5 principles to make learning Windows 8.1 easier

5 principles to make learning Windows 8.1 easier

Summary: A show and tell with a friend and his new Windows 8.1 hybrid exposed 5 things newbies can do to make the transition from Windows 7 easier.

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

New Year's day turned out to be a fun day, as a friend brought his new Asus Transformer Book T100 to the coffee shop. I was sitting there with my own T100 and it was pretty cool to see two of them side-by-side on the table. My friend bought the T100 to get familiar with Windows 8.1. He is very familiar with Windows 7 but a total newbie with 8.1.

Our fun session quickly turned into one of my showing him the ins and outs of full Windows 8.1, especially the touch-centric Metro interface. He wanted to know how to easily do the things he wants, so I set out to show him. He was quickly frustrated, for like many new Windows 8.1 users he tended to make things more complicated than they need to be. The T100 he was using has the full desktop environment, and that was the source of much of his difficulty.

Based on working with him, I realized there are five principles for getting familiar with Windows 8.1, especially hybrids that are both laptops and tablets. You may know these and perhaps find them to be basic knowledge, but newbies may find them useful. This is not a Windows 8.1 tutorial by any means, rather a general guide on how to get started with the latest OS from Microsoft.

See related: Asus Transformer Book T100: One week inAsus Transformer Book T100: First impressions | Asus Transformer T100 is calling my name | ASUS Transformer Prime: Perfect for business trips (review) | What I want: ASUS Transformer Prime running Windows 8 | Necessary battery life for laptops: 8 hours

Stay away from the desktop

This sounds counter-intuitive since the desktop and the ability to load apps from outside the Microsoft Store is an advantage of Windows 8.1 over Windows RT.

What I observed working with my friend was his natural impulse to go to the familiar desktop instead of the brand new Metro interface. This impeded learning how to operate the Metro interface by touch, and quickly frustrated him since the desktop didn't handle touch operation as well. He was constantly trying to tap tiny Windows controls on the desktop, which didn't work well even after I showed him how to make things bigger in settings.

It was hard for him to do at first but after I repeatedly told him to stay away from the desktop, which he started calling the dark side, he began to see how much easier (and better) the Metro side was for everything we were doing. Metro is nicely optimized for touch and once he was forced to only use it he quickly grasped the concept behind it and realized it's pretty good.

Keep Metro Internet Explorer the default browser

Once of the first things my friend did after taking his Transformer Book T100 out of the box was to install the Chrome (or other) browser. I can relate to this as I did the same thing with my first Windows tablet. Many folks use Chrome on other devices/platforms and it's nice to have that familiar interface, along with all of your bookmarks and settings, on your new Windows hybrid.

Unfortunately, Chrome and other third-party browsers run on the desktop side of Windows. These are not very touch optimized and it's difficult to use them on the desktop. 

Making a third-party browser the default prevents you from using the Metro version of Internet Explorer, which is a very good browser that is integrated into the Metro side of things. If you make another browser the default instead of Metro IE, every time you click a link in another app it jarringly takes you to the dark side, er, the desktop side of Windows 8. This was really frustrating my friend, and making Metro IE the default relieved that frustration by letting him stay on the Metro side of things.

Note that my friend had somehow made the desktop version of IE (not Metro) the default browser on his T100. He had Chrome installed and it wasn't the default, but having desktop IE as the default had the same effect on his usage. It was even worse as it wasn't obvious to him that he'd done that, and he hated how it regularly jerked him from Metro onto the desktop that didn't work as well by touch.

Once he started using Metro IE for his browsing, he agreed with me how good it is to use by touch. He liked it a lot better than trying to use the Chrome browser.

Find a snap view setup that works for you

Windows 8 users know how useful the snap view can be for just about all users. The ability to put two (or more) apps side-by-side not only extends what you can do at once but can provide additional functionality. It comes down to finding a couple of apps to put onscreen at once that work together.

My friend likes to have his email app on the screen most of the time to see client emails as they come in. I showed him how to do that and have IE open on a pane to the right. Once I showed him that with this snap view setup when he clicked a link in an email it opened up in the browser pane on the right, he was hooked. 

He could go back to the email whenever he wanted, and also surf the web on the right. This added value for him that other mobile platforms couldn't duplicate as well. The value add was even greater when I showed him how to drag the center border between the panes to any size he wanted, and also make one app full screen when necessary.

This excited him as much as anything we covered and kindled his enthusiasm to learn "this Windows 8 thing".

