The Metro hater's guide to Windows 8.1

The Metro hater's guide to Windows 8.1

Summary: Are you a desktop diehard? If you've got no use for the Start screen and Metro-style apps, I have some good news for you. Windows 8.1 has a handful of interface tweaks you can make that will put the Windows desktop back in charge. Here's what you need to do to make Windows 8.1 work like Windows 7 (almost). [Updated for final release]

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TOPICS: Windows 8
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[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.)

Uninstall Metro style apps

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.

02-customize-start-screen-background-rtm

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.

03-navigation-dialog-box-rtm

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.

04-arrange-all-apps-rtm

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.

05-pin-shortcuts-to-taskbar-rtm

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.

06-default-apps-rtm

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.

Topic: Windows 8

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465 comments
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  • Great Post

    I will stick with the modern shell as I find that I use the newer apps quite often. This is a great post to help users setup Windows 8.1. Now I need to check out the Group Policy Objects and see if all the settings can be configured and handed out by Active Directory.
    Neverhood
    • Definitely a useful post, but...

      Microsoft's latest update is still a half-answer to desktop user complaints. What we wanted was the Start Menu, not just the button. That includes the all programs menu, so we don't have to switch to a completely different screen to launch an application. What we wanted was a return to the Aero desktop user interface. What we wanted was the return of our desktop gadgets. There are many other missing elements, but those are the ones I miss most. They're still not back. Third party hacks can get back some of that, but what I'm using now (Windows 7) already has all of it. So, why would I ever switch?

      While I agree that this is an improvement, it still isn't as functional as Windows 7. As such, I won't be upgrading any of my systems. Windows 7 is still the best desktop environment out there. This upgrade isn't enough to save Win 8, in my mind.
      BillDem
      • Kill Switch in App Store

        I agree, and further missing things are DVD playback. The app store also features a kill switch, and Windows has known back doors which have been proven. Microsoft now has even more control over your personal computer with Windows 8!
        Corona Borealis
        • DVD playback?

          Just download XBMC or VLC. The reason they dropped playback is because there are free alternatives. Sure it's questionable if its legal under the DMCA, but unless your a business and your business is playing commercial DVDs, who cares? I haven't used WMP to watch a DVD since Vista (maybe early 7).

          If kill switch means the can disable apps from the App Store, the answer is don't buy apps there. Apple does the same thing and I've bought exactly one app from it.
          notsofast
          • DVD usage way down

            I think the figure I saw was that around 5% of users put silver discs in Win 7 machines. Microsoft decided not to pay the $9 or so to supply all the codecs on every copy of Windows for such a low usage rate. If you want to be legal you can download media center from the store for $9.99 or you can use something free like VLC.
            mswift@...
          • what...

            ... is illegal about VLC, do tell?
            btone-c5d11
          • The codecs require a license.

            simple as that. They are patented mathematics, and thus require danegeld.
            jessepollard
          • Don't know about VLC but the DMCA is pretty clear ...

            ... that simply OWNING any code which does not use an officially licensed CODEC to decode North American DVDs is illegal. If the code defeats the DVDs DRM (even for personal use) it is a federal offense.

            Have you noticed that iTunes no longer uses DRM on anything except movies - because the DMCA requires it!
            M Wagner
          • Nope

            There's absolutely no DMCA requirement that movies be DRMed. The law is simple: it's illegal to work-around a DRM designed to prevent copying, for any purpose. iTunes uses DRM on video because Apple doesn't have a DRM-free agreement with the video content providers as they do with the audio content providers.
            Hazydave
          • Stupid USA

            VLC is developed in France and most users don't live in the USA or care about US laws.
            cauleyflower
          • DMCA

            vlc is not illegal. The act of using vlc to watch a DVD may be illegal. DVD's of copyrighted material may (most likely) have their content encrypted. The act of decrypting CSS encrypted video content using a device or software that does not have a CSS decryption license is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the USA.

            vlc does not have a CSS decryption license.

