With Windows 8.1 Microsoft finally recognizes that a big portion of the world actively dislikes the new "Modern" interface and Start screen, and lets people downplay it, bypass it, or make it work the way they like. It doesn't solve the basic problem of Windows 8 having dueling interfaces -- one for touch and tablets, and another for the desktop and mouse and keyboard -- but it gives desktop fans enough options to make the operating system much better to use.
Big changes include the ability to go directly to the desktop when you sign in, and a whole host of Start screen customizations that make it more useful for those who primarily use the desktop. There's also now a not-particularly useful Start button that doesn't come close to having the features offered by the old school Start button you've come to love in earlier Windows versions.
If you're like me, what you care about most is the go-to-desktop option, and changes that make the Start screen easier to use. You would expect that you'd get to those changes from the Start screen somewhere...but if you expected that, you'd be wrong. Instead, head to the desktop, right-click the taskbar and select Properties to get to the Taskbar and Navigation properties screen. There's a new tab here called Navigation. This is essentially command central for the new features for customizing the Start screen and booting to the desktop. It's got two sections: Core navigation and Start screen.
Let's get to the most important addition right away: The ability to go straight to the desktop when you log in. In the Start screen section, check the box next to "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in." That's all it takes. From now on you bypass the Start screen whenever you sign into Windows.
There's another very useful option on the Start screen section of the Navigation tab. You can go straight to the Apps view whenever you go to the Start screen. I find that useful because the primary reason I use the Start screen is as an apps launcher. I don't care about seeing the weather or the latest news, or what's currently trending on Bing. I just want to find an app fast and launch it. This option does that for you. Choose it and you'll head directly to a list of all of your apps when you go to the Start screen, instead of the usual tiled interface.
And in yet another nod to the realization that many people will live and die by the desktop, there's yet one more useful option here: When you go to the Apps view, you can have the Desktop apps listed first when the apps are sorted by category. Why is this important? If you primarily use desktop apps like Office, rather than the generally underpowered Windows 8 Modern apps, this way you can get to your powerful apps first, rather than the anemic ones.
In a nod to trying to make the Start screen and desktop look like one another, there's also an option to show your desktop background on the Start screen. It's nothing more than a bit of eye-candy, because it doesn't change the way the Start screen or the desktop works.
The Core Navigation section of the Taskbar and Navigation properties screen isn't quite as useful as the Start screen section. It lets you turn off Windows 8's "hot corners," that is, performing certain tasks when you point to upper-right corner or click the upper-left corner of the screen. Normally, when you hover in the upper-right corner, the Charms bar appears, and when you click in the upper-left corner, you can switch between your most recent apps. You can now turn either or both of those features off. It's nice to be able to do that, but not particularly useful.
If you're a fan of Windows Power Shell, a command-line automation tool, the Core Navigation tab includes an option (it's now the default) to have it replace the Command Prompt when you press the Windows Key + X, or right-click in the lower-right corner. That's a nice little touch, but not particularly earth-shaking.
Now, about that Start button. Yes, there is now a Start button in the lower left corner of the Start screen, the Desktop and in your apps. What does it do? It's just a simple task switcher, switching you between the Start screen and whatever else you were just doing. That's not the Start button we've come to know, and some of us have come to love, in previous Windows versions. However, if you choose to have the Start screen go straight to the apps view, the Start button works quite nicely as an app launcher.
There's another change that makes Windows 8 a little bit more like previous versions of Windows. A new option has been added to the Power Tools menu that's activated when you right-click the lower left corner of the screen: The ability to shut down or restart Windows or put it to sleep. That's certainly an improvement over the way you shut down or restart in Windows 8.
The bottom line
Windows 8.1 is far more configurable than Windows 8, and those who primarily use the desktop will be especially pleased to be able to go directly to it when they sign in. Also useful are the new features for customizing the Start screen, particularly for using it as an app launcher. This new version of Windows 8 isn't perfect, but this newfound power to tweak and customize makes it a far better operating system than the one that shipped.
Note: I'll have a more in-depth look at Windows 8.1 on Computerworld in several days.