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Inside the Windows 8.1 Update

Microsoft recently released the Windows 8.1 Update (actual name), the latest refinement of Windows 8.1. Most of the changes are targeted at keyboard/mouse users, like me. The update comes only months (10/17/13) after the initial release of Windows 8.1 and includes user interface enhancements and security fixes. Here's a look inside Windows 8.1. Update.

The update builds on the previous Windows 8.1 changes geared towards keyboard/mouse users: the return of the Start button, smaller tile size on the Start screen, and booting directly to the Desktop. But the overall focus was still on touch-sensitive devices. The Windows 8.1 Update changes all of that.

The first thing you'll notice is the default behavior of Windows 8.1 has changed. Windows 8.1 now checks to see if there is a touch-sensitive display attached to the computer and modifies the way it runs. For example, if your computer doesn't have a touch screen, the default programs that open pictures, videos, and music files go back to the familiar Desktop apps that Windows 7 used. Here's a complete list of the changes to Windows 8.1 behavior:

Windows 8.1 defaults before update Windows 8.1 defaults after update
  • Boots to Start Screen
  • Closing App takes user back to Start Screen
  • Pictures, Music, and Video files open with Modern App
  • Boots to Desktop
  • Closing App takes user to the previously used App.
  • After closing all Apps the user ends in the Desktop
  • Pictures, Music, and Video files open with Desktop applications

New Windows 8.1 Update Start screen features
New Windows 8.1 Update Start screen features

The Start screen has seen some Desktop friendly revisions too. Microsoft has finally added a Power button, so you no longer have to log-off to turn off or restart your computer. Also added are familiar Desktop style content menus for the Tile properties. There are also a new set of tiles that are added for new users; This PC, PC Settings, Documents, and Pictures. They won't appear for existing users but can easily be recreated if you want them.

New Metro app Title Bar with Minimize and Close buttons
New Metro app Title Bar with Minimize and Close buttons

Microsoft also made some changes to the Metro (Windows RT) interface. In an effort to make it more Desktop friendly, Metro apps now have a drop-down Title Bar on top, similar to Desktop programs, with Minimize and Close buttons. Metro apps can now be pinned to the Taskbar (the Store is automatically pinned with the update).

For more information on the Windows 8.1 Update, just follow the link below.

Exploring Windows 8.1 Update

Windows 8.1 Preview - user interface enhancements

Note: Since Windows 8.1 was released on August 27, 2013, the Windows 8.1 Preview is no longer available for download.

Microsoft recently released the Windows 8.1 Preview, the future upgrade to Windows 8. Some of the changes are subtitle and are quite quickly overlooked; others are not. Changes included in Windows 8.1 are B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Device), mobility, security, and user interface enhancements. With the promise of better user interaction on personal computers, Microsoft made some tweaks to Windows RT and Windows 8. Let's take a closer look into the user interface changes inside of Windows 8.1 Preview.

The Start button returns to Windows 8.1 Preview
The Start button returns to Windows 8.1 Preview

The first thing you'll notice is that nothing appears to have changed. Right out-of-the-box, the only thing that caught my eye was the return of the Start button on the Desktop. You no longer have to hover your cursor in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. If you left-click on the Start button, it brings up the Start screen, not the Start menu from previous versions of Windows. If you right-click on it, the power user command menu appears without keyboard shortcuts. Pressing the Windows logo key Windows logo key + X does the same thing but has the keyboard shortcuts (the underlined letter in the program's name). If you want a Start menu, you'll need a third-party app like Start8.

Smaller tile size on the Start screen inside of Windows 8.1 Preview
Smaller tile size on the Start screen inside of Windows 8.1 Preview

The Start screen has also undergone some changes. The tiles can now be resized smaller for non-touch devices like personal computers. You currently have four different tile sizes to choose from: large (8x8), wide (8x4), medium (4x4), and small (1x1). There is now a button at the bottom of the Start screen to toggle between it and the Apps screen. You no longer have to right-click the Start screen to bring up the Apps command bar. When you right-click on the Start screen, you get a customize button for adding names to groups of tiles. You no longer have to zoom out to do it. And now, if you zoom out, all you can do is select a group of tiles to zoom in on.

