Best Windows 8.1 Features, How to Use Them, and Why You Might Want to Upgrade

Windows 8.1 was launched today, and even though it’s a free upgrade for current Windows 8 users, some people might still be wondering if they should even bother. On top of that, you have a ton of Windows 7 users that are just plain scared/annoyed/frustrated with the entire Windows 8 concept and shutter at the thought of “tiles”, flat design, and the premise of an app store. Well, lazy and/or scared people, Windows 8.1 might be a good idea for you. Here I’m going to list all of my favorite Windows 8.1 features, what they do, how to use them, and why they are sort of important. I’m sure you’ve seen long lists and slideshows depicting all of these before on other sites, but hear I’ll really focus on the fact that, even though this isn’t the greatest of updates, it does address a lot of Windows 8 users’ complaints. Which could give you a reason to quickly upgrade from Windows 8 (do I need to mention it’s free again?), and, possibly, just possibly, if you are a Windows 7 user, why it could be enough for you to consider purchasing the update. Maybe.

I. Snap Multitasking for Modern UI (Even with Two of the Same App)

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Now, you can always tap the Start button or click on Desktop and open as many apps (are we still calling them apps if they are in desktop mode or can we call them programs like before?) as you want in as many windows as you want just like you’ve always been used to in Windows. Now, though, thanks to 8.1, you can use multiple apps in the Modern UI mode (previously called Metro UI for those not keeping track). Here’s how.

  1. Simply pull your finger in from the left of the screen and swipe it quickly back off the left to get the latest apps to show on the left side (you can use a mouse to do this by hovering in the top left corner of the screen).
  2. Then drag one of these items to the left or right side of the screen. Once it’s there do the same with another app and put it on the opposite site. They should snap side by side.
  3. You can adjust how much of the screen they take up by moving the bar in the middle left or right.

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You can even do this with two of the same app (but only if the app developer allows multiple iterations of their app to be running at the same time). To do that in the Mail app:

  1. Hold down on any mail item (right-click it if using a mouse).
  2. Tap Open in New Window in the options at the bottom that appear.
  3. Now you can navigate separately through the Mail app using either Window.

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Now, this may seem like something that it should have had in the original Windows 8, and, well, you’d be right, but it is nice to finally see it.

II. Internet Explorer 11

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First off, you no longer need to search the top of the app for options, it’s all located in one place; the bottom. To get to those options:

  1. Drag your finger from under the screen onto the screen with the IE 11 Modern UI version open (right-click it if using a mouse).
  2. From here you can tap on any of the options and get to most of the things you’d want to do within a browser.
  3. For extra options, swipe in from off the screen’s right side and tap Settings then Options (hover your cursor in the bottom right if using a mouse).

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As with most newer versions of Internet Explorer, more standard-compliant features are being added. If you aren’t familiar with what that means, just suffice it to say that websites that used to look a little odd or different in IE but the same in all other browsers, will start to display sites more and more like those other browsers. This is really a big help to developers of sites who spend a large amount of time sometimes trying to fix the way IE displays their site (to see what IE 11 has added, head here and you’ll see a list of all the features developers use and how some of them just started working properly in IE 11).

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Also on the developer side of things (but will still be noticed on the end-user side), is the ability to set what image you want when someone pins your site to their Start screen. This makes for a better branding opportunity for developers and, frankly, a much easier on the eyes Start screen instead of having all those little IE icons everywhere with different names.

On top of that, you can use an RSS feed to turn the Pinned Site icon into a live tile where it will update and show the latest stories from that site. Neat, huh?

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Now, personally, I always use Chrome, but really it’s now because I have it on all my devices (and I switch devices a lot) and want all of my bookmarks, history, etc. to be seamless. If it weren’t for that, I have to say that this is the first IE I would consider using regularly.

III. Updated Apps that Needed It (Mail, Messaging, People, Calendar, Windows Store)

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A few of the pre-installed apps have been updated with some much need functionality and better UIs. Mail has built in Outlook features and better layout (and can run two iterations of itself side by side). Messaging has been replaced by Skype (yes that is an improvement), People has a better layout, as does Calendar and even the Windows Store which is much more inviting and informative.

