By now the chips are down, and there's no longer any doubt that Windows 8 and its successor, Windows 8.1, have failed to win over most users in the enterprise and consumer markets. The Frankenstein-like mashing of the new Metro touch interface and the traditional Windows desktop is particularly unsettling for typical desktop users who use a keyboard and mouse. Windows 8.1 was Microsoft's rushed attempt to fix the problems in the original Windows 8 release, and although the update helped, it unfortunately just didn't go far enough. Fortunately, there are several ways you can tweak your Windows 8.1 system to provide a better and more Windows 7–like experience.
1. Configure Boot to Desktop
One of the things desktop users have little use for is the new Metro Start screen; it just gets in the way of accessing the Windows desktop. Fortunately, Windows 8.1 allows you to boot directly to the desktop. To configure this option, right-click the taskbar and select Properties to display the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog box. From the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog box, select Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in.
2. Use the New Start Button
Removing the Start button and menu from Windows 8 was undoubtedly the worst design decision that Microsoft could possibly have made. Windows 8.1 doesn't fix this problem, either; it just brings back the Start button, but with no Start menu. However, the new Start button isn't completely without value. If you right-click the new Start button, you'll get a handy context menu that allows you to work with Programs and Features, Power Options, Event Viewer, Device Manager, Network Connections, Disk Management, PowerShell, File Explorer, Control Panel, Shutdown, and more. It's no Start menu, but it's better than Windows 8.
3. Use the Keyboard Shortcuts
One of the best ways to navigate the new interface in Windows 8.1 and Windows 8 is by using shortcut keys. Fortunately, most of the previous Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts still work. Some of the handy Windows 8.1 and Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts include Alt+Tab to switch between applications, Alt+F4 to close the current application, the Windows key (Win) to switch between the desktop and Start screen, Win+D to display the desktop, Win+L to lock the desktop, Win+R open the Run dialog box, Ctrl+A to select all, Ctrl+C to copy, Ctrl+V to paste, Ctrl+X to cut, and Ctrl+Z to undo.
4. Replace the Start Screen with the Apps View
If you're not using Windows 8.1 apps (and honestly, there are very few that have any real use), then you'd probably be better off replacing the Start screen with the Apps view. The Apps view shows you a list of all installed applications, and it doesn't show the Start screen tiles. To enable the Apps view, open the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog box and select Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start.
5. Show Desktop Background on the Start Screen
If you haven't made a zillion shortcuts on your desktop for all your applications, you'll probably wind up using the Start screen from time to time. If you do, it's nice if it doesn't look completely foreign to, and separate from, the desktop. You can put the Windows 8.1 desktop background on the Start screen view by opening the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog box and then selecting Show my desktop background on Start.
6. Use the Desktop and Taskbar
Making good use of the desktop and the taskbar are two keys to being productive with Windows 8.1 in a desktop (i.e., keyboard and mouse) environment. Using the taskbar is pretty straightforward. From either the Start screen or the Apps view, you can select an item and choose Pin to the Taskbar from the popup menu. Creating desktop shortcuts is a bit more difficult. On the Start screen, click the arrow that appears when you move the cursor (Help desks must love all these invisible options) to display the Apps view. From the Apps view, select the items you want to create shortcuts for and then select File Locations from the popup menu. Right-click the desired items, and choose Send to and then Desktop from the context menu.
7. Restore Libraries to File Explorer
Another handy Windows 7 feature that Microsoft unceremoniously removed in Windows 8 was the Libraries view option in File Explorer. Libraries are a convenient way to group and access common files. To add the Libraries view, open File Explorer from the desktop and then click the View tab in the ribbon. Next, click the Navigation pane button and select Show Libraries.
8. Hide the File Explorer Ribbon
Personally, I like the new File Explorer ribbon. It makes tasks such as displaying file extensions and displaying hidden items very easy by using the new View tab on the ribbon. However, the ribbon is different and does take up window real estate. Unfortunately, you can't natively remove it, but you can hide it by clicking the up arrow in the ribbon's upper right hand corner.
9. Restore the Ability to Play DVDs
Removing the ability to play DVDs was another inexplicable and universally disliked change that Microsoft made to Windows 8, and the Windows 8.1 update does nothing to fix the problem. If you're not using Windows 8.1 Pro, you can download the Windows 8.1 Pro Pack for $99.99; if you are using Windows 8.1 Pro, you can buy the Windows 8.1 Media Center Pack for $9.99. If you'd rather pay nothing, then you can download the free VLC media player.
10. Install a Start Menu Replacement
I can't emphasize this enough, but one of the little things that can really help your Windows 8.1 or Windows 8 experience is to install a third-party Start menu. Why Microsoft didn't just put this back into Windows 8.1 is beyond me. Regardless, Classic Shell can give you back your Windows 7–like Start menu—and it's free. If you're willing to pay $4.99, Stardock's Start8 is another great option with a lot of customizable features. Both of these third-party Start menus make Windows 8.1 and Windows 8 a much better desktop experience.