Next: Universal search is your friend; The reading list is oh, so nice; Keep it simple

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • Relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 mode...

    Seems at odds with your comment "Unfortunately, Chrome and other third-party browsers run on the desktop side of Windows."

    Not on my T100.
    • Best to leave the Identity Theft by Proxy Google crap off your PC entirely

      • Windows 8 = disliked

        I read a lot of bad comments on Win 8+. The system just passed the 10% bar but it is still misunderstood and disliked. Technically it is a better overall system then Win7. It boots a lot faster, it's safer, very stable and compatible with new stuff like 3D printers. The Metro start screen is definitely something that many don't understand and see it like some kind of a joke. The thing is that we sure admire what Microsoft has tried to achieve which is to create the first UI for both desktop based and mobile devices. The issue is how far they went one way and little they have done the other.

        Microsoft will need to fix a few things to please all users. One would be to create a few usage profile settings to make things more comfortable for desktop PC users for example. This one click profile would make the PC start directly on the Desktop, make all file open on Desktop based application instead of full screen metro app and include a lateral menu that is easy to use and resemble the start menu. The Metro start screen is pretty much useless on a desktop PC.

        Another preset would allow mobile devise users to maximize their experience on touch environment. There should be a full featured File Manager for the metro environment like the File Manager App already available on the Windows store. The desktop doesn't make sense on a mobile device.

        A third option would be an hybrid mode that is pretty much exactly like how Windows 8+ works right now.

        The Live tiles is very nice feature of Windows 8. MS should give them even more feature, allow developers to fool around with them even more. The problem is that many people don't like them on a desktop computer and it gives Windows a bad reputation right now.

        The other biggest problem is its App Store. Microsoft needs to address the problem. The lack of application is the result of a poor user base. Windows 7 should have the ability to run XAML applications. That would give the windows store millions of new customers. It would blast the Android market out of the sky.

        Windows 8.1 as it is right now is by far the best version of Windows. The problem is that it becomes obvious only on mobile devices. Microsoft, please address this problem.
        • "Microsoft will need to fix a few things to please all users."

          You mean like they fixed the ribbon in Office? Oh, hang on . . . .

          MS is NOT going to listen to users and that was proved with the release of 8.1 wherein MS did not return the Start Menu demanded by many users.

          It does not matter how sensible your suggestions might be because MS is not going to listen. They set a course with W8 and nothing is going to make them veer from that course, not even a Titanic Iceberg.
          • Actually

            I would agree that before W8 was released, MS totally ignored their own beta users almost all telling them the Start Screen had issues and gestures in W8 were obscure. Once the crap hit the fan, 8.1 reflected a response that took user issues in account. This was only a point release so, no, nothing dramatic but a trend.

            From what we have been hearing from people like Mary Jo Foley, project "Threshold" will incorporate many aspects that Jay presented in a fan in is recommendations (linked)...


            Just like the 180 MS did with the XBox One, I actually would not be surprised if something like Jay's proposals show up in the next major release almost per vadim.
            Rann Xeroxx
          • @RX

            Before W8 was released, there were calls for a Start Button. After its release there were massive calls for a Start Button. Now, everyone saying Start Button meant Start Button AND Start Menu; that was an absolute given. The most that MS has done is to add a Start Button and pretend that they did what users wanted, knowing full meant that users really meant a Start Menu. That is NOT listening to users!

            As for XB1, come-on. MS were forced to change because of Sony doing what users wanted and MS doing exactly the opposite. It is quite clear that pressure the better options of Sony forced MS to change, not MS users. If there had been no PS4, you can damn well believe that Ms would have made no changes whatsoever, despite user pressure.
    • Chrome in Metro mode is not as good as Metro IE

      Chrome in Metro mode is not as good as Metro IE
  • Point is give IE a shot

    He didn't have a reason to run Chrome so worth giving Metro IE a try. It's better than some folks think.
    • Did you tell him Chrome for Windows 8/Modern UI/Metro existed though?

      I bet he'd disagree if he knew there was a touch version of Chrome.
      • The touch support in Metro Chrome

        is quite bad. The best example I can give is that when you want to scroll Chrome wants to select text. Metro IE works the way a touch browser ought to work.

        But then again, Metro IE is limited when it comes to plug-ins, so I stick with desktop Chrome. For whatever reason, desktop Chrome seems to work fine with touch where Metro Chrome does not.
        Michael Kelly
        • Still a big Chrome user but...

