Sometimes we wonder if Microsoft didn’t actually build a new OS so much as a Frankenstein that its customers could direct years of pent up anger, frustration, and fear onto. For example, just hint that Windows 8.0 ain’t that bad on the Internet, and some Windows users will react as if you keyed their mint ’64 Chevelle Malibu and kicked their dog with your steel-toed boot. To say you’ll get a beat down of YouTube-able proportions is an understatement of people’s rage at Windows 8.0 today.
It’s this gale-force headwind that Microsoft is flying into with its first major update to the much-maligned OS, which some blame for the record declines in PC sales. Dubbed Windows 8.1, this point release promises to address some of the major concerns people have with Windows 8.0 and even reintroduce the familiar Start button. But does it? Can this simple point release calm the seething masses?
Maybe and maybe not. If anything, it might actually make some people even angrier. Windows 8.1 brings back the Start button, yes, but it turns out it wasn’t just the Start button we wanted, but the Start Menu that came with it. The process to even get the update and who exactly gets it and the work-arounds isn’t going to make too many friends, either. In the past, major updates could be downloaded and installed on all of your machines en masse with little effort. Not so this time. Just getting the update on Windows 8.0 requires following a flow chart and throwing chicken bones across the top of your chassis.
Yes, we know you’re skeptical, distrustful, and even a little pissed off, but to find out the full skinny on what you need to do to get Windows 8.1 and whether it’s even worth the hassle, and how to make the most of it should you decide to take the plunge, you’ll need to read the whole story.
Updating to Win8.1: easy for some, a real PITA for others
Windows 8.1 is no mere Service Pack. No, it’s a whole tenth better than Windows 8.0, thus the point-release designation by Microsoft. Therein lies most of the problems with even getting Windows 8.1. People expect it to be as easy and painless as a Service Pack, but it ain’t. For the vast majority of folks, it just works, but that’s no consolation to those of us who hit snags. Here are the possible issues you could encounter. (Note: We highly recommended that you run a backup before you install the upgrade, as going back isn’t always easy).
Anyone who is currently running Windows 8.0 or the Windows 8.1 Preview is eligible for the upgrade. If you were waiting for the notification to pop up in Windows Update that Windows 8.1 is ready for download, stop. In its infinite wisdom, Microsoft has decided that despite intense hatred by many of the Modern interface, that’s the only place you can get the Windows 8.1 update, in the Windows Store. Even more confusing, this won’t work for everyone. Those running the Enterprise version of Windows 8 or Win8 Pro using a volume license, MSDN, MAK, or TechNet key will not be able to grab the update in this manner. Instead, Microsoft is recommending that those with VLK versions download the ISO from MSDN or TechNet and perform an in-place upgrade. Enterprise users are recommended to just talk to their sys admin about how to update. Not sure what you’re running? Just hit Windows R and type slmgr.vbs –dli and Windows will identify your version.
Microsoft has included the requirement that the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 support the CMPXCHG16b instruction. This won’t cause problems for anyone with a modern CPU, but if you’re using one of those earlier CPUs that had 64-bit support but not an explicit CMPXCHG16b instruction, you’re screwed. According to formerly in-print PCWorld.com, the affected chips include Athlon 64 X2 parts, Opteron 185, and other “vintage” 64-bit processors. Sometimes, it’s not even just the CPU, as reports indicate that the Core 2 Quad, which apparently supports the instruction, is stopped by the error because the P35 chipset doesn’t support it. The “fix” is to run 32-bit, or not run the upgrade. There is also a reported work-around but it’s no fun to execute and would take a page just to describe. Poo.
Getting the upgrade should be simple, except it’s not. First, as we said, you can only get it through the Windows Store from within the Modern UI. Second, well, sometimes it still won’t show up. Why not? You need to have all of the previous updates installed first. You may also need to reset the Windows Store. You can do this by swiping in from the right, touching the magnifying glass icon, and… oh hell, forget that. Just start a command prompt by hitting Windows Key + R and typing wsreset.exe. Now reboot. Go back into the Store and the update should be displayed prominently. Still not getting it? It’s possible that your Windows 8 is a version that doesn’t qualify—meaning it’s an Enterprise or Professional version using a product key from MSDN, TechNet, or a volume license. Unfortunately, your only answer may be an in-place upgrade (if you’re lucky) or nuking from orbit.
