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How-To Geek

Lesson 1: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Windows 8.1

Modern technology is overflowing with operating systems. Android, iOS, and Blackberry are all examples of mobile operating systems while Chrome OS, Apple OS X and, of course, Windows are classified as desktop operating systems. The primary role of an operating system should be simply defined, but as time has gone on and OS’s have evolved, that role has grown muddled.

An OS exists solely to allow you to run programs and perform tasks on hardware. It doesn’t matter if you have phone, tablet, or laptop, if there isn’t that middle-man there, then your user experience isn’t likely to go far. In other words, you can have all the makings of a computer: motherboard, CPU, RAM, storage, power supply, etc., but if you don’t have a way to make them all work together, then all you’re going to see are blank screens and error messages.

Our perceptions of an OS, however, have changed dramatically over the years. We expect them to do more for us than simply give us a way for games and word processing to happen. Most OS’s are now expected to provide capabilities to message friends or let us listen to music or watch video or take pictures right out of the box.

To that end, this series aims to cut through the clutter, through all the extras and get to the heart of Windows 8.1’s most important parts. Granted, we will spend some time talking about various additional aspects such as apps and the Windows Store, but the majority of this series aims to lay out the features of Windows you should know about to use it to its fullest potential.

This first chapter can be thought more of as a tour, namely to point out and describe the many ways that Windows 8.1 is different from previous Windows versions. By the time you’ve read through it, you should have a definite idea of what is involved and what the system entails.

Update 1?

Chances are you’ve heard of Windows 8.1 but it’s likely you’re still not using it. Fact is Windows 8.x adoption hovers around 11% as of March 2014 while overall, Windows 7 and Windows XP cling to around 48% and 27%, respectively.

Microsoft clearly faces an uphill adoption battle and competition to retain traditional desktop users has become fierce in recent years as more and more of them flock to mobile platforms like iPad and Android devices. There’s no question, however, there’s still a need for more staid computing platforms like desktop PCs and laptops. Additionally, ultrabooks are quite popular and you can’t deny that a Windows machine is still the guaranteed way to do virtually anything you want with a computer.

What all this means is that the next time you buy a new Windows computer, it will very likely come with Windows 8.1, update 1 installed, and as many of the 11 percent of you who have already upgraded to Windows 8 can testify, it’s a little different.

Why then are we writing this series? Some time ago we wrote a book covering Windows 8 top to bottom. Much of what we covered at the time is still very relevant but a lot of things have changed with the much ballyhooed Start screen, including how much of a presence (some might say, nuisance) it is. We expect Windows 8.1 adoption to grow as Windows XP gradually gives up the ghost and with the recent release of update 1, we feel it’s time to finally update you with a fairly comprehensive look at the current system.

Why So Much Hate and Scorn?

Windows 8 is a radical departure from what users have previously known. Microsoft has made a conscious though arguably awkward, attempt to merge a desktop operating system with a touch-based one. The result is a mashup (and that’s really what it is) of the tried-and-true desktop and the much maligned and oft-hated Start screen.

Compounding the Start screen’s woes are the lack of noteworthy apps that run in its environment. The Windows Store, Microsoft’s own app store has gotten better over time, but it still pales when compared to Apple’s and Google’s offerings.

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One of the biggest problem with Windows 8.1 is the jarring difference between the Start screen and desktop. It’s different, in fact, it’s about as different as it can possibly be. As we mentioned, the Start screen is designed for touch and though Microsoft has made strides to create a more mouse-friendly Start environment, it still remains markedly out of place with the rest of the operating system.

So, What is the Deal with the Start Screen?

On that note, let’s talk about the Start screen first. The Start screen (versus the Start menu of older Windows versions) is a full-screen app launcher consisting of square and rectangular tiles. The tiles can either be glorified shortcuts or they can actually display live information such as news, weather, stocks, and sport scores.

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There’s a great deal going on with the Start screen, which may not be entirely apparent at first and though Microsoft tries to guide users with on-screen tips, it still take some getting used to.

