[October 17, 2013: Instructions and screenshots updated for official release of Windows 8.1]
In unveiling Windows 8.1 earlier this year, Microsoft executives said, “We’re listening to feedback.” That’s a polite way of saying they were trying to avoid being splattered by a barrage of rotten tomatoes.
Some of the most vocal complaints—sorry, feedback—came from longtime Windows users who wanted the good parts of Windows 8 without sacrificing the familiar Windows 7 desktop. Responding to that complaint was the impetus behind Microsoft’s decision to restore the Start button in Windows 8.1 to its traditional place at the left side of the taskbar.
The good news: Windows 8.1 has all the user-interface pieces you need to bring the desktop to the foreground and make the Start screen recede far, far into the background.
The bad news: Windows 8.1 doesn’t have a magic “make Metro go away” button. Desktop diehards will need to spend a couple minutes (really, that’s all the time it takes) to tweak Windows 8.1 into submission.
Here’s what you need to do to make Windows 8.1 as desktop-friendly as possible. Note that all of the features I describe here are new or significantly changed in Windows 8.1 compared to Windows 8.
Step 1: Uninstall unwanted apps.
Your focus is on desktop apps. You have no desire to use any of the 20-plus built-in Metro apps and no plans to download any from the Windows Store. To reduce the chance that you will inadvertently launch one of the built-in apps, uninstall as many as you can. Windows 8.1 allows you to uninstall all of those apps in one operation; that’s a big improvement over Windows 8, which made you uninstall each app separately. (Note that you have the option to uninstall from a single machine or from all your synced devices.)
Step 2: Adjust the look of the Start screen.
Windows 8.1 includes an option that allows the Start screen to share the same background as the desktop. Personally, I find that setting somewhat distracting, so I leave it off. Instead, I recommend removing the pattern and adjusting the background color to something neutral. This dialog box isn’t in PC Settings, where you might expect it. Instead, you have to go to the Start screen, click the Settings charm, and then click Personalize. Note the background with no pattern is in the bottom row, second from the right.
Step 3: Tweak the Start screen settings to suit your preferences.
Right-click any empty space on the taskbar and click Properties. That opens up the familiar-looking Taskbar And Navigation Properties dialog box, with a Navigation tab that’s new to Windows 8.1. Options here allow you to bypass the Start screen at sign-in, show the All Apps screen when you click or tap Start, and disable the two hot corners at the top of the screen.
Step 4: Arrange the Apps screen.
You’ll probably want to avoid the Start screen completely, but you can’t avoid an occasional visit to the Apps view. It replaces the All Programs menu with a full-screen list, organized into groups. You have several sorting and grouping options in Windows 8.1 that aren’t available in Windows 8. To get to Apps view, go to Start by clicking the Start button or tapping the Windows key; then either swipe up from the bottom of the screen or move the mouse until a small down arrow appears in the lower left corner, which you can click to see your full list of apps.
Step 5: Pin your favorite desktop programs to the taskbar.
This is actually one thing Windows 8.1 does better than Windows 7. From the Apps view you can select as many desktop programs as you want and then click Pin to Taskbar from the command bar at the bottom of the screen.
Step 6: Set your default apps.
This is a step a lot of people overlook. By default, Windows 8 sets several common file types to open with Metro-style apps. Windows 8.1 follows in that tradition. You can use the awkward and confusing Default Programs option in the desktop Control Panel. But it’s much, much easier to use the new Defaults option, which you’ll find in PC Settings under Search & Apps.
Don’t forget to change your default browser here. If you use Chrome or Firefox, the desktop version of your preferred browser becomes the default. If you use Internet Explorer, be sure to visit the Internet Options dialog box using the desktop interface. On the Programs tab, under Opening Internet Explorer, choose Always In Internet Explorer On The Desktop, and also check the box beneath that setting (Open Internet Explorer tiles on the desktop).
There, you’re done.
That was probably more complicated than it needs to be, but the end result should be a system that is far more tolerant of your desktop habits, with far less Metro style.