Slideshow

In pictures: The desktop lover's guide to supercharging Windows 8.1

Don't like the Metro interface? Here's the best way to banish it and boost your productivity.

  • Desktop lover's guide to supercharging Windows 8.1 True confession: I hate Windows 8.1. The dual personality drives me nuts. Metro may be great for people with tablets, tiny fingers, and even tinier expectations. For people like me -- all thumbs, no touchscreen on my main PC, and tons of work to churn out -- Windows 8.1 doesn’t make any sense at all. But -- here’s the confession part -- I use Windows 8.1 all day, every day. Ever since Microsoft released the “final” RTM bits on September 9 (and, yes, leaked builds before that) I’ve been eating Microsoft’s dog food, as it were. There are tricks to staying sane in a Window 8.1 world. You can make Metro back off, most of the time. Here’s how.

  • Navigation properties The most important group of Windows 8.1 improvements for the desktop-and-mouse set come in one simple dialog box. To get to the box (which is devilishly well hidden), go to the old-fashioned desktop, right-click on any blank area down on the taskbar, and choose Properties. Then, in the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog box, click the Navigation tab. Every native desktop user should check the box marked When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start down in the Start screen section. That’s the boot-to-desktop option, and it works well. The other options aren’t so black-and-white. Let’s take a look at the effects of other settings in this box.

  • Disable Charms I hate it when I’m looking at the desktop, I swing my mouse to the upper-right corner to “X” out of an app, and the lousy Charms bar rolls out of the right side. There isn’t one single Charm on the old-fashioned desktop that’s worth spitting at. (There aren’t many on the Metro side worth using, either.) I never want to bring up the Charms bar on the desktop. That’s why I uncheck the first box on the Navigation Properties dialog -- When I point to the upper-right corner, show the charms. In those (exceedingly rare) instances where I want to bring up the Charms bar, I just push Windows Key + C.

  • Can the Switcher The next box on the Navigation Properties dialog isn’t quite worded correctly. It says, When I click the upper-left corner, switch between my recent apps. If you check that box, yes, clicking in the upper-left corner switches to the Metro app that you most recently had open, but it does more: Checking the box enables the Metro Task Switcher, which intrudes on the left, as you can see. Unchecking the box turns off the Metro Task Switcher entirely. I never use the Metro Task Switcher, so I uncheck the box. If I want to switch between running Metro apps or desktop windows, I use Alt+Tab, the CoolSwitch that’s worked since Windows 98.

  • Choose PowerShell? In Windows 8.1, if you right-click on the Window icon in the taskbar, you see a list of “Power User” commands -- the so-called WinX commands. Two of the commands start a command prompt, which is handy for DOS-style access to your machine. In the Navigation Properties dialog, if you check the box marked Replace Command Prompt with Windows PowerShell in the menu when I right-click the lower-left corner or press Windows key+X, the Command Prompt item in the WinX menu is replaced by PowerShell, and Command Prompt (Admin) is replaced with PowerShell (Admin). If you’re a PowerShell user, that may be helpful. I have no idea why Microsoft didn’t put all four commands on the WinX menu.

  • Metro Start wallpaper The next choice on the Navigation Properties list says Show my desktop background on Start. If you check that box, a darkened and faded version of your old-fashioned desktop’s wallpaper appears as the background (sometimes called a “tattoo”) on your Metro Start screen Microsoft says that’s supposed to make the transition between desktop and Metro less jarring. Personally, I don’t like it. I turn my Metro wallpaper into a solid, drab gray -- just to warn me quickly and visually if I’ve strayed to the Dark Side. In general, you can’t use any old image as your Metro Start screen wallpaper: You’re stuck with the built-in options, plus a copy of your desktop wallpaper.

  • Show All Apps The last four settings in the Navigation Properties dialog control when and how the Metro Start screen gets swapped out for the All Apps list. Microsoft touts the All Apps list as being the second coming of the Windows Start Menu. I think that’s a crock -- there’s no multi-level organization, for example, so the “dead” tiles just keep going and going -- but for desktop mousers, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the All Apps list is better than the Metro Start screen. Check all four of the boxes, unless you have an overwhelming reason not to do so.

  • Install desktop replacements So you’re surfing the Web from the desktop. You double-click on a PDF file, and the furshlugginer Metro Reader app pops up, wagging its tail, tossing you over to the Metro side. Reminds me of Clippy. If you don’t want the stupid Metro Reader to show PDFs, or Metro Xbox Music to play songs, or the Metro Xbox Video app to play your videos, the easiest way to restore some desktop sanity is to install “legacy” programs that handle such files and let the installer take over the file associations. My recommendations: PDF-Xchange for PDFs (don’t let it install the toolbar), VLC Player for audio and video, IrfanView for pictures, Gmail (the beta Notifier sets defaults), and Firefox.

  • Load your taskbar Even if you install a Start menu replacement like Start8, the fastest and easiest way to get at your desktop programs in Windows 8.1 is through the taskbar, just like it was in Windows 7. Pinning programs to the taskbar is easy if you start in the Metro All Apps list. Just right-click on the app you want to put on the taskbar and choose the option at the bottom that says Pin to Taskbar. When you install new desktop programs, the installer puts a “dead” tile in the All Apps list, even if it doesn’t put an icon on your desktop. Flip over to the All Apps list and pin the programs you need to the taskbar.

  • Get Start8 There’s no Start menu like the old Start menu. You can choose from dozens of Start menu replacements -- our own Serdar Yegulalp has nine options in this Test Center analysis -- but the one I keep coming back to is Stardock’s Start8. Start8 actually works better than the Windows 7 Start menu. Try it free for 30 days. Keep it, and Start8 will set you back $4.99. While you’re at it, seriously consider getting Stardock’s ModernMix -- there’s an offer to download it at the same time as Start8. You may want to run a Metro app some day (forgive my blasphemy), and the way to do it is inside a window on your desktop, the ModernMix way.

  • Go forth and multiply That’s how to set up Windows 8.1, to minimize those jarring trips into Metro hell. Until Microsoft builds a better Windows -- see, for example, Galen Gruman’s proposal for Windows Red -- it’s the best we desktop-bound mouse-wielding touch-adverse dinosaurs can do. Not bad for five bucks and a few minutes of spelunking. Whip Windows 8.1 into shape, and you may just forget that you’re running an operating system with a Dr. Jekyll persona. It’s like watching "Dexter" but ignoring the bloody parts.

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