If you’ve heard one thing about Windows 8.1, you’ve probably heard Microsoft is bringing back the Start button. Windows 8.1 includes many features that should have been included with Windows 8, and it can feel much less awkward on a desktop PC.
Many of these options aren’t enabled by default, so you’ll have to enable them yourself. Windows 8.1 also isn’t a complete reversal from Windows 8. Microsoft is trying to meet us desktop users halfway — but only halfway.
The Start Button That Isn’t a Start Button
Log into Windows 8.1 for the first time and you’ll see a familiar sight on the left side of your desktop taskbar: the Start button. The new Start button looks just like the logo used by Start8 — it’s the same logo used by the Start button on the charms bar.
Microsoft actually insists that this it not a Start button — it’s the “Start tip” that you could view by moving your mouse to the bottom-left corner of the screen in Windows 8. As Microsoft explains it, they haven’t restored the Start button — they’ve simply made the Start tip always visible on the desktop and given it a Windows logo icon to make it look like a Start button. However, it isn’t a Start button!
Microsoft’s silliness aside, this is clearly a Start button. However, many people won’t be happy about it, because the Start menu has not been restored — clicking the Start button on the taskbar just opens the current Windows 8 Start screen.
Microsoft hasn’t actually given us the Start menu back, but stick with us — you can make the Start screen much less awkward now. If you really love the traditional Start menu, Start button replacements are being updated so they work with Windows 8. Start8 has been updated, so you can still install Start8 on Windows 8.1 to get the traditional start menu back.
Amusingly enough, there’s no way to disable the new Start button on the desktop. Windows 8 lovers who defended Microsoft’s changes and were much happier without the Start button will now be unable to disable the Start button and will have to live with it.
Boot to Desktop
After going out of their way to prevent boot-to-desktop tricks and third-party Start buttons from working during Windows 8′s development, Microsoft has now relented. Windows 8.1 includes an option that lets you boot to the desktop so you don’t have to see that tiled interface anymore. You don’t have to install third-party software or mess around with complex hacks involving the Task Scheduler just to boot to the desktop.
To enable this option, right-click the taskbar, select Properties, click the Navigation tab, and check the “Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in” option.
Disable Annoying Hot Corners
You’ll see many other new options under the Navigation tab. For desktop users, some of the most important are the “When I point to the upper-right corner, show the charms” and “When I click the upper-left corner, switch between my recent apps” options.
Unchecking these options will prevent the app switcher and charms from appearing when you move your mouse near the top-left and top-right corners of the screen, something that happens frequently when using full-screen apps and games on a Windows 8 desktop. These just get in the way, as they aren’t at all useful for desktop users.
You’ll still be able to open the app switcher and charms with hotkeys (Windows Key + Tab and Windows Key + C) and by moving your mouse cursor to the bottom-left and bottom-right corners of the screen and moving it upwards along the edge. However, you’re much less likely to trigger these hot corners accidentally.
Make the Start Screen Feel Less Foreign
The Start screen feels completely alien in Windows 8. Press the Windows key and you’re whooshed from your desktop to a completely different environment with a completely different background that’s separate from your desktop background. If you want to set a custom background for your Start screen, well, you can’t — you can only choose from among the handful of weird Start screen backgrounds that Steven Sinofsky decided to give you.
Windows 8.1 deals with this by providing an option to “Show my desktop background on Start.” It sounds like a small change, but using the same background on your Start screen makes it feel much less out of place. When you go to the Start screen, it will look as if the tiles (or list of installed apps) are hovering over your desktop rather than existing in a different environment.
Turn the Start Screen Into a Desktop Apps List
Okay, you’ve gone through all these options but there’s still a problem — that damned tiled interface appears whenever you click Windows 8.1′s new Start button. Fortunately, there’s now a way to hide it so you never have to see those live tiles again. Live tiles don’t work with desktop apps anyway, so they’re only useful for tablet users who actually use Modern apps.
First, check the “Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start” option in the Navigation pane. Click the Start button and you’ll now see a list of your installed apps — no live tiles.
You’ll probably also want to check the “List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it’s sorted by category” option, then open the Start screen, click the drop-down box, and sort it by category. You can also opt to show your most frequently used apps first, so it will work like the frequently used apps list in Windows 7′s Start menu. Windows will remember this setting.
Click the Start button and you’ll see your installed desktop apps first in the list, with Modern apps hidden near the end. It’s now like a full-screen Start menu. You can still click the little arrow at the bottom to go back to the live tiles, but you never have to see them again if you don’t want to.
You will probably also want to leave the “Search everywhere instead of just my apps when I search from the Apps view” check box enabled. This will allow you to also search your settings and files when you start typing at the Apps screen.
Shut Down From the Start Button
Windows 8.1 extends the “power user menu” that appears when you right-click your Start button or press Windows Key + X. You can now find Shut Down, Restart, and other power options here. In other words, you can now shut down your computer right from the Start button again — you just have to right-click it instead of left-click it.
This menu also still provides quick access to other frequently used system configuration options, like the Control Panel.
Use Unified Search
Windows 7′s unified search was split into a clunky interface containing three different categories — apps, settings, and files — in Windows 8. Windows 8.1 now reunites Windows search into a unified experience. Search at your Start screen and Windows will search your installed apps, settings, and files without any clicking through different categories.
You can now perform searches without leaving the desktop, too. Want to quickly launch an app or open a file with search? In Windows 8, this required you leave your work behind to use the full-screen Start menu. In Windows 8.1, you can simply press Windows Key + S to open the search sidebar and perform searches without leaving your desktop.
Fixing Other Annoyances
Windows 8.1 doesn’t fix some of Windows 8′s other annoyances, so there’s still a tablet-style lock screen and opening media files from the desktop will whisk you away to the Modern environment. To fix these annoyances, read our guide to banishing the modern environment on Windows 8.
It’s clear that Windows 8.1 isn’t a complete reversal for Microsoft. Microsoft hasn’t backed down on some of Windows 8′s most controversial changes, like the full-screen Start experience, Modern apps designed for tablets, and restricting sideloading to only allow Microsoft-approved apps to run in the new environment.
However, Microsoft has backed down on their complete hostility to desktop users and seems to actually realize that keyboard and mouse users are important, too. Windows 8.1 includes many options that should have been in Windows 8, and it’s a much less jarring experience. If you can get used to the new Start menu interface, you’ll be able to use all of Windows 8′s great desktop improvements and security improvements without having to install third-party Start menus.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 07/8/13