          I have totally gotten away from plug-ins and extensions. Use to load them all the time now I just find myself turning them off. Half the time its because they turn out to be buggy and resource hogs. Heck, sometimes my Chrome gets unstable and because I would have an extension running, I just could not be for sure if it was causing it.
          Rann Xeroxx
    • We should have two default browsers

      One for the desktop and one for Metro UI.

      I find it confusing being thrown to the other side (doesn't matter which way) when opening a link or file, same thing could apply for many file formats like PDF which have apps for both sides.
      • Rube Goldberg Solution

        Being automatically switched from the Metro side to the desktop side is very, very confusing. It is not just IE but also mail and other programs.

        It is time for Rube Goldberg. When I have my hybrid on the go I want to stay with the Metro side. When I plug it into a docking stations on the desk I want to stay on the desktop side. I have started to build a desktop with icons arranged the same way they are on the Metro side. Defaults are on the Metro side so when I use them I stay there. When on the desk top I use the Icons and stay on the desk top. It seems to me this is a real Rub Goldberg but it works for now.
      • With Win 8 64 bit..

        Does it still come with two browsers(32 and 64) like windows 7. Sometimes gets frustrating. I wish I could force certain apps, or websites to be opened with different browser engines. EBS works good with IE, some open source stuff seems to only work with Chrome, some with Firefox. It gets frustrating, keeping the mental list.
    • But not as good as others think

      It still under performs Chrome on the HTML5 compatibility list, confuses the heck out of many websites that don't recognize its UserAgent string, and offers less fluid transitions in some of the popular Javascript libraries such as jQuery Mobile.
    • better, yes...

      I tend to think IE9 was significantly better from a browser standpoint. I'm an outlier use case as I tend to tear everything apart and learn every feature and caveat to support my work. The 2 big issue I have with IE10/11 are as follows:

      1. Tab memory management - they significantly changed the way they handle tabs and memory management across new tab processes and at least in my experience made it significantly less stable and atomic. This was primarily in an effort to support the new metro sandboxing design (I refuse to use the word 'paradigm').
      2. Incompatibility - It was only a few weeks ago that the user agent finally propagated into most of the major web presences and frameworks. This led to a ton of headaches related to people's explicit regression and feature detection not working at intended
      3. Incompatibility w/ other microsoft tech - I note this because it hounds me on a daily basis. IE11 doesn't play well with SharePoint. Or Dynamics CRM. or most any other Microsoft web-based enterprise tool. This makes it hard for me to push enterprise win 8, which is something I WANT to do.

      From the other side, the developer tools are MUCH better (albeit the WPF-based interface is significantly heavier than the previous in terms of resource consumption, but I can live with that in light of the significantly more advanced and intuitive toolset). It does have a great touch enabled interface and it gracefully handles release of resources when in that mode.

      Few bugs to iron out, good overall, still lacking compared to some older versions.
      BridgeT Roll
      • Compatibility mode

        IE has a compatibility mode which makes the browser acts like an older version. I had to use it for Outlook Web Access for my company's Exchange server which reverted back to light version of the site like it feeds to Firefox or Chrome.

        You can also add sites to a list for them to be permanently in compatibility mode.

        Microsoft could have publicized this feature more.
      • I like the fact that the devtools support all the event binding

        in modern style JS, but I wish they had kept the look of the old F12 tools. The iconography is hard to figure out in the new F12 tools.
    • FireFox in a few months

      You can let him know about the FireFox one in a few months. Will be interesting to see how it works in Metro, IE11 Metro sets a rather high bar as far as UI.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • Cover for T100

    Good observations. I've been trying out a T100 to learn win 8.1 better as well and the default browser thing took awhile to figure out. I'm still a bit grumpy about Chrome and weak Google support (no calendar and contacts are killing it for me) but I guess I'll see how it goes.

    One thing I've realized is the T100 is a better windows laptop replacement than a tablet, the mobile utility is just not as good. I'm replacing an aging home PC with this so I can still run turbo tax and some other legacy apps ... and for that use, the price and utility are a great deal.

    I'm sure I'll get grief for the opinion but for mobile utility, but I still see the iPad usability as being superior to what I've learned and seen so far with win 8.1. As one example, I don't need to 'leave the email app open' because the notifications tell me when a new email arrives and I can choose to access it with a click. So an older iPad is still my 'take everywhere device' at the moment. Just my experience so far.

    But I am trying to see if Windows 8 really has something to offer, so the tips help!