The Personalize options for the Start screen in Windows 8.1 Preview
The Personalize options for the Start screen in Windows 8.1 Preview

The customization options for the Start screen have also been expanded. You can now use one of your images for the lock screen or play a slide show on it. You can now also change the accent color along with the background color. Not as many options as some third party programs like Decor8, but it's an improvement compared to Windows 8.

Taskbar and navigation properties inside of Windows 8.1 Preview
Taskbar and navigation properties inside of Windows 8.1 Preview

One of the most anticipated changes is the boot to Desktop option. It took a little hunting, but I did find it under Personalization > Taskbar and Navigation properties. It's there you can make Windows 8.1 go to the Desktop when you sign in. You can also have the Desktop background on the Start screen and set the Apps screen as the default when you left-click on the Start button.

The redesigned PC settings inside of Windows 8.1 Preview
The redesigned PC settings inside of Windows 8.1 Preview

Another program that got a facelift was PC Settings. Microsoft redesigned it with expanded categories and sub-menus to include more settings. It's still not as complete as the Control Panel, but it's getting better. The new layout seems more proportionate on a computer screen, with the menu titles smaller. Overall, I would say the user interface inside of Windows 8.1 is an improvement over Windows 8. But without a Start menu, it will still be a hard sell to die-hard Windows users.

Run Windows RT apps on the Windows 8 desktop with ModernMix

As many of you know, I've been using two monitors on my workstation for over ten years. I like being able to view two or more programs all at the same time. So when Windows 8 came out, I was happy to see better multiple monitor support. Still, I didn't particularly appreciate running Windows RT / Metro apps, as they took up the full display area. They are nice, but it was just too much for me with a screen size of 2560 x 1024. Then the folks at Stardock came out with a program to run Windows RT / Metro apps in a window on the desktop called ModernMix.

Two Windows RT apps running on a desktop with two monitors using ModernMix in Windows 8
Two Windows RT apps running on a desktop with two monitors using ModernMix in Windows 8

ModernMix allows almost any Windows RT / Metro app to run inside a window on the desktop in Windows 8. It remembers the settings of all of the Windows RT apps you have run, and you can manually modify them if needed. I came across a couple of apps that would only run in full screen. It also has a screen overlay you can enable in the upper right-hand corner that allows you to switch between modes (full screen, maximized, and windowed) and bring up the Settings charm for that app. You can even Pin a program to the Taskbar with ModernMix.

Application settings page inside of ModernMix
Application settings page inside of ModernMix

Here's a quote from the ModernMix website:

What is ModernMix?

ModernMix is a revolutionary new program that lets you run Windows 8 "Modern" apps in a window on the desktop. Windows 8 Modern apps, also known as Metro or RT apps, will use the full screen on your display regardless of how much of the screen they really need. As a result, that weather app, mail program or stock ticker is going to use the entirety of your computer display.


    Run modern apps in windows
  • ModernMix enables you to run multiple Modern apps in individual separate windows on the desktop as well as launch them from the desktop.
    Apply custom settings
  • Modern app window sizes are remembered the next time you launch them.
    Pin modern apps to the taskbar
  • Active Modern apps will also appear on your taskbar where they can be pinned for quick access later. Also create desktop shortcuts for Modern apps.
    Bring back the familiar Windows look
  • Standard Windows 8 title bar is enabled for Modern apps.
  • Explicitly close Modern apps by clicking its close button.

The price of ModernMix is $4.99 (at the time this article was written). For more information on ModernMix and Stardock, just follow the links below:



How to create a shortcut on the Desktop and Start menu in Windows 8

Desktop and Start menu shortcuts are links to different items. It can be to a program, file, folder, another computer, etc. Here is a quick way to create a Desktop and Start menu shortcut in Windows 8.

  1. On the Start menu, left-click on the Desktop tile.
  2. Right-click on any empty area of the Desktop and select New > Folder or Shortcut.
  3. Right-click on the folder or shortcut you just created and left click Pin to Start.

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