Haven’t Tried Windows 8 in a While? It’s Better

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The Power menu on Windows 8.1 Update's Start screen

Microsoft is hard at work on the next version of Windows — which we just learned will be called Windows 10 — and they’ll be stripping away charms, Start screen, and other obnoxious touch-centric features for desktop PC users. But they’ve also made the Windows 8 we use today much less frustrating with updates like Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update — yes, those are two separate things.

Microsoft stepped back from the abyss after the first release of Windows 8. You shouldn’t be as leery of Windows 8 as you used to be. In fact, Microsoft will even allow you to upgrade that Windows 8 PC to Windows 10 for free.

Sane Desktop Defaults

Windows 8 forced you to boot to the generally reviled Start screen. In Windows 8.1, Microsoft added a “boot to desktop” option. In Windows 8.1 Update, they’ve activated this option by default if you have a PC without touch hardware.

Windows 8.1 Update also uses desktop apps as your default file associations on PCs without touch screens. Where double-clicking an image previously whisked you away to the full-screen Photos app, it will now open the standard Windows Photo Viewer application from Windows 7 in a window on your desktop.

Microsoft is no longer pretending your desktop is a touch tablet.

The Charms Are Disappearing

The next version of Windows will completely remove the charms from desktop PCs (though, to be clear, charms will remain in Windows 10 — just for touch users). In the meantime, Microsoft has made them less essential.

Now there’s a power button on the Start screen, which means you just click “Start,” click “Power,” then choose “Shut Down” or “Restart.” You don’t have to head to the charms bar and look for that hidden Shut Down option. Hey, we were all there — it took me a long time to find the “Shut Down” the first time I used Windows 8.

Speaking of charms, you can prevent the charms bar from appearing when you move your mouse to the top-right corner of the screen, so it won’t get in the way. You can also hide the app switcher so your mouse won’t activate it when you move your mouse to the top-left corner of the screen.

Live Tiles Can Be Hidden

Windows 8.1 has added a Start button back to the taskbar, but it still opens a full-screen interface unless you install a third-party Start menu. Microsoft will return the Start menu in the next release of Windows. Until then, you can make the Start screen work better for you.

Use the Navigation options pane in the taskbar’s Properties window. Here, you’ll find an option to go to the All Apps view when you click the Start button, as well as an option that shows desktop apps first in the All Apps view. You won’t ever have to see those live tiles again if you don’t want to — the Start screen can be transformed into a full-screen list of your installed applications, with desktop apps prioritized first.

You can customize the Start screen or All Apps view, too — use your desktop background in the full-screen view. It makes the switch between the desktop and Start screen much less disorienting — at least for me.

Quick access to other common locations like the Control Panel can be had through the power-user menu, a hidden feature in Windows 8. Right-click the Start button or press “Windows Key + X” to activate it. In Windows 8.1, this menu gained “Shut Down” and “Restart” options, too. It’s another easy way to shut down or restart your PC, if you can remember it exists.

The All Apps screen with desktop apps first on Windows 8.1

A Search Feature That Works

Bizarrely, Windows 8’s search feature was a step back from Windows 7’s. Windows 7’s Start menu search feature searched everything at once, while Windows 8 searched apps, settings and files separately.

Windows 8.1 fixed this, so search works just as well as it does on Windows 7. It integrates Bing and provides Web search results, but you can easily disable that feature if you don’t like it.

To perform a system search without leaving your desktop, press “Windows Key + S” and start typing to search in a sidebar — no full-screen interface required.

Windows 8.1 is still not perfect on desktop PCs, which is why Microsoft is working so hard on the next release of Windows. Microsoft realized people use Windows on desktop PCs, not just tablets. The next version of Windows should fix Windows 8, just as Windows 7 was a fixed version of Windows Vista. But, if you have to use Windows 8 in the meantime, it’s not so bad. And, unlike the move from Vista to 7, the move from 8 to the next version of Windows will be free.

Image Credit: Microsoft

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