The Windows 8.1 upgrade can only be found in the Windows Store, and only after all Win 8.0 updates are applied.
If you installed the preview version of Windows 8.1 and are still using it, your trial license is about to expire. After January 2014, you have to activate with a retail product key. You'll still need to download the final version of the OS, too. Thankfully, you can get that update from the Windows Store, just as if you were upgrading from a retail copy of Windows 8.0. The store is the green-and-white "shopping bag" icon on the Start screen, which you access by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard.
If you made a "clean install" of the preview version from ISO media, where you use a DVD or USB key to completely replace the current operating system instead of upgrading from it (or you installed onto a blank hard drive), you too can use the Windows Store to upgrade to version 8.1.
Since Windows 8 no longer comes with a Start menu, a cottage industry has emerged to fill the gap. Windows 8.1 has a Start button, but no new functionality is present. Our third-party Start menu, Start Menu 8 (free, www.iobit.com), had no issues with our updating to Windows 8.1. Microsoft's new Start button just never appeared.
The trickier issue is Microsoft accounts. By default, Windows 8.1 does not invite you to create a standard local account during the installation phase, which stores your credentials on your computer like usual, rather than on Microsoft's server in the "cloud." Instead, the company wants you to sign into a pre-existing account for services like Hotmail or Outlook.com, or create a new one inside this networked ecosystem. To get around this installation step, click Create Account instead of entering your Outlook.com or Hotmail login. Then, at the bottom of the next page, click "Continue using my existing account." If you are installing 8.1 from scratch, you will have the option to create a new local account instead.
Win 8.1 will prompt you to create a Microsoft account, but you can bypass that in favor of a local login.
An MS account isn't bad news or anything. It allows you to use SkyDrive to sync your apps and settings across different PCs. It will let you consolidate Facebook, Twitter, Outlook, and LinkedIn feeds into the People app. It makes Hotmail and Outlook.com integration smoother. And you need it to get and update apps from the App Store, anyway. (You don't have to worry about not being able to log in if you're offline, because Windows itself will "remember" the last correct password you entered.) You can also switch your PC from an MS account to a local account later on.
If you have a small business or a household with a bunch of Windows 8.0 machines, downloading the 8.1 update for each PC could take a lot of time and bandwidth, since each download is basically the entire OS. But we know a trick to convert this download into an ISO, which you can then put on a DVD or USB flash drive, so that you only need to download it once. Be advised, however, that this only apparently works if you are running a retail version of Windows 8.0—the downloader rejected the OEM keys we tried as well as the “generic keys” floating around the Internets.
You can download a full ISO of Windows 8.1 to perform an in-place upgrade or even clean installs, sorta.
Pick any of your Windows 8.0 PCs and navigate to this Microsoft site: http://bit.ly/SCANcl. Have your product key ready. Click the "Install Windows 8.1" button. Choose "Install by creating media," click Next, select ISO File, and click Next again. Choose the destination folder of the download, and click Next. The program will now download the Windows 8.1 update and create an ISO for it. Then it will ask if you want to burn the ISO to a DVD right now. You do have the option to create a bootable USB stick, but the general consensus is to just save the ISO instead, as you can always create a bootable USB stick version later on using the Windows 7 USB/DVD download tool: http://bit.ly/162L74X. Using this disc, you’re still limited to an in-place upgrade only—not a service-pack-like upgrade.
You may have been told that you can't install Windows 8.1 from scratch and use a Windows 8.0 key. However, you can use a "generic" key designed for testing. The “generic” keys we refer to are those floating around the Internets—if you Bing “generic Windows 8.1 key” it shouldn’t take too long to find. Using the generic key, you will be able to eval Windows 8.1 for 120 days. Once you’ve entered in the correct generic key for your version of Windows (either Core or Pro) you can now activate it with your original, licensed Windows 8.0 key.
Once you've completed installation using one of these keys, open Windows Explorer (it's the folder icon in your taskbar), right-click This PC, select Properties, and click the link at the bottom-right that says Activate Windows. Then click the first Enter Key button and enter your Windows 8.0 retail key. Your copy of Windows 8.1 is now officially installed.
