charm textbox as you type. Queries search "everywhere" by default, pooling both local results and Web results into a single page. Users can choose to confine their searches to settings, files, Web images, or Web videos, however.

Though Microsoft added new search functions in 8.1, it also removed one feature from Windows 8 -- the ability to search within specific apps from the Search charm. Win 8 allows users to search Live Tile titles such as the Mail app or the Windows Store from within the Search charm. If you want to search within an app in Windows 8.1, though, you'll need to launch the app and look for a built-in search field.

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User Rank: Ninja
11/24/2013 | 4:47:31 PM
Re: Wary Upgrade
If you could switch over to all apps that use the Metro interface, then your learning curve would be easier.  The one foot in both worlds is a real drain on productivity.  Most people have enough issues mastering one world, let alone two.
User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2013 | 8:59:06 PM
MS eventually listened somewhat
It seems as though MS does listen to it's users. Not as much as I would like but they did listen. The boot to desktop option is a nice one although I'm not sure why that wasn't in the first release. The important thing is it's there now. These are great tips for windows 8.1.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2013 | 5:34:12 PM
More comfortable with 8.1
I have been running 8.0 on a non-touch laptop since release.  Barely used the modern UI.  Upgraded to 8.1 and began using modern UI more once new apps started showing up like a real Facebook and twitter app plus Netflix, tripAdvisor, Flixster, Kayak etc. But finally, the release of FlipBoard is what made the difference for me. All apps that I use regulary on my android tablet.  Got to the point where I decided to purchase a Lenovo Yoga since I love the hardware and the multiple configurations. For me it is the most useful hybrid/convertible/ whatever you want to call it and really makes 8.1 better.  Just sold my android tablet on eBay and now getting really comfortable using Windows 8.1.  With the apps view under the Start screen, I don't miss the start Menu at all, even for Win 7 apps.  I won't be trading in my android phone anytime soon, but I really don't miss my android tablet. And when I need to do real work, I just flip the keyboard into laptop mode and launch Citrix Receiver and I am in business. That last part lends for a very bad experience from an android tablet or iPad.
User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2013 | 8:00:13 AM
Re: Wary Upgrade
While Win 8 and 8.1 can be a bit frustrating with a mouse and keyboard it's not impossible to navigate it just takes some adjustment.  When I first started playing with Win 8 I would get fed up after a few minutes and just shut it down then go back to my Win 7 install after spending some time with it the interface has become a bit more natural even if scrolling left to right when on the home screen to launch apps.  The biggest hurdle is that we have started to depend on the Start menu, once you get past that the UI starts to make more sense and you feel less lost.  In time I think a lot of the complaining will fall to the wayside but I can also see Win  7 holding on the way XP has for desktop users.
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/19/2013 | 1:51:26 PM
Re: Wary Upgrade
Given both Windows 8's status and the hardware available when you were probably looking, I don't blame you for going with Windows 7.

I think some who shared your experience might be pleasantly surprised by the new Windows 8.1 devices, though. 8.1 won't be just like Windows 7; there's still a learning curve, albeit not the steep one that was in Windows 8. But 8.1 gives you a lot more flexibility to ignore the Tiles, and on my Surface Pro, I find the 8.1 desktop much faster and stabler than any Windows 7 machines I've ever used. I think Windows 8.1's native apps are actually useful, so I'd encourage people to check them out, even those people who were turned off by the Modern UI in the original version of Windows 8.

Windows 8.1 is still probably most geared for tablet/hybrid users, but I think it will be more popular than Win 8 among "regular" laptop users as well-- not as popular Windows 7 was, but probably good enough if you're in the market for a new, high-quality laptop and don't want/ can't buy a MacBook Air or Pro.
User Rank: Ninja
11/19/2013 | 1:22:43 PM
Re: Wary Upgrade
I have to say, I was looking at Windows laptops a while back, and Windows 8 was the biggest turn off in that decision process. I don't even know truly whether it's as bad as people tell me it is, but the bottom line is that I am happy with Windows 7. I don't /want/ to change, given a choice - I just want new hardware. Maybe 8.1 will resolve those issues; I sure hope so because the tile interface is just hideous.
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/19/2013 | 1:22:09 PM
Re: Wary Upgrade
If you're on a non-touch machine, I think Windows 8.1 will be a worthwhile upgrade. It gives you more ways to customize the mouse-and-keyboard experience, and in my experience, almost everything runs faster than it did in Windows 8-- both desktop software and Windows store apps. I personally don't mind the new Start button, but I understand why a lot of people do. With a replacement like Classic Shell, Windows 8.1 should be even more like a "faster version of Windows 7" than before.
User Rank: Ninja
11/19/2013 | 12:03:50 PM
Wary Upgrade
I was not really happy when my laptop died and I had no choice in getting a new one with Windows 8 on it.  I've reached an uneasy truce with Metro on my non-touch Toshiba.  I added Classic Shell, reassigned all the default program launches and avoid Metro as best I can and it sits (mostly) quietly in the background consuming CPU cycles. It pretty much works like a faster Windows 7.  Although I'm not enamored with SkyDrive, it looks like it might be time to look at the 8.1 upgrade.
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