The 11 Biggest Changes in Windows 8.1

If you upgraded from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1, this list — which highlights the 11 biggest changes in Windows 8.1 — will clarify issues that might otherwise be confusing to you.

The Start button returns

After listening to cries of anguish from thousands of confused Windows 8 owners, Microsoft added the Start button back to Windows 8.1. However, clicking the Start button doesn’t fetch the familiar desktop Start menu. No, the Start button simply returns you to the Start screen, that tile-filled launching pad for apps and programs.

Remaining on the desktop is easier

Realizing that most people don’t own touchscreens, Microsoft added some options specifically for owners of traditional desktop and laptop PCs. To find them, open the Start screen’s Desktop app, right-click the taskbar along the desktop’s bottom edge, and choose Properties from the pop-up menu. When the Taskbar and Navigation properties window opens, click the Navigation tab. There, you find options to bypass the Start screen and head straight for the desktop when turning on your PC or signing in.

SkyDrive now lives in every folder’s Navigation pane

Windows 8.1 continues Microsoft’s march into the cloud, your personal storage space on the Internet. For years, all of your information lived on your PC: your contacts, your e-mail, and your files. Now, Windows 8.1 wants to convince you that everything’s better off on Microsoft’s Internet-connected computers. It’s one more complication, but it saves you from having to back up everything.

Search now includes the Internet

In Windows 8, the Charms bar’s Search icon merely searched through what you were seeing on the screen, usually your currently running app. In Windows 8.1, the Charms bar’s Search feature looks everywhere: Your computer’s files and settings, as well as the Internet itself. If you want to search inside your currently viewed app, look for the Search box built into the app itself.

Libraries no longer appear in the Navigation pane

Introduced in Windows 7, libraries serve as a way to combine the contents of several folders into one seamless super folder. The concept proved more complicated than well-used, and most people didn’t bother with them. Windows 8.1 subsequently drops the libraries from the Navigation pane (that strip along every folder’s left edge). In its place, you now find a link to SkyDrive, your storage space in the cloud. Libraries can still be turned back on, though.

Public folders dropped from libraries

The few people who enjoyed libraries usually headed there to access their Public folders, a convenient place to store files accessible to anybody with an account on the PC or even on the home network. But even when you turn libraries back on in Windows 8.1, the Public folders are missing. You can add them manually. Microsoft wants everybody to store their information on SkyDrive and share those folders, instead.

Documents are stored on SkyDrive by default

When you first sign in to Windows 8.1 with a Microsoft account, Microsoft asks you to approve that your documents will be stored on SkyDrive rather than your own PC. Any photos taken with your computer’s webcam or built-in camera will also head straight for SkyDrive. If you prefer keeping your files on your own computer, watch carefully when you first sign in. Don’t just click the OK buttons to move quickly through the process.

To see where your files are being stored, fetch the Charms bar, choose Settings, choose Change PC Settings, and click SkyDrive. There you can find the toggle switch called Save Documents to SkyDrive by Default. When that toggle is switched on, your files are no longer stored on your own PC.

Windows Easy Transfer is weakened in Windows 8.1

Another program that’s been around for decades, Windows Easy Transfer seems to be on its way out in Windows 8.1. Windows Easy Transfer provided an easy way to move your files from your old computer to your new one by connecting an Easy Transfer Cable, a portable hard drive, or providing a network location.

Windows 8.1 accepts Windows Easy Transfer files stored on a portable drive, but it doesn’t support the Easy Transfer Cable or the network location. And the Windows 8.1 version of Windows Easy Transfer can import only old files; it can’t export files to another PC.

New Child account

Windows 8.1 offers something new when creating a new user account. It offers to create a Child account for your children. However, a Child account is simply a new name for a Standard account that automatically has the Family Safety controls turned on. If you’ve already created Standard accounts for your kids and turned on the Family Safety controls, you’ve effectively done the same thing.

The Photos app drops support for your social media photos

A shining jewel in Windows 8, the Photos app provided easy access to photos on your own computer, as well as photos you’ve stored on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. Windows 8.1 strips away that capability, unfortunately, and lets you view only photos stored on your own PC. To make amends, the program tosses in a few editing tools that let you crop your photos or add some Instagram-like filters.

Start screen syncs between Microsoft accounts

In Windows 8, Microsoft stored your settings. But it didn’t store the way you’ve organized your Start screen. So, even after you’ve spent a half hour dragging and dropping tiles into your preferred order and groups, you’d have to do it again the next time you signed in to another PC with your Microsoft account.

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft saves your organizational work. When you sign in to another Windows 8.1 computer with your Microsoft account, your Start screen looks the same.

Did this glimpse into changes in Windows 8.1 leave you longing for more information and insight about Microsoft's personal computing operating system? You're free to test drive any of the For Dummies eLearning courses. Pick your course (you may be interested in more from Windows 8.1), fill out a quick registration, and then give eLearning a spin with the Try It! button. You'll be right on course for more trusted know how: The full version's also available at Windows 8.1.

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