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The Start screen is actually somewhat reminiscent of the old Start menu in that it still has a place where it puts all the applications on your system. The aptly named “apps” screen can be accessed by clicking on the down arrow or swiping up with your finger on the Start screen.

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There’s more, and as you can imagine it’s all very different from what you’re used to so we’ll make sure we cover every detail in Lesson 2.

Charms

When you activate the top or bottom-right corners or swipe from the right edge, you will see the charms.

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Here we place the charms together, horizontally aligned, so you can see them better.

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The charms are meant to pack essential functions into four (plus one, Start) simple buttons. With them you can “Search” for files, settings, and more. You can “Share” stuff through Windows Store apps. With the “Devices” charm you can play, print, and project content to another display. Finally, with “Settings” you can quickly access essential PC functions and hardware controls.

We’re going to discuss charms good deal more in Lesson 3 but you can probably work out a lot of this on you own!

Using Your Fingers? You Need PC Settings

For the longest time, the only way to change your PC’s behavior or to alter its appearance was through the Control Panel.

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The problem with the Control Panel is that it is a relic of a computing era that is rapidly giving way to touch-enabled devices. The Control Panel is still the place to go if you want to operate your computer to its fullest potential, but if you’re on a Windows 8.1-powered tablet and you don’t have a mouse (or a stylus/pen), then you need the touch-friendly PC settings to efficiently administer your computer.

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We are going to give you the grand tour and point out some functions of the PC settings and how they work within the system throughout most of this series.

Don’t Forget the Desktop

Then there’s the good old desktop, which is for the most part the same one that you know and love in Windows 7.

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Some things are different, for example the visual styles are no longer transparent, and the Taskbar has gained some new functionality (mostly affecting Start screen features and behavior) but overall, an experienced Windows user will not have any problems acquainting themselves with the Windows 8.1 desktop.

We’ll reference the desktop throughout this series, and the last two lessons are devoted solely to it. If you really want to learn about desktop functions and features, we recommend you pick up a copy of The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8 on Amazon as an ultimate reference. While a few things have changed from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, update 1, it is by and large still the same desktop. Used in tandem with this series, our book can help you become a Windows 8.1 power user.

Why Do You Need to Read this Series?

If it’s not already clear, you need to read this series if you’re new to Window 8.1 or if you’re simply struggling to master it.

You need to read this series because as we explained above, only 11 percent of Windows users use any version of Windows 8. That means there’s a lot more new Windows 8.1 users possibly, waiting in the wings, especially in light of the fact that Microsoft recently ended support for Windows XP. It might be safe to say that with the company’s recent small, but significant, nods to traditional PC users more and more businesses and corporations will upgrade to the latest version.

The fact is, Windows 8.1 is technically superior to its predecessors, running comparably well on older hardware as Windows 7. With each new Windows version, Microsoft improves the code in its operating system, making it more stable and secure. From a geek’s perspective, even though there’s a lot we love and even miss about Windows 7, it makes more sense to use Windows 8.1, particularly now that we’ve had time to get used to it.

So with that in mind, let’s briefly discuss what we’ll be covering over the next two weeks and then call it a day.

Lesson 2 – Making the Start Screen Fit Your Needs

The Start screen can be off-putting to many. Users who are new to Windows 8.1 will find that it’s much different from past versions. Lesson 2 aims to cut through the confusion with a focused look at what the Start screen is, how it is comprised, and how to use it. We’ll also cover both touch and traditional PC navigation (mouse/keyboard) so you know how to quickly complete a task.

Lesson 3 – Personalizing Your Start Screen

Not fit to simply leave you with the Start screen basics, we’ll take you through how to personalize it so that it fits your needs and personality. Lesson 3 focuses on Start screen backgrounds, colors, and especially tiles, since that’s what the Start screen is all about. Knowing all the tricks to the Start screen means you can have almost exactly the look, feel, and configuration that works best for you.

