A Fresh Look at an Improved Windows 8

It’s been a year-and-a-half since Windows 8 debuted with much fanfare, but that doesn’t mean it’s garnered very many fans—as evidenced by how few people seem to use it. According to NetMarketShare’s May 2014 numbers, Windows 7 commands a 50 percent share of the desktop operating system market, while the nearly 15-year-old Windows XP—which was finally forsaken by Microsoft this past April—still garners 25 percent. By comparison, Windows 8 claims a relatively paltry share at just less than 13 percent.

Windows Store apps in taskbar

Figure 1: Windows Store apps can now appear in the desktop taskbar, making it easier to launch or switch between them.

The lack of enthusiasm for Windows 8 is due largely to Microsoft’s radically reworked touch- and tile-oriented interface, which can be jarring to Windows users who’ve spent years interacting with Windows via icons and mice. Although Microsoft originally seemed intent on dragging these folks kicking and screaming into the future, the company has changed its approach.

Now, after a pair of updates, Windows 8 is much more accommodating—so much so that people who have stayed loyal to older versions (especially XP, which again, is now officially dead) should seriously consider taking a second look.

A Better Windows 8.1 Update

Microsoft’s first major Windows 8 update, Windows 8.1—released last October—included several major concessions to the old way of doing things, such as reintroducing the Start button in desktop mode (albeit though not quite the same Start button found in Windows 7 and earlier), and adding the option to boot Windows directly into that Desktop mode rather than the new tile-festooned Start screen.

But the most recent update to Windows 8.1, known as, well…Windows 8.1 Update, includes a number of small changes that go a long way toward making the operating system more comfortable for old-school Windows users working with mice on conventional desktops and laptops.

Before we get into the particulars of the Windows 8.1 Update, here’s some background if you already have a Windows 8 PC. If you currently have Windows 8.1, you’ll get the Windows 8.1 update automatically (assuming you have automatic updates turned on).  If you’re still running Windows 8, upgrading to Windows 8.1 now will get you the latest update as well. Click here if you’re not sure which version of Windows 8 you have, and here for information on how to manually install the Windows 8.1 update.

What’s New and Noteworthy in Windows 8.1 Update

1. Boot to desktop is the default

As previously mentioned, Windows 8.1 gave you the option to start in desktop mode, but you had to find and configure the setting yourself. Windows 8.1 Update finally handles startup the way it arguably should have been done all along; on desktops and laptops, Windows automatically starts up in desktop mode. (Sensibly, this isn’t the case for tablets, which continue to boot to the Start screen.)

taskbar in windows store app

Figure 2: Even when you’re in a full-screen Windows Store app, you can still summon the taskbar by moving the mouse to the bottom edge of the screen.

As for convertible/hybrid systems—i.e. those with a touch display and detachable keyboard—Microsoft considers these tablets. If you frequently use yours as a standard laptop and want to force it to boot into desktop mode, follow these steps: right-click the desktop taskbar > choose Properties > select the Navigation tab > check When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start.

2. Windows Store apps can appear in desktop taskbar

One of the more irksome aspects of Windows 8 is the disconnected relationship between the tiled Start screen and the traditional Windows desktop. Windows Store apps run in the former, other software runs in the latter, and switching between the two is cumbersome.

Windows 8.1 Update better integrates these two environments. For starters, you can now pin Windows Store apps to the desktop taskbar; you no longer have to jump over to the Start screen to launch them—a real boon to anyone who spends most of their time in desktop mode. Here’s how to pin a Windows Store app to the taskbar: right-click the tile and choose Pin to taskbar. (You may notice that the actual Windows Store app is pinned to the taskbar automatically.)

Even better, Windows 8.1 Update can display all running Windows Store apps in the desktop taskbar, which makes it much easier switch back and forth between all of your running apps, regardless of type. This feature isn’t the default setting, but it’s easy to activate. Right-click the taskbar  > choose Properties > and check Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar.

And when you do switch to a full-screen Windows Store app, the taskbar is still within easy reach—just move the mouse to the bottom edge of the screen and it will reappear so you can switch to another app.

windows store app menu bar

Figure 3: The addition of a menu bar to Windows Store apps makes it easier to close or otherwise manipulate them with a mouse.

3. Better mouse control of Windows Store apps

Trying to close or manipulate Windows Store apps with a mouse rather than using touch gestures is quite frustrating, but the Windows 8.1 Update addresses this issue, too. Move the mouse to the top edge of the screen in a Windows Store app, and you’ll see conventional minimize and close buttons at the upper right. Moreover, when you right-click the icon at the top left corner of a Windows Store app, a context menu lets you split-screen the app along the left or right edge. (NOTE: If you don’t enable the Show Windows Store apps on the taskbar option as described above, you won’t get a minimize button.)

4. Data files open in desktop apps

If you live mainly in desktop mode, few things are more annoying than clicking on a file—say, a PDF or JPG—and having it open in the corresponding full-screen Windows Store app such as Reader or Photos.  With Windows 8.1 Update, such files will open in the appropriate desktop app such as Adobe Reader (provided it’s installed) or Windows Photo Viewer. (Although you can override this behavior in Windows 8, doing so is a chore since you have to reconfigure the default apps for many different file types.)

5. Search and Power buttons on the Start screen

Windows 8 introduced the concept of “just type” searching, allowing you to simply start typing a search term at the Start screen and have results appear automatically. Bu many people find this unintuitive, plus this method allows you to apply a filter (e.g. apps, settings, files) only after entering the search term. With Windows 8.1 Update, a clickable magnifying glass button at the top-right of the Start screen provides a visual cue and lets you conduct searches in a more conventional fashion by applying filters (settings, files, Web images, Web videos) in advance.

Shutting down or restarting a Windows 8 PC with a mouse or keyboard previously required a bit too much effort, requiring you to either conjure up the Settings menu from the Charms bar off the right edge of the screen or to invoke it directly via the Windows+I key combo on desktops and laptops. Windows 8.1 Update places a dedicated power button on the Start screen, making shutdowns/restarts more convenient.

Bottom Line

 if you’ve been avoiding Windows 8 because it was trying to take you someplace you didn’t want to go (small businesspeople don’t always have time for a steep learning curve, after all), you will likely find Windows 8.1 Update much more to your liking. It makes the OS behave the way you expect it to rather than forcing you to accommodate it.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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