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New Windows 8.1 features: are they worth it?

New Windows 8.1 features: are they worth it?
Mike takes a look at some of the best new features in Windows 8.1, and asks "should you upgrade?"

Windows 8 has now been with us for quite a while and love it or hate it many of us are now getting used to it. Last autumn Microsoft released a free (for most) upgrade to Windows 8.1, which can be obtained through the Windows store and installs just like all the other apps. But to look at, it doesn't seem to be that much different. It is still a blend of the familiar desktop and brand new Windows 8 design, which of course begs the question "is there really anything worth upgrading for?"

Personally I upgraded fairly soon after 8.1 was released and found the experience to be a little smoother than Windows 8. There are some nice sync options so I can have the same settings sychronised between a laptop and a couple of desktops. The latest interface is also friendlier for mouse and keyboard users, and overall I have been very happy with it. However, everyone has different priorities, so I have picked a number of features that I think make it worth upgrading to help you make up your mind.

Start button

Everyone knows the Start button is back and what a relief that is! However, the Start button never really went away, and if you are in Windows 8 all you need to do is hover in the bottom left corner for it to pop up. The trouble is that it's a little too easy to hit the wrong button - you only need to move your mouse slightly and the Start button disappears, opening a pinned program instead. This is something that has been fixed in Windows 8.1.

Did you also know that the Start button has a right click context menu? In here there are quick links to the Control Panel, command line etc. But for those of you that dislike the Windows 8 tiled Start menu Microsoft have added the option to shutdown or sign out from the desktop using this menu.

Shut down 8.1

Boot to desktop

Now I quite like the Windows 8 Start menu, which allows me to have just the apps I want, in the order I want, in one handy place. But I know many people using a desktop or laptop aren't as keen. Well, if you don't really like it, you can now ignore it most of the time and boot directly into the old familiar desktop environment. To get your PC to do this go to the desktop and right click on the taskbar at the bottom. Then click Properties from the context menu. In the window that opens click on the Navigation tab and you can see a number of options for adjusting your experience. Tick the boxes below and your PC will open directly to the desktop.

8.1 Taskbar Navigation

There are a number of other useful options in here too. For instance do you always have problems with the Charms popping up when all you want to do is minimise your program? Simply Un-tick "When I point to the top-right corner, show the charms". If you want to get a bit more technical, you can also replace the command promt function with the much more powerful PowerShell to show all apps when you go to Start rather than just the ones you have pinned, and if you have two screens you can decide to open the Start menu on the active screen when you press the Windows key.

Bing Smart Search

One of the most powerful changes to Windows 8.1 comes in Bing's Smart Search. To enable this go to the PC settings through the settings Charm. Then go into the Search and Apps menu. At the top is the option to use Bing to search online. Now whenever you search you will get a whole host of stuff from the internet: pictures, videos, articles, websites etc, as well as what's on your PC and network drives.

Sync your devices

SkyDrive (now known as OneDrive) integration allows you to sync content such as desktop settings, Internet Explorer tabs, your app library and more across all of your devices. You can get to these settings through the OneDrive option in PC settings. In addition you can save your files to OneDrive automatically. This means that no matter whether you log on to your laptop, desktop or Windows tablet they will look the same, have the same apps and documents.

Printer support

Microsoft have gone to town with future-proofing the printer support in Windows 8.1. They have added the ability for developers to add 3D printing support in their applications so that you can 3D print directly from your programs. They have also added support for Wi-Fi and NFC printing, so you can print directly from your mobile and tablet.

Remove unwanted apps all at once

Remember going into Search and Apps Earlier to set the Bing search settings? In here there are also options to look at the size of your apps and by clicking on the app you can also choose to uninstall it.

8.1 Uninstall apps

The Start and Apps screens

Okay, so most people seem to want to avoid the Start screen, but for those of you who do use it there have been some nice aesthetic changes here too. Your desktop wall paper can now be shown as a background to the start menu. Sorting the start screen is easier because you now get a choice of tile sizes (small, medium, large and wide) and you can edit as many as you want at the same time. You can even put a title to your groups of icons, which is a nice feature for people who want to customise the appearance.

8.1 Start screen

In Windows 8 getting to the Apps menu was cumbersome, but in 8.1 you only have to click on the arrow towards the bottom left of the Start screen. There is a similar arrow on the Apps screen when you want to go back. You can now sort the Apps menu by name, install date, category or most used, and this could be important when finding the app you just installed as new apps are no longer automatically added to the Start screen. Now you have to do that yourself by finding them in the App screen then right clicking and selecting Pin to Start.

Libraries

Strangely Microsoft have disabled Libraries by default, but you can turn them back on through the View > Navigation Pane options in File Explorer. The reason that disabling it is strange is because they have added the ability to include removable storage locations in the libraries so now you can put your USB stick or Network attached storage into the library.

And lots, lots more...

There are many more features that have been added to Windows 8. For instance you can add a slideshow to the lock screen or use a picture to logon with, the Windows store has been updated and did you know that Intenet Explorer 11 now includes a reading mode? This new feature turns simple web pages into beautifully presented articles.  

As you can see there are plenty of really good features in Windows 8.1 and in a couple of months' time it's only going to get better with the release of Windows 8.1 update 1! 

With support for Windows XP coming to an end next month (Tuesday 8th April to be precise!), there's never been a better time to upgrade your operating system. If you are looking to upgrade to Windows 8.1, why not get in touch? Tune in next week for Tobi's blog on the demise of Windows XP and what it means for your business.

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