Lesson 4 – Using the Windows Store and Windows Store Apps

Like the Start screen, the Windows Store and Windows Store Apps, are entirely new additions to Windows 8.x, and thus, we want to introduce and explain them relatively early in the process so you understand how this will likely underpin a lot of Windows functionality in the future.

The Start screen isn’t simply a place for launching applications, it’s also intended to be an environment unto its own for touch-centric devices. As such, the Windows Store and its apps play a major role in that. Lesson 4 covers everything you need to know about the Windows Store and even discusses a few of the apps that come included with the system.

Lesson 5 – Working with PC Settings

Lesson 5 begins our journey through the PC Settings. Windows 8.1 is unique as a Windows version in a lot of ways (Start screen, Windows Store, apps, etc.). The PC settings, and their Start screen-ish look and feel, are simply Microsoft’s way of turning the sprawling and touch-hostile Control Panel into something users can really get their hands on, literally. Lesson 5 is devoted entirely to the “PC and devices” PC settings, which includes the stuff such as your display, power and sleep, Autoplay settings, and much more!

Lesson 6 – Working with Account and Exploring Sync Settings

We continue through the PC settings with a look at user accounts, especially as they compare to the Control Panel version. While we’re at it, we’ll give you some pretty useful information on how to keep your kids under wraps with child accounts and Windows Family Safety.

Later in the lesson, we cover OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) and how it plays into what is synced across your devices through your Microsoft account. This is important stuff. It’s extremely useful to understand what is being synced so your devices sync according to your wishes.

Finally, we touch upon Ease of Access settings for users with impairments or disabilities.

Lesson 7 – Search, Apps, and Search Some More

Search is all over Windows now. You can pretty much search from anywhere in the system with a few simple keyboard combinations. Lesson 7 goes over all that with a look at not just the Search and Apps PC settings, but search itself, namely a look at how the inclusion of Bing, as well as a cursory look at Advanced Query Syntax, and how it can help you get results you seek. Even though you may not be a search maven by the time you’re done reading this lesson, you will definitely have the information you need to improve your skills with a little additional extracurricular reading.

Lesson 8 – The Rest of the Settings

What in the world is taking us so long to get through all these settings?

Well, truth is there’s a lot of them, and they’re all important to a certain extent. Lesson 8 finishes the job of exploring the PC settings by talking about Privacy, Network, Time and Language, and finally Update and Recovery. The last topic in particular is a great place to stop and explore a bit because, even though Windows is a ton more stable and secure now than even 10 years ago, it can still have its fair share of disasters. Learning more about how to keep your system updated and if necessary, recover it from potential catastrophe is a great place to wind up this lesson.

Lesson 9 – Using the WIN+X Menu for Essential Administration

When Windows 8 first debuted, a lot of people were at a loss when it came to finding the Control Panel. We even wrote a whole article talking about several of the ways you could access the Control Panel. The WIN+X menu is the system’s attempt to put the Control Panel’s essentials and management consoles, just a simple right-click or keyboard combo away. We’ll talk about what you can do with this WIN+X menu so it becomes a part of your daily routine.

Lesson 10 – The Desktop and File Explorer

We should be clear, one lesson is not enough to cover every conceivable angle of the desktop and its parts. It is after all, still the heart and guts of Windows but the desktop has been around in one form or another for so long, we just want to wrap things up by touching upon it. This last lesson is simply a refresher, or reassurance article. In other words, don’t worry, the desktop is still there and it’s more or less the same as in Windows 7, and especially Windows 8!

Conclusion

So that’s it for today! No homework, just enjoy the rest of your day. We’ll start in earnest tomorrow with our breakdown and exploration of the Start screen.

Born and brainwashed an Ohio State Buckeye, Matt now lives a warm, snow-free life just north of the Texas/Mexico border. He fancies himself a modern-day jack-of-all-trades; favorite conversation starters include operating systems, Android, BBQ, quantum physics, and roller skating.

  • Published 06/30/14