Windows 8.1 introduces a visual upgrade to the method for changing your product key.
The essential first steps to making Win 8.1 desktop-worthy
Like candy? Then you’ll love Windows 8.1, because the improvements Microsoft has made in its first major iterative update to the Windows 8 operating system include a ton of eye-candy tweaks that should make your experience within the operating system prettier, at least—and in some cases, a bit more user-friendly!
No, you still don’t get a “real” Start button and, no, you can’t ditch the Modern UI for good without a third-party program. We’ll consider Microsoft’s tweaks to be but baby steps on the grand evolution of its Windows 8 ecosystem, one that hopefully comes with even more happy desktop/Modern UI integration for those still displeased by the touch-themed tidbits of Microsoft’s latest OS.
One of the most frustrating elements of Windows 8 is its inability to boot directly to the classic Windows desktop, instead dumping users onto the Start screen with each and every flick of the power switch. Thankfully, Windows 8.1 gives you a bit more freedom in that regard.
To boot to Desktop mode instead of the Start screen, hit up your desktop, right-click your taskbar, and select Properties. Click the Navigation tab and select the option: “When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start.” How’s that for a description?
Good for you; you have a strong password for your Microsoft Live account and you aren’t afraid to use it. If you’re the only one who ever has access to your desktop or laptop, however, maybe the act of typing in that 30-character passphrase is more trouble than it’s worth. Let’s simplify.
Switch over to Windows 8.1’s Modern UI, hover your mouse in the lower-right corner to reveal the Charms Bar, and click the Settings button. Click Change PC Settings on the bottom-right corner, click Accounts, and then click Sign-in Options. Set up a PIN, and you’ll have a much easier time logging into your home system without compromising the integrity of your long Live password. Set up a picture password, and you’ll get to have a bit of fun using taps, circle-gestures, and lines to serve as your system’s new authentication method.
One of the first places we like to stop within Windows 8.1—after we’ve installed some of our favorite third-party apps such as Media Player Classic (or VLC) for our videos and Chrome for our webpages—is the operating system’s list of default programs. That doesn’t sound very sexy, we realize, but it’s a key part of Windows 8.1 that allows you to exert an iron fist over how your operating system treats your files.
We often find ourselves checking the Default Programs window from time to time, just in case something else has taken over our favorite app’s file types.
Fire up the Modern UI, type in default, and select the Default Programs option that appears within the sidebar search results. Click “Set your default programs,” and then find an app in the left-hand portion of the window that appears that you want to be, well, the default app for all file types that it can open. Highlight it, click the “Set this program as default” option, and you’ll never have to wonder why Windows Media Player is trying to load your jams instead of VLC.
Running two monitors at once is an awesome feeling. Such power. Getting your taskbar to play friendly with both monitors is the Mario Super Star of a dual-display setup in Windows 8.1, and here’s how you do it: Hit up Windows 8.1’s desktop mode and right-click the taskbar, then select Properties, which will bring up the new “Taskbar and Navigation properties” window. On the very first tab that appears (Taskbar), you’ll see a few options toward the very bottom.
We were just as confused as you when we couldn’t find our file libraries in Windows 8.1.
Uncheck the “Show taskbar on all displays” to confine your taskbar to one display. If you’d rather be a bit more surgical about your taskbar, you can always select on which taskbar you’d prefer your running apps’ buttons be located, depending on what screen they’re active on. You can also globally set whether you want an app’s multiple windows to combine into a single button, or exist as independent objects on each taskbar. (The “Taskbar buttons” setting controls your primary monitor; the “Buttons on other taskbars” controls your other monitors.)
A new tweak in Windows 8.1 finally allows us to use a single desktop background for both the Modern UI and Windows 8.1’s desktop mode. To unify these two seemingly disparate environments, right-click your taskbar on the Windows 8.1 desktop and select Properties. From there, click the Navigation tab. Select the option to “Show my desktop background on Start,” and you’ll now be able to look at the same, pretty picture regardless of whether you’re clicking around the Modern UI or “classic” Windows desktop.
Tired of all those funky bits of Windows 8.1’s Modern UI appearing unexpectedly, like when you accidentally mouse over one of the four corners of your display? We can fix that; we have the power. Fire up the Start screen, move your mouse over to the lower-right corner, click Settings, and then click Change PC Settings at the bottom. Select “PC and devices,” and then “Corners and edges.”
