Unless you haven’t had internet connection for the last two weeks, you’re probably aware that the new version of Windows dropped today. This post is a minimal Windows 8.1 quick start guide to get you familiar with the differences between 8 and 8.1. It is an overview and is intended to sift out the most common things you’ll run into and avoid you having to deal with too many details right at the beginning.
After playing with it for a few hours before writing this post, I think Windows 8.1 is an improvement over Windows 8.0 on the Surface tablets. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there were a few “huh?” moments but after figuring out the new things, I do think it’s an improvement to an already awesome tablet.
So, here’s my list of 6 things you need to know to start taking full advantage of the Windows 8.1 upgrade:
The Start Menu is back
Yep. Microsoft put a start button back in to desktop mode but it doesn’t work quite like you might expect. Just tapping the start menu from the desktop mode switches back to Metro and doesn’t bring up a Windows 7 style start menu.
However, if you tap and hold (right-click) it does bring up a minimal start menu that is quite usable, if not very fancy.
I see this coming in very handy. This is especially true if you’re using your Surface as a desktop replacement.
With the new split-screen multitasking, you now get a 50/50 split when doing snap apps – as opposed to the old 33/66 split. It’s a small change that lead to a huge improvement in usability. The screenshot below shows how it looks.
Also, by default, if you open a document or a link in an app that requires another app to run, it will automatically bring up the second app in split screen — For example, if you open a PDF from Mail it will open it in split-screen view as opposed to switching the whole screen over to Reader like Windows 8.0 would do.
SkyDrive doesn’t cache locally by default
You probably heard that Microsoft decided to allow you to sync your documents in SkyDrive to your Surface so they can be accessed when you’re offline. This is really awesome for folks who may want to use their Surface to do work on long drives or plane rides where wi-fi might not be available.
However, it’s not the default setting. To get the SkyDrive to sync locally just do the following:
- Open Skydrive from the Metro interface.
- Swipe in from the right to bring up the options menu.
- Tap Options.
- Change “Access all files offline” to Yes.
You can click on the “Open PC settings to change other SkyDrive options” link and access additional options like saving documents and pictures to Skydrive by default or even buying additional SkyDrive space from Microsoft.
Warning: this offline mode will use your Surface’s local storage. You may want to consider adding a microSD Card, see my instructions on how to Free Up Space on Your Surface Tablets, Part 2.
Your call on that. I just like that they made the option available.
Predictive on-screen keyboard (Text Suggestions)
Taking a queue from the Windows Phone team, the Windows 8.1 team included a “phone-style” predictive typing function into the onscreen keyboard called Text Suggestions. It’s not bad; just don’t be surprised when you see it.
If you don’t want Text Suggestions to appear, you can turn them off by doing the following
- Swipe in from the right side of the screen to bring up the Charms bar
- Tap Settings.
- Tap Change PC Settings.
- Tap PC and devices.
- Tap Typing.
- Turn off Show text suggestions as I type.
And you’ll no longer see text suggestions as you type. Personally, I kept it on but it’s up to you as to whether it’s helpful or distracting.
Working with tiles has changed
The way you work with tiles has changed a bit. At first I wasn’t so sure I liked it but after playing with it a bit, I think it’s an improvement.
Gone are the days of the quick tug-down to select a tile. Now you simply tap and hold to bring up the tile options. You shouldn’t have any problems with the options as they haven’t changed very much but there are new tile sizes:
From the screen shot below, you can see the different sizes. I think the new sizes add some customization options and set the stage for a Surface Mini tablet with the small option.
Also, the way you get to the All Apps view has changed. Before you had to swipe in from the bottom and then tap the All Apps button. That button is now the “Customize” button. If you tap on it, you’ll get options to add, remove, resize or move tiles along with the ability to name groups of tiles on your Start Screen.
To get to All Apps now, simply scroll down from the Start Screen (like you’re scrolling down a web page) and they will appear.
Internet Explorer 11 Differences
With the update from Internet Explorer 10 to Internet Explorer 11, there are a few changes. Nothing major and certainly nothing that will cause you any serious problems.
For example, you can still swipe in from the top to access the tab menu like before but, your open tabs will now appear at the bottom of the screen instead of the top. There’s also a couple of new buttons that have taken the place of the “Pin to” button in Internet Explorer 10.
They’re pretty self explanatory, as the “Tabs” button brings up the tabs menu and the “Favorites” button brings up your favorites.
Microsoft added some new applications to Windows 8.1. Not all of them appear on the Start Screen by default but you should find them under “All Apps” easily enough. I’m not going to go into any of them in depth but here’s a quick overview.
- Help+Tips: This is basically a “quick start guide” built into Windows 8.1. Honestly, it should have been in there before now.
- Reading List: This program let’s you save documents or web pages to be read offline at a later date. Quite handy if you’re like ma and surf a lot but don’t really have time to read everything as soon as you find it.
- Food & Drink: This is basically a Bing news feed reader concentrating on Food & Drink.
- Health & Fitness: Same as Food & Drink, just for Health & Fitness news.
- Calculator: Just what it says. A metro version of the calculator app that’s been in Windows since… well…. forever.
- Alarms: This app lets you use your surface as an alarm clock.
- Scan: With this app, you can hook your Surface up to a scanner and scan in paper documents.
- Sound Recorder: Another one that does exactly what it says it does. The quality is a bit low, however. If you need to use this, you may want to consider an external microphone.
- Outlook: It now comes pre-installed on the Surface RT. My wife, Joanna, really likes this.
OK, I hope you find this useful. Remember, it’s not meant to be a comprehensive change-list for the upgrade but it should help you better adjust to the new OS just a little quicker.
As always, if you have questions or comments, please let me know.
Tim Rolston is a professional geek with over 23 years of experience working in Information Technology and dealing with everything from large-scale storage to remote systems management and automation for organizations such as Texas Instruments, Mobil Oil, and the University of Michigan (where he was an Academic IT Director).
He co-founded JTRTech along with Joanna to realize his long-time dream of working for himself.