IV. SkyDrive Integration

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As I’ve mentioned before, I use a lot of devices and am constantly switching between them. It’s because of this that cloud services are imperative. I like that I know when I sign in with my Google account on any Android device (with the help of the Google+ app, and Google Drive app as well), all of my stuff from my other Android devices automatically appears and syncs across all of them. Microsoft has been trying to do something like this with their product SkyDrive for a while now, but hasn’t had a lot of success. I think they are finally on their way to changing that with this new update (not quite there yet mind you, but making moves in the right direction).

SkyDrive is now more deeply integrated into the system. It now allows you to sync all of your camera pics and files so they are available on all your devices with SkyDrive. They’ve also even allowed SkyDrive to save your Modern apps, IE tabs and favorites and a thing called Smart Files. Smart Files essentially analyzes and saves just the most accessed files and stores those locally and in the cloud, while the rest are just stored in the cloud (but still visible and editable locally). Microsoft has touted that this feature can save you up to 80% of your storage space versus other cloud syncing systems.

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V. Customization Options Added

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Something I truly appreciate in Windows 8.1 is the better customization options. Here is a quick list of the things you can do and how to do them.

  • Change the Start Screen Background
    1. Swipe in from off the screen’s right side and tap Settings then Options (hover your cursor in the bottom right if using a mouse).
    2. Tap Personalize.
    3. Choose any of the preselected backgrounds at the top, or a plain color background by tapping the second from the bottom right in that area, or select the Desktop background at the bottom right of that area (which I, personally, recommend since it’ll give you a more seamless experience when switching between the desktop and Start screen that’s the bee’s knees).
    4. Then you can select a background color.
    5. And an accent color to be used on certain headings and elements throughout the system.

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  • More Tile Sizes and Tile Groups
    1. Swipe in from off the bottom of the screen and tap Customize (right-click anywhere in the background if using a mouse).
    2. When in this mode, you can move Tiles by clicking on them and dragging them around, group them together and name the group by clicking in the “Name Group” heading, and also click an individual tile and tap Resize in the bottom options and choose one of four sizes (depending on the app, some will only have two or three).

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  • Easier to Get to All Apps and Sort Them
    1. Swipe up while on the Start screen (tap the down arrow at the bottom left of the screen if using a mouse).
    2. Tap the arrow at the top left next to Apps to choose a different sorting method.

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  • More Personalization Options via Settings
    1. Swipe in from off the screen’s right side while on the Start screen and tap Settings then Change PC Settings (hover your cursor in the bottom right if using a mouse).
    2. Tap PC and Devices.
    3. Go down the list to change any number of items (even what the hot corners do aka what happens when you put your mouse in any of the four corners of the screen).

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  • Even More Options via the Taskbar Properties Menu
    1. Open your Desktop view.
    2. Right-click on the taskbar (the bar at the bottom of the screen with the time in it).
    3. Select Properties.
    4. Tap the Navigation tab for the good stuff.
    5. Change settings in there like change the Start screen to just be a list of apps installed and even the next item we’re about to discuss below.

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VI. Boot Directly to Desktop (for the traditionalists out there)

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And finally, something that should make Windows 7 users a lot more comfortable with Windows 8 (besides some of the things I already mentioned), the ability to boot directly to the Desktop. In other words, you can turn on the computer and have it skip the Start screen and just show the Desktop like you you’re used to. Now, it does seem that Microsoft doesn’t really want this (and I can understand why) so it’s a little hidden, but here’s how to find it:

  1. Go to your Desktop (click the Windows key on your keyboard to do this or find it in your apps)
  2. Right-click on the taskbar (the bar at the bottom of the screen with the time in it).
  3. Select Properties.
  4. Tap the Navigation tab.
  5. Check on “When I sign in or close all apps… go to Desktop…”.

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Hope that helped some people who are thinking about getting Windows 8.1 and maybe helped some people with Windows 8.1 already find some things they didn’t know existed. If you have other things to add, feel free to add them in the comments below. For more Windows How To’s head to our Windows How To’s section.

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