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Six clicks: Weird tricks that will actually make you happier with Windows 8.1

Each new update chips away at the annoyances of Windows 8. Here are six power features that are new or improved with the Windows 8.1 update due in a couple of weeks.
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1 of 6 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Add the Win+X power menu to your toolkit

Beginning with Windows 8.1, Microsoft restored the Start button to the left side of the taskbar. Click it and you go straight to the Start screen, not to a Start menu.

Ah, but right-clickthat Start button and you get a menu that will make a Windows geek's eyes well up with tears of joy. Virtually every common administrative tool is there, including an option to open a Command Prompt or PowerShell window using an administrator's credentials.

This menu is available on a touchscreen as well. Just tap and hold the Start button for a second or two, then release it to display this menu.

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2 of 6 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Move your OneDrive cache

Windows 8.1 has its own built-in file sync service, OneDrive (previously SkyDrive).

By default, it allows you to sync files from the cloud to a system folder in your user profile. But if you're using a device with relatively limited storage, like a 32 GB tablet, that can be a problem.

The solution is to right-click the OneDrive icon in the navigation bar on the left of File Explorer and choose Properties. On the Location tab, shown here, you can move the OneDrive files to another location, such as a MicroSD card in an expansion slot. Note that this option will fail unless the target drive is formatted with NTFS.

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3 of 6 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Turn on File History, the auto-backup feature

Over the past decade, Windows has had no fewer than four different backup tools. Which no one ever used.

File History, which is the implementation in Windows 8.x, is the latest incarnation, and it probably comes closer than any of its predecessors to delivering on the promise of being able to undelete files and folders, roll back to previous versions, and even restore or transfer all your data to a new PC.

You need a separate storage device to use this feature: an external hard disk, a USB flash drive (which you should encrypt), or a network share, which you have to set up using the File History settings in the desktop Control Panel. (Although it's possible to point File History to a separate partition on your system drive, I don't recommend that setting, which leaves you completely unprotected in the event of a disk crash.)

Oh, and the Windows 8.1 Update fixes a design flaw in previous versions of File History. Now, those backups also include OneDrive files you've synced to the local PC or device. So if you want to recover that brilliant paragraph from the first draft of the document you've been working on since last week, you can. Even if it's stored inthe cloud.

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4 of 6 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Lock down your flash drives

Flash drives are wonderful ways to save important data.

Flash drives are also terrible ways to lose important data.

This is why I encrypt every flash drive that holds any of my personal data. I do the same to the MicroSD cards that are in some of my phones and tablets.

In Windows 8.1, the feature is called BitLocker To Go. You can only encrypt a flash disk or MicroSD card using a PC running Windows 8.1 Pro or Enterprise. But after the disk is created you can unlock it and use it on any Windows version, including Windows 7 Home Premium, Windows 8 Standard, and Windows RT.

Right-click the drive icon in File Explorer and then click Turn On BitLocker. Enter a password, choose the encryption options, and wait till Windows finishes encrypting the current contents of the drive. You can then safely remove the drive or card and move it to a different machine. If you want the drive to unlock automatically on a PC after you sign in, choose that option when you enter the password to open it.

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5 of 6 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Tame the taskbar

Apparently the venerable Windows taskbar is not going to disappear without a fight.

Beginning with April's Windows 8.1 Update, you'll be able to pin Windows Store (Metro) apps to the taskbar. You'll also be able to make that taskbar appear by moving the mouse pointer to the bottom of the display, even if you're currently at the Start screen or in a Metro app.

You've also got new options for working with multiple monitors, which will be especially welcome if you gave up on that second monitor because the experience in Windows 8 was so awful. It's much better now.

And as this screenshot shows, the ability to pin new-style apps to the good old taskbar makes an old trick useful again. Unlock the taskbar and drag its top edge up so that it occupies two rows. That lets you see twice the number of program icons in the taskbar. (Be sure to lock the taskbar again after you're done.)

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6 of 6 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Sync the desktop and Start screen backgrounds

Windows 8.1 introduced a set of improvements designed to make things easier for people who don't like the new-style Start screen (See "The Metro hater's guide to Windows 8.1" for a full listing, with step-by-step instructions.)

But one of those options is worth calling out for special attention. You can set the Start screen background to be the same as the desktop background (aka wallpaper). To adjust this setting, go to the Start screen, click the Settings charm (or press Windows key + I) and then click Personalize.

The "Sync with desktop background" option is in the lower right corner of the group of 20 background options. After you save this change, you can click the Start button or tap the Windows key and shift between the Start screen and the current window, without a jarring change of background.

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