If you’re coming to Windows 8.1 from Windows 7, I’ve got bad news: in this latest Windows version, Microsoft has badly melded a mobile OS into the desktop version of Windows, and it has removed key user interfaces you’ve come to know and master. The software giant is fixing these problems in Windows 10, but you don’t need to wait. Using some free or inexpensive utilities, you can make Windows 8.1 look and work more like Windows 7 today.
And here’s some more good news: While the original shipping version of this new OS, called Windows 8, took an even more hardline stance on the new user interfaces, Microsoft has since stepped back from the cliff via free updates such as Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update 1. That is, it has begun reversing some of the most-hated features of Windows 8.x that made this OS so unsettling to users of previous Windows versions. So to get these changes, all you need to do is upgrade through Windows Update.
Among the helpful changes that have come since that initial release:
Boot to the desktop. If you are using a traditional form factor PC like a laptop or desktop PC, Windows 8.1 will now boot directly into the familiar desktop environment you’re really going to use, and not to the Start screen. Not seeing this change? Right-click on the taskbar, choose Properties, and then navigate to the Navigation tab. The option you want is called “When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start”. (And remember how to get to Taskbar and Navigation Properties, as you’ll need this interface again.)
The Start button is back. If you can believe it, Microsoft actually removed the Start button from the initial shipping version of Windows 8: The end of the taskbar was empty! (The only way to see it was to mouse into the corner of the screen, or press a Windows button or key on your device or keyboard.) Now, the Start button is always there, as God intended.
Modern apps now sport a title bar with window controls. They can’t be run in a windowed form on the desktop yet—that’s coming in Windows 10—but if you’re using a Modern mobile app on a PC with a mouse or other pointing device, you can access the app’s title bar—and some basic window controls like Close and Minimize—by mousing up to the top of the screen.
The taskbar is now available from within Modern apps too. Ditto for the taskbar: Just mouse to the bottom of the screen when using a Modern app.
Context menus work as expected on the Start screen. If you right-clicked on the Start screen in the initial version of Windows 8, you would see unfamiliar Modern interfaces for interacting with the screen or its tiles. Now you see the same type of context menu found in the desktop environment, for a nice bit of overdue consistency. (Sadly, this consistency doesn’t extend to Modern apps and other Modern interfaces, where right-clicking works as it did in Windows 8.0, triggering new Modern UIs.)
So that’s all very nice. Microsoft is taking steps to reverse the wrongs and has made nice headway in Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update 1, and will make more improvements in Windows 10. But what if you don’t want to wait for Windows 10? What if you are upgrading now and simply can’t stand some of the weirdness in Windows 8.1—like the goofy Start screen that makes no sense at all on a normal PC, or the terrible Charms and Switcher interfaces that pop up unbidden when you inadvertently mouse into the screen corners? What can you do?
Plenty, as it turns out. Here are some tips for making Windows 8.1 even more like Windows 7, and for minimizing the silliness of the mobile Windows 8.x user experiences that still linger on.
Making the transition from desktop to Start less jarring. If you’re willing to keep the Start menu but find the transition between that interface and the desktop be jarring—you’re not alone—you can somewhat minimize the jarring-um-ness by using your desktop wallpaper as the Start background. To do so, navigate to the Start screen, type WINKEY + I (for Settings) and choose Personalize. Then, choose the desktop wallpaper tile to use that image on Start too. From the desktop, when you tap WINKEY repeatedly, you will see that the transition between the two interfaces is very smooth now.
Replace the Start screen with the All Apps screen. OK, it’s not quite a Start menu, but you can also replace the Start screen with the All Apps screen, and configure that screen to display desktop applications first, making it a bit more efficient for desktop users. To do so, open Taskbar and Navigation Properties as described above and Navigate to the Start screen. Enable the following two options: “Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start” and “List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it’s sorted by category.” Click OK to close the window and then click Start. In the All Apps screen that appears, select Category from the drop-down in the upper-left corner of the screen (if it’s not already selected). Voila!
Replace the Start screen with a third-party Start menu. Those two previous tips don’t go far enough? OK, I get it. But you can also replace the Windows 8.1 Start screen with a third party Start menu. There are free and paid options available to you, but I use and recommend the Stardock utility Start8, which costs just $5. This versatile utility provides a number of useful Start menu types, but you’ll probably want the version that looks an awful lot like the one from Windows 7. Nice!
Turn down the corner UIs. It’s annoying when you mouse into one of the screen corners in Windows 8.1 and activate one of the new “corner UIs”—Switcher on the left and Charms on the right—but there’s a way to turn down this effect. (You can’t completely turn off Charms, as it turns out.) To do so, open Taskbar and Navigation Properties yet again and uncheck two options: “When I point to the upper-right corner, show the charms” and “When I point to the upper-left corner, switch between my recent apps.” Your sanity thanks you.
Use libraries again. Microsoft’s on-again, off-again love affair with virtual folders continues in Windows 8.1, where the software giant disables access to this useful interface by default. You can still reach your libraries again in Windows 8.1 if you know the trick—click the first caret in the File Explorer address bar and choose Libraries from the drop-down list that appears—but if you need this feature, it’s better just to make it more readily-accessible. To do so, open File Explorer (WINKEY + E) and then click View and then Navigation Pane. In the drop-down that appears, select “Libraries.” This will return the Libraries view to File Explorer.
Force Modern apps to run in floating windows on the desktop. While many scorn Windows 8, one of the things Microsoft really did get right was its new Modern mobile app platform. The problem—even in Windows 8.1—is that these apps still run in a full-screen mode only. Microsoft will fix that in Windows 10, but if you’re still using Windows 8.1 you can use Stardock’s $5 ModernMix app to enable this functionality right now. And then you can run your favorite Modern apps—MSN News, Calendar, Xbox Music or whatever—on the desktop alongside your desktop applications. Totally worth it.
What else do you do to make Windows 8.1 more hospitable? Let me know.