While you can’t disable everything about the Modern UI, you can use the corresponding on/off switches to hide Windows 8.1’s upper-left Recent Apps pullout, in addition to the upper-right hotspot for the Charms Bar. You’ll still be able to (or have to) access the Charms Bar via Windows 8.1’s lower-right hotspot, but it’s a start, right?
Once you’ve made the jump to Windows 8.1, you might notice that a certain part of File Explorer no longer exists—namely, easy access to your good-ol’ Windows libraries, those helpful Documents, Music, Video, and Pictures links that gave you a quick and easy way to check out all of your writing and media.
Well, the libraries may be gone, but they’re not gone for good. To bring them back into File Explorer, you just need to fire it up and click the View tab. From there, click the Navigation Pane button toward the upper-left of the window, and then select “Show libraries.” This little buried setting might be tricky to find on your own, but it’s worth the five-second trip.
Making the most of Modern UI
We’re not 100 percent sold on the jarring changes that Microsoft has constructed between its tried-and-true Windows desktop and its newfangled touchscreen-themed experience. However, we have become a bit more accustomed to tiles since Windows 8’s launch last October, and Windows 8.1 does offer some important improvements to make the Modern UI a bit more palatable—for those not already using third-party programs to write it off for good.
One of the most headache-inducing elements of Windows 8’s Start screen was that Microsoft gave its users absolutely no way to contain the flood of shortcuts—now tiles—that would invariably litter the area after the installation of just a few applications.
Windows 8.1 reverses this treatment. Now, your Start screen is as bare as bare can be; you have to manually select apps that you want to see when you jump into the Modern UI. Tiles won’t just appear by default on your Start screen whenever you install an application—yes, even a Windows Store app.
So, how do you get your favorite apps onto your Start screen? Pull up the Start screen and jiggle your mouse until an arrow icon appears in the lower-left corner. Click that to access the All Apps screen, and then right-click any of your tiles and select Pin to Start from the bar of options that appears at the bottom of the screen.
It’s a lot easier to go about modifying your tiles than it ever was on plain-ol’ Windows 8. Here’s what we mean: Pull up the Start screen and right-click a tile. Heck, right-click a few tiles—multiple-tile attribute editing has been beefed up in this new iteration of Microsoft’s OS.
Goodbye, single-app-at-a-time uninstallations. Why Microsoft didn’t slap this into Windows 8 by default, we’ll never know.
Once you’ve done so, you’ll see an option at the bottom of your screen for resizing tiles. Click that, and you’ll be given one of four sizes to choose from, ranging from Small (1/4 a standard tile size) to Large (four tiles’ worth of space). Selecting Medium gives you the default Windows 8.1 tile dimension, whereas Wide allows you take up two tiles’ worth of space by one tile’s height. While you’re there, you can also use the “Turn Live Tile Off” option to do just that—transforming your Windows 8.1 tiles into static representations of shortcuts rather than little boxes that are otherwise updated with news based on whatever the tile happens to be (assuming the tile supports the feature).
You can also more easily remove apps (as in, Windows Apps, not applications) from your system—uninstalling multiple apps at once—by right-clicking each one you want gone on the Start screen and selecting the Uninstall option. Once you do so, you’ll be asked to pick whether you want to simply nuke them from the system you’re currently using, or whether you want to remove the apps from all the systems whose settings have been synchronized to your Microsoft Live account. To note: This only really works well with apps, as mentioned; trying to uninstall apps and applications simultaneously gives preference to the former over the latter.
And, of course, moving and grouping tiles is easier in Windows 8.1, as well. Select your tiles and drag them to a new, empty column (you’ll know you’ve nailed it once Windows displays a giant, translucent gray bar), and then type in a name for your new chunk of shortcuts in the Name Group field. It’s as easy as that!
This might win over you Modern UI haters: Windows 8.1 brings some new improvements to its Snap treatment of Modern apps. Depending on the size and/or number of monitors you’re rocking, you can have up to eight different Windows apps running and visible at once.
