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The little things that matter: Top desktop-friendly improvements in Windows 8.1

Pete Brown - 21 July 2013

Like many of you, I spend the majority of my day on a desktop PC. My PC happens to have two 30" displays, neither of which is touch, and a Logitech Touch Pad that has some basic gesture recognition. It's a giant water-cooled, overclocked beast that I built in 2010 (and upgraded video since then) and which still beats many new PCs sold today. This particular PC has been upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 8 Consumer Preview to Windows 8 RTM to Windows 8.1 Preview, so it has been around the block a bit. I don't plan to pave it until the 8.1 release later this year. It's sitting behind the displays in this photo, so I never see it and generally never touch the PC itself.


In the course of regular usage, I've found a bunch of desktop features which make huge difference in the usability of Windows 8.1, but which aren't talked about a lot. So here are the little things that matter. This isn't a rah-rah post, just things that *I* personally found useful as a long-time user of Windows (since Windows 3.0, in case anyone is counting).

(As an aside, yes, the desk is a disaster. Now that I've removed the need for a room full of servers, I have plans for my new home office in the works, but I have to finish some other house projects before I can do that).


Yeah, that's a third 30" display in there :). I don't have room for one in my current office, but I've planned for room in the next.

Variable sized splits/Windows

On my desktop, I don't use Windows Store apps anywhere near as often as I do on my Surface. At most, I'll have Twitter open or something. However, I decided to give the new Windows 8.1 Xbox music app a spin, having finally uninstalled my Zune software the other day (the Zune may not have been a commercially successful piece of hardware, but the client was always top notch, and much better than the older Windows 8 Xbox music app). Being able to have a usable desktop on any screen, and not being stuck with the snapped and filled view states, is a big improvement for usability.


On my desktop, I'm still primarily a floating-windows guy, but the new window layout flexibility makes it more likely I'll incorporate modern apps into my normal use.

As an aside, the new Xbox music app is great. It's what got me to uninstall the old Zune software, although I'll still miss the pink patterned background.

Start Screen and Windows Store apps open at the same time

One thing that I distinctly disliked in Windows 8 was that the start screen would take over any other modern app on the display. Windows Store apps could only be on one screen, and that screen was also where the start menu showed up.

In 8.1, I can have Windows Store apps open on one display (Twitter and Xbox Music, in this case), plus some of my desktop if that's appropriate. The start screen doesn't overtake that display, it shows up on the screen I'm on (or always on my primary if I select that option in the Navigation properties).


This makes it far less jarring, and puts me back in control over what shows up and where.

Start Screen with desktop wallpaper

Behind the Start screen, you may have noticed that I have my normal desktop wallpaper. Here's a better view so you can see the whole thing:



The display with the Start page on it gets a darkened background to make sure the tiles show up well, but other than that, it's my same background. It just feels right now, like an overlay, not something completely separate. (the dividing line between the two displays shown in the image isn't noticeable when you have two physical displays with a bezel between them).

I can't overstate how important this is for making the context switch between apps and start page more natural. The in-box animated start backgrounds are cute, but having the start tiles hover over my desktop background makes everything feel much more integrated. To get to this, right-click your taskbar and select "Properties". "Navigation" tab in has the option.


You may see in that same dialog the option to go to the desktop instead of Start when you sign in. That's a non-issue for me, but some of you may like that.

Charms Show up near your mouse cursor

I stumbled across this one day. On mouse-based systems, when you invoke the charms using the mouse in the upper right or lower right corners, the charms bar shows up near the mouse cursor rather than in the center. This is great because the charms bar is narrow, and mouse movement is typically elliptical in nature (I always have problems with getting to the far right of a wide list of preview windows on the task bar for that reason).

Mouse at top right:


Mouse at bottom right:


Having the charms appear closer to the mouse is one of those no-brainer things.

Shutdown and Reboot from Windows + X

The Windows + X menu (also available by right-clicking the start button) had a ton of useful stuff in Windows 8. In Windows 8.1, this has been improved further. One very useful option added is the shutdown menu. Most laptop users turn off their tablet by closing the lid. Most tablet users hit the power/sleep button. As a desktop user, I reboot rarely, but when I do, I do it from the menu - not a power button.


New apps aren't on the start screen by default

Most desktop apps install a main icon or three, and then a boatload of other start menu icons for samples, online help, and other crap that I don't want on my start screen. In Windows 8, all that stuff went to the start screen by default. In 8.1, those things all go to the full apps list (available by hovering down near the bottom left of the start screen and then clicking the down arrow) but you install icons to the start screen manually. I like this approach as it puts me in control over my start screen.