            It does not matter if you bought the DVD legally and own the copy. It does not matter if you are not making illegal copies of DVD's. It is the act of decrypting CSS encrypted, copyrighted material using un-licensed software.

            Look on the vlc Wikipedia page for more details. I do not make illegal copies of DVD's. I do not steal copyrighted material. I just want to watch DVD's, that I purchase, on my home computer. I run Linux, and the lobbyists for Hollywood have made it illegal for me to watch any DVD's I buy on my computer. So I don' t buy them any more.


            Good marketing strategy Hollywood!
            sean.lynch
          • Another thing about VLC

            On many DVD drives, it ignores region codes (more recent drive firmware may defeat that, but if your DVD drive is older than a couple years, you're good to go).
            fairportfan
          • MCAA/RIAA

            I'm right with sean.lynch here. The DMCA has complicated watching movies at home to the point where I simply don't buy DVDs anymore. I haven't upgraded to Blu-Ray, and I don't own a TV or any kind of stand-alone video player so it's very likely the lightscribe DVD burner I bought for professional use will be my last foray into the optical disc market.

            MCAA/RIAA has being doing a fantastic job shooting themselves in the foot here.
            G_Nepenthe
          • DeCSS

            Google is your friend, and the courts upheld that this falls under "fair use"
            digilante
          • You read that wrong

            Just saying.
            BridgeT Roll
          • Patent Licensing

            VLC contains all sorts of CODECs which are patented and must legally be licensed for specific use. VLC has all of its video and audio CODEC stuff built-in. Which means it won't use any superior AVC or MPEG decoders with high class video acceleration on your GPU, but it also won't contaminate your system with conflicting CODECs.

            So there are a bunch of patents still in effect that need to be licensed. There's some grey area here, given that they're actually licensing your hardware to do a specific thing, not the application. So if you have another DVD player that's licensed on your PC (for example, Windows Media Center on Windows 7), it's not likely illegal to use VLC instead to play that DVD. But without that license, it is.

            This gets interesting, too, when you look at different systems. For example, the AVCHD CODEC on my Panasonic camcorder is licensed just for that camcoder... it's legal for it to play and record AVCHD video. But that license doesn't extend to my PC... I need a different license on the PC to play that back, yet another license to re-encode that after editing back to AVC or MPEG or whatever, and yet another license for public display in one of those formats (one reason YouTube and Vimeo and all are popular -- they cover the licensing for that, so you don't have to).
            Hazydave
          • Re VLC

            I think Ed said awhile back that technically it's only legal in France. Something to do with the codec licensing. Yes, you can download and install it anywhere even with the various codecs, but they're basically making them available outside of France although they're not supposed to.
            Rick_R
          • Actually..

            Microsoft claimed the cost of the DVD stuff (MPEG-2 CODEC, AC-3 and MPEG Layer 2 decoders, etc) was about $2.00 per copy of Windows. You can add MPEG-2 CODECs to Windows 8 for free (google "Windows 8 CODEC pack"), but you need Windows Media Center anyway to play a DVD in Windows 8... or a similar player like Nero's, PowerDVD, etc. Of course, VLC will do it, though it doesn't handle navigation properly on all discs.
            Hazydave
          • Why even bother w/8.1?!

            Why even bother with 8.1? 8 alone was headache enough! Classic Explorer, even the free version, does a pretty good job of bringing back the Windows Desktop and most of it's glory with the exception of a few of 8's little idiosyncrasies that are easy enough to deal with or simply avoid.

            On rare occasions, I get a popup notifying me that the 8.1 update is available and free but clicking on it just brings of the App store section of the Metro screen which Classic Explorer otherwise does away with. Even when I try the App store online the upgrade won't even download, they probably want me to fork out some money for the "Free" upgrade. It seems MS is getting more and more like AOL, everything is about in-your-face hard-selling (to improve your experience, of course). MS's upgrade and App store, like AOL, can kiss my air-horn.
            caktusman@...
          • No DVD player?

            Just wow. http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/dvd-playback-help
            spstanley