Ready? Fire up a Windows app within the Modern UI, move your mouse to the top of the screen until your cursor changes into a hand, and then click and drag the entire app toward the far left or far right of your monitor. You’ll now see some empty gray space on the other side. Left-click anywhere within that to launch a new app, side-by-side, in the empty space.
Now that you have your screen split into two, if you want to go for the big three (and your screen allows it), launch an app from the Start screen on the monitor that your two split apps are running on. When you do, the app itself will appear to float in the center of your screen for a bit. Click it, hold down your mouse button, and keep it hovering over the center divider.
Voilà—your Modern UI will magically make room for more.
More robust options make Win8.1’s cloud storage a compelling option
Microsoft seems a little more ready to tackle the cloud storage world with its SkyDrive service, now that the 7GB of free cloud storage comes more baked into Windows 8.1 than it did with Windows 8.
And this is more than Microsoft just dropping a shortcut to SkyDrive within File Explorer and calling it a day. A number of nifty features work behind the scenes to ensure you aren’t sucking down massive amounts of data that you might not necessarily need (or worse, filling up a limited hard drive with a ton of unnecessary SkyDrive content). Your SkyDrive folder will be accessible and searchable just like any other folder on your physical hard drive. However, only when you go to access a file will Microsoft pull it down from the cloud.
And yes, you can still manually select to synchronize as many files and folders as you want if you’re more into the Dropbox “sync everything” method. That said, onto the tips!
If you’re concerned about how much space you might be eating up of your 7GB of free SkyDrive storage—or want to add more—Microsoft’s made it easy for you to check and/or buy. Fire up the Start screen, pull open the Charms Bar, and click Settings. Click Change PC Settings, and then select the SkyDrive option. The very first screen you then see will tell you how much storage you’re using, in total, and give you the option to purchase more if you’re so inclined.
A nifty new feature in Windows 8.1 is the ability to have supported apps prompt you with the option to save your files to the cloud instead of your local hard drive. The best and easiest example of this is Microsoft Word. Enable the option, and you’ll always first be given the chance to stick your files in your SkyDrive documents folder, a real time-saver if you’re a SkyDrive aficionado. To turn on this option, just flick the little switch below the SkyDrive storage information that we previously mentioned. You can’t miss it, as it’s labeled “Save documents to SkyDrive by default.”
If you’re the kind of person who wants to make sure that everything you’re doing on your smartphone or camera, for example, is automatically saved to the cloud, Windows 8.1 makes it easy. Under the Camera Roll menu within the aforementioned SkyDrive settings screen, you’ll find options that allow to you manage the size at which your pictures are automatically stored in the cloud. Additionally, you’ll see the ever-important switch that will allow your system to automatically send videos up to SkyDrive as well.
One of the fancier features of SkyDrive is its ability to synchronize a bevy of your personal settings for Windows 8.1; log into a fresh Windows 8.1 machine with your account, and it’ll look just like what you’re used to using.
You can, of course, flip this option on and off within the Sync Settings menu on the SkyDrive settings screen. More importantly, you can choose what you want SkyDrive to sync: your tiles? Your desktop theme? Your app settings? Passwords? The choice is yours.
Turn off Bing As you’ve no doubt noticed, Microsoft’s made a few changes to Windows 8.1’s search functionality. Start typing on the Start screen and you’ll find that your system automatically starts searching through, well, everything: Windows settings, your files, and—guess who?—Bing!
If you’re not keen on marrying your offline searching with an ever-present web search, here’s how to ditch it. Fire up the Charms Bar, click Settings, click Change PC Settings, and select “Search and apps.” From there, ditching Bing is as easy as flicking off the switch for “Get search suggestions and web results from Bing.”
Hide Your Files Perhaps there are some things you don’t want to automatically populate the default “Everything” search within Windows 8.1. We’re not going to venture to guess what those files actually are—we’re just going to tell you how to make them invisible to Windows 8.1’s watchful eye.
If you have data on your hard drive that you don’t want Windows 8.1’s Modern UI-based search to find, simply go to the files or folders within File Explorer, right-click, select Properties, and tick the little checkbox for the Hidden property. If File Explorer isn’t set to view hidden files, your folder or file will vanish from view. To get it back, just check Hidden Items in the View pane of File Explorer. Since they won’t show up in search, you’ll need to remember just where you hid your precious collection of vintage Seka movies.