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Five Tips for Getting Started With Windows 8.1

Change is always hard. We get accustomed to doing things one way, and when something comes along to mess that up, our natural reaction is to revolt.

It’s no surprise, then, that Microsoft didn’t get the warmest reception when it released Windows 8 last year. Designed to be an all-in-one operating system for both PCs and tablets, Windows 8 was a stark departure from previous versions of the OS, and required a steep learning curve that involved juggling between two interfaces and giving up some familiar favorites like the Start button, among other things.

To address some of those issues, last month Microsoft released Windows 8.1. The update brings a series of tweaks and new features that generally make the OS better — though, if you found Windows 8 confusing, you still will in this new version. But, since this is the future of Windows-based machines, it might be time to learn some of the ins and outs of the OS. To help you out, I’ve outlined some tips for using Windows 8.1.

One note before getting started: Windows 8.1 is available as a free download to Windows 8 users. Those with older versions of Windows will have to pay $120 to upgrade, and their machines have to meet the minimum system requirements. If you fall into the latter group, it might be better to hold off until you need to upgrade your hardware.

Make It Personal

When you first boot up Windows 8.1, you won’t notice a huge difference between the latest update and Windows 8. You still get the tile-based Start screen, but it’s a lot more customizable than the previous version.

For example, you can now change the background image by accessing the Charms menu (to do so, swipe in from the right side of the screen, or point to the lower- or upper-right corner if you’re using a mouse), selecting Settings, and then Personalize. Meanwhile, right-clicking or doing a long-press on a tile brings up options to resize it (large, wide, medium or small), remove it from the Start screen, and more.

A quick swipe up from the bottom of the screen (or clicking on the down arrow in the bottom-left if you’re using a mouse) also brings up a view of all your Apps. You can make this your default Start screen by swiping in from the right side of the screen, selecting Search, and then typing “Taskbar.” From there, select the Navigation tab, and then check the box that says, “Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start.”

For those who aren’t ready let go of the past just yet, Windows 8.1 now gives you an option to boot directly to traditional desktop mode. The setting is hard to find, though, so be sure to check out my colleague Walt Mossberg’s explainer on how to enable that feature.

A New Start (Sort Of)

One of the more welcome features is the return of the Start button.

When you switch to desktop mode, you’ll find it in the bottom-left-hand corner, but it doesn’t function in exactly the same way as before. Tapping or clicking will simply return you to the modern tile-based Start screen, rather than launching the traditional Start menu.

If you right-click on it or do a long press, however, you’ll get a pop-up window that provides access to tools like the control panel, task manager and shutdown/restart. There are also other utilities, including Programs and Features, where you can uninstall or change desktop apps and Power Options for customizing your battery settings.

Multitasking Using Snap View

Windows 8 already offered a function called Snap View that allowed you to view two apps at once, but the screen was split so that one app took up a majority of the room, while the other only took up about a third of screen space. This made it difficult to see or interact with anything in the smaller window. But with Windows 8.1, you can now split the screen to your liking.

To begin, start by opening an app from the Start screen or the Apps-view screen. Next, slide your finger from the top of the screen down to about the middle of the display, or until the app window shrinks. Then move the app to either the left or right side of the screen.

Afterward, you can return to the Start or Apps screen to open your second app, and it will automatically appear next to the first app. By default, Snap View splits the screen in half, but you can change that by dragging the black bar that separates the two apps to the right or the left.

Depending on your screen’s resolution, you can have up to four apps open at once.

Changing Default Apps

Naturally, Microsoft would love for you to use its native apps (Internet Explorer, Xbox Music, and so forth) for all your tasks, but if you have a preference for a certain Web browser, email client or mapping app, Windows 8.1 will allow you to set them as your default.

To do so, open the Charms menu, select Settings, and then Change PC Settings. Next, click on Search and Apps, and choose Defaults at the bottom of the list. Here you can select which apps you would like to use for Web browsing, email, music, video, photos, calendar and maps.

Turn a Website Into an Xbox Music Playlist

I thought I’d end with a fun one. Windows 8.1 offers a pretty nifty feature that allows you to create a playlist in Microsoft’s music app, Xbox Music, based on a website. Yes, you read right — a website.

Just visit any page that talks about music or musicians (for example, I went to hip-hop site, open the Charms menu, select Share, and then Music. After a couple of minutes, you’ll see a playlist created based on artists or songs mentioned on the website. Give the playlist a name and tap Create Playlist, and the next time you open Xbox Music, you’ll find it saved under the playlist section.

Windows 8.1 might still have some fundamental problems — it’s still very much geared for touch devices, and the number of Windows 8 apps needs to grow — but the update brings some nice improvements. And if you plan on continuing to live in a Windows world, you will need to learn the new OS at some point, so you might as well start now.

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