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Anything that works with Windows 7 — and almost everything from Vista — will work in Windows 8.1. Programs, hardware, drivers, utilities, just about anything. That’s a remarkable achievement, particularly because your Legacy programs have to peacefully co-exist with the all-new tiled Start screen side of the fence.

Getting the hang of the Metro Start screen

By now you’ve no doubt seen the tiled Start screen and the old-fashioned desktop. Microsoft has developed the tiled Start screen to be easily accessible with the mouse and the thumb, with two-dimensional tiles instead of fancy icons.

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All the programs, uh, all the tiled Metro apps, run full-screen; none of this re-sizing stuff, except for the tiled Metro Snap capability, which lets you run two or three (sometimes more) programs side-by-side in strictly cordoned-off horizontal stripes.

The biggest mental hurdle you’ll have is reconciling that Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde interface bifurcation with the Windows desktop you’ve grown to know and love and hate. Here’s a quick take on how to conceptually integrate the two:

  • Among the many ways to move from the tiled Metro side to the old-fashioned desktop and back, the easiest one, if you have a keyboard, is to press the Windows key. If you don’t have a keyboard, tap the Start or Windows key on your tablet. Yes, your tablet has a Start key. Probably.

  • Alt+Tab still works. Hold down the Alt key and press Tab to run through all running programs — tiled full-screen programs, desktop programs, all of them.

  • Think of the Windows 7–style desktop as just another Metro tiled app. In many ways the entire old-fashioned desktop — the whole thing, not individual programs running on it —d behaves like one, single tiled app.

  • The ersatz Start button is there, but it doesn’t work like any Start button you’ve ever seen. Get over it.

  • The Start menu is gone, but you can jury-rig the tiled Start screen so it sort of acts like a Start menu . . . if you don’t think about it too much, squint your eyes hard and mumble an appropriate mantra.

The tiled Metro part of Windows is new and different. Sometimes new and different is better. Sometimes it’s just new and different. If you use the full-screen Metro apps for a while, you’ll probably come up with a few things about them that you actually like.

Exploring new Windows 8.1 stuff in the old-fashioned desktop

You’ll notice many improvements to long-neglected portions of the Windows 7–style desktop. For example, if you copy more than one file at a time, Windows actually keeps you on top of all the copying in one window. Imagine that.

A new and much better Task Manager rolls in all the usage reporting that’s been scattered in different corners of Windows. The new Task Manager even gives you hooks to look at programs that start automatically, and stop them if you like. Some serious chops.

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File Explorer (formerly known as Windows Explorer) takes on a new face and loses some of its annoying bad habits. You may or may not like the new Explorer Ribbon, but at least Windows 8.1 brings back the up arrow to move up one folder — a feature that last appeared in Windows XP. Explorer also now offers native support for ISO files. About time.

Backup gets a major boost with an Apple Time Machine work-alike called File History. You may not realize it, but Windows 7 had the ability to restore previous versions of your data files. Windows 8.1 offers the same functionality, but in a much nicer package — so you’re more likely to discover that it’s there.

Unfortunately, Windows 8.1 drops the ability to create whole-disk "ghost" backups — you need to buy a third-party program like Acronis if a full backup is in your future.

If you ever wanted to run a Virtual Machine inside Windows, Microsoft has made Hyper-V available, free. It’s a rather esoteric capability that can come in very handy if you need to run two different copies of an operating system on one machine. You must be running a 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 Pro (or Enterprise), with at least 4GB of RAM.

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