To see newly installed stuff, just change the sort order to "by date installed". You'll see some items marked as "new".


That screen is just a giant list though, so outside of the most recently installed, I don't find it useful because there's just so much stuff. The other sorts (Name and category, in particular) are useful. You can see an example of an install that put a zillion icons here (the Access Virus TI software and all of its orange icons). Glad that doesn't show up on my Start screen by default.


The alpha sort gives you alphabetical for Windows Store apps, and then names (also alpha sorted) for desktop apps.


Some people may prefer this as their start screen. I don't personally, but for those who do, there's an option to go directly to this apps screen rather than the start page. Right-click the task bar and go to the "Navigation" tab.


Taskbar on all displays

You may have noticed in the screen shots above that my taskbar is visible on both of my displays. This is enabled by default, but you can modify it from the same settings dialog as most of the other options mentioned here.


One thing that you appreciate is that you can have the taskbar show apps only for the screen it's on. This is particularly useful if you have more than just a couple screens.


Windows + X -> Run

In Windows 7, I very rarely went to any icons or groups in the start menu. Instead, I would just click start and then type in the name of the app I wanted to run. That same thing works in Windows 8 (and 8.1) from the start screen. If you want something even smaller, simply do Windows + X, R to get the "Run" dialog.

(Or, as been helpfully pointed out in the comments, Windows + R will do the trick as it has in previous versions of Windows.)


Performance and fixes

Much of the rest here is difficult to quantify. I use some pretty heavy duty software (Cubase 7, Premiere Pro, Rhino 3d, and much more). I've found 8.1 to be both faster and more stable than Windows 8. For example, I had some audio issues in Cubase 7 in Windows 8 which have gone away with Windows 8.1. That alone makes me happy I upgraded.


There are lots of other improvements that I use on other devices. For example, the per-display DPI is great on my laptop. On my desktop, since my displays are matched (and running at 100% DPI scaling) and I don't use a projector, it doesn't have any impact. On my Surface Pro, it makes a big difference as the DPI on my Surface is not what I want to use on a projector or an external screen.

Another thing I'm really looking forward to is the 3d printing (and more) API. More on that in the future :)

Interesting in creating Windows store apps?

Interested in coding for Windows? Check out my book Windows Store App Development: C# and XAML. For purchasers of the book, I'll have a free update chapter for the 8.1 changes later this summer/fall.


Also available on Amazon.

posted by Pete Brown on Sunday, July 21, 2013
filed under:    

14 comments for “The little things that matter: Top desktop-friendly improvements in Windows 8.1”

  1. dgsays:
    I'm finding 8.1 great as well (although I liked 8 well enough). You're right about the desktop background for the Start Menu and Desktop being a lot less jarring.

    For people using tablets, there's another way to get to that setting, without having to use the desktop and small hit points of the taskbar control panel.

    On the Start Menu, swipe in the charms, select the settings charm and then Personalise. From here you can change the wallpaper and colours in a more touch friendly manner, the last image shown is your desktop image. If you choose this one, it will have the same effect of mirroring your desktop image on the Start Menu.
  2. Tim Troutsays:
    A utility I found indispensable is called ModernMix from Stardock, which lets you run Store/Metro apps in a window rather than full screen. Their start menu replacement is also top notch, though 8.1 renders that unnecessary
  3. Iansays:
    Hi Pete, great post. Out of curiosity, what software are you using to design your home office. I'm currently looking to something similar and those screenshots look much better than what I've achieved with SketchUp!
  4. Petesays:

    Yep. I've heard good things about that, but I don't use it myself.

    I'm a long-time Rhino 3d user, so I decided to finally pony up and upgrade to the latest version. I used to use their stuff for CAD/CAM with my CNC machine, and more recently, used it to design a model for 3d printing. It's not the greatest for architectural design, but does a reasonable job at it. You can also write .NET plugins for it, making it easy for us all to add functionality.


  5. kingstersays:
    Love your setup. I am also using Cubase 7 (Upgrading from Cubase 4) and also bought a new Dell desktop loaded with Windows 8.1. Although I have looked around, I can't find any documentation on optimizing Windows 8.1 for music production, as I have found for earlier versions of Windows. Would you have any thoughts on specifically what settings would help prevent interference with recording live music? Thanks in advance
  6. Robert Teaguesays:
    This further convinces me to stay with Windows 7. The Windows desktop is just plain ugly. Metro is fine on my phone, and we have a Surface Pro 2 at work, and I like the Metro interface on it .... but, the desktop is where I spend my time.

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