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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.