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Boot to legacy Desktop, and other things Windows 8.1 does better

Windows 8.1 files a lot of the rough edges off Windows 8, while not messing too much with what worked

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Most key apps have had a design facelift in Windows 8.1, for instance the Xbox music app got a lot of love, and that horrible Messaging app is gone, replaced by Skype. You can monitor your portfolio through the Finance app as well as getting a ton of financial news and information, calculating mortgage or car payments, convert currencies, plan your retirement, and learn how money grows over time.

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Microsoft has added more default apps, including the Bing Health & Fitness app, and the Bing Food & Drink app, with its clever hands-free mode (it activates the camera so you can navigate by waving your hand rather than touching the screen with grubby fingers while you’re cooking). There’s even a shiny new Facebook app. Oh, yes – and a new Calculator. In fact, many of the Windows 8 apps have been touched in some way to make them better or faster.

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Mail shows the biggest improvement. It looks more like a real mail app, with folders, favourites, and ability to flag messages. It sorts newsletters and social updates into separate folders, and lets you clean up those folders quickly and easily via the new “Sweep” function. When you receive a message with a photo attached, it automatically opens the image inline, in the photo app and lets you edit the picture. You even get a certain amount of filtering capability. But, alas, it still can’t handle POP e-mail servers, so Outlook is safe. There’s the odd thing that won’t run at all, however. For example, my favourite Xbox Live game, Wordament, can’t connect to its server under Windows 8.1 on some systems, though it’s fine under Windows 8. We can expect a few updates over the next days and weeks to sort out glitches like this.

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Support for multiple open apps is much stronger now. Depending on your monitor size, you can have up to four Modern (native Windows 8.1) apps on screen at once. A Surface tablet is stuck with only two because of its tiny screen, but the size of the individual panes is more configurable. It’s still nowhere near as flexible as the multi-window capabilities of the Desktop, but it’s much better than it was before. Multi-monitor support is also improved.

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Windows 8.1 greatly expands on search. Rather than having to pop into an app to search within it, you can use the main Search charm, or just start typing while on the Start screen, to hunt everywhere on your PC (the default) or just within files or settings. For example, when I typed the word “screen”, it not only found the obvious (lock screen settings), it offered up display settings, ScreenHunter (a legacy screen capture program I’d installed on the desktop), and some files with the word “screen” in their names. If what you were searching involves music or cities or hotels, there’s an added bonus: the results show up in the form of an ad-hoc portal that looks like a custom website. It’ll offer playlists of your favourite artist that you can share directly to the music app, for example, or tourist attractions in the city you searched. Microsoft plans to expand the smart search to other categories in coming months.

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Touch is still the king with Windows 8.1. It works fine with mouse and keyboard, but shines when you throw in a touchscreen. One tweak I particularly like is on the onscreen keyboard. In Windows 8, if you had a password with a number in it, or needed to type a date or a postal code, you’d have to flip back and forth between the alpha keyboard and the numeric/symbol keyboard. It was a pain. In Windows 8.1, you’ll notice little numbers printed on the top row of the alpha keyboard, along with the letters. Touch and hold the letter and a little box with the number in it appears; slide your finger up to the number and release, and presto – you’ve typed the number. Some of the boxes show up in grids, with other special characters such as accented letters.

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Boot to legacy Desktop: A huge gripe from enterprise users in particular was the fact that they had to go through the tiled Start screen, even if all they run are desktop apps. That’s fixed too. If you right click on the Taskbar on the desktop, you’ll find an option on the Navigation tab under Properties to boot directly to the desktop.

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The Reading List app lets you save documents and Web pages for later viewing. Just use the Share charm.

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