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Post-XPalypse: Surviving a world changed by Windows 8.1 features

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Windows 8.1 features treat power users, but watch out for tricks

Several Windows 8.1 features will suit power users' tastes, but there are still hidden gotchas to beware of.

After months of haunting enterprise IT, PCs and other devices with Windows 8.1 are finally shipping. Since the Windows 8.1 update is free for anyone with a legitimate Windows 8 license, you'll probably come across Microsoft's revised operating system soon.

Here are some initial suggestions to get the OS right from the start, as well as some important gotchas to be aware of as you begin using Windows 8.1 features.

Windows 8.1 tips and tricks

If you or your users are just getting started with Windows 8.1 on a PC or a Surface tablet, here are some tips for finding your way around:

  • The first thing many people will want to do is get out of the Metro interface almost completely. You can do that by entering the desktop, right-clicking on an empty part of the task bar and choosing Properties. Click the Navigation tab, and then under the Start screen section, select "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in." Uncheck "When I click the upper-left corner, switch between my recent apps." Check "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." Finally, check "Show my desktop background on Start."
  • Power users familiar with Windows 8 know about the Windows key + X combination, which opens a simple context menu including system-configuration options and shortcuts. But now you can quickly shut down and restart your PC from the two commands added here, rather than wading through multiple clicks and swipes trying to bring up the charms and settings menus.
  • You can open tabs running on other PCs running Windows 8.1 that you have access to -- this works via SkyDrive, which is baked in tightly to this release. Open the desktop version of IE 11, and then press CTRL-T to create a new tab. Then, from the bottom of the screen, select the name of the PC from the drop-down list, and a list of that PC's open tabs will appear. In Metro, open a new tab, but touch or click where the screen says "This PC," and open the other PC's name from the list that appears.
  • You can create a slideshow of photos to use on your lock screen (the one with the big clock that appears when the PC is locked or signed out of an account). From the Settings app in the Metro environment, navigate to "PC and Devices" and then "Lock Screen." From there, you can turn the slideshow on and add a folder from which pictures can be read for Windows to create the slideshow.

Windows 8.1 limitations still lurk

Windows 8 was a big tradeoff between familiar desktop features and tablet-friendly ones, and the Windows 8.1 update fixes some of that balance. Be aware, however, of a new set of Windows 8.1 limitations that could still trip you up.

  • If you have a domain-joined Windows 8.1 PC using a connected Microsoft account, do not remove the Microsoft account. If you do, you won't be able to run the Windows Store app, you will get mysterious authentication errors, and your PC could quite possibly be broken. This is clearly an area within the so-called Metro environment that Microsoft's testers did not spend enough time on. If you need to remove a Microsoft account that has been integrated on the device with a domain account, you are best served by re-imaging the PC.
  • Libraries are a feature from Windows 7 that seem diminished. Or, at the very least, Microsoft applies libraries inconsistently. Many companies preconfigured a few libraries to make desktop search work quickly, and libraries often helped users create and save files in the right locations to get picked up by enterprise backup and compliance routines. However, libraries are hidden in the Windows 8.1 Explorer -- you have to pick a drop-down menu to see them. No Metro app included in Windows 8.1 except for the Photos app can use Libraries or see anything in them. This inconsistency will drive some folks nuts, and there is unfortunately no workaround yet.
  • SkyDrive integration on the desktop is relatively confusing. By default, SkyDrive files are synced from the Metro environment but are stored under a folder under "This PC." This folder is also accessible from the desktop environment and the traditional Windows Explorer dialogs. But confusingly, you can also install the SkyDrive application for Windows Desktop from Microsoft.com and configure that app. It won't fail -- it will simply sync all of your files down again.

Do you have more tips and tricks? Any lessons learned from hard-won experience with Windows 8.1 features? Please share them in the comments.

This was first published in October 2013

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Post-XPalypse: Surviving a world changed by Windows 8.1 features

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