Windows 8.1 deep-dive review: Well, it's a start

The preview of Windows 8.1 brings more cohesion, less frustration and a direct login to the desktop. But is it enough to save the OS?

With the just-released preview of Windows 8.1, Microsoft has gone a long way towards fixing many of the interface goofs and anomalies of Windows 8; it's also cleaned up the OS's rough edges and introduced some nice new features and apps.

Windows 8 remains a dual-interface operating system -- the touch-oriented "Modern" interface (previously called Metro) and the desktop -- but one that is less frustrating to use and a bit better integrated than previously. The changes don't solve all of Window 8's problems, but they make it more palatable to use.

Windows 8.1

At first glance, Windows 8.1 looks very much like Windows 8.

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The Start screen and the desktop

The Start screen and the desktop have been at the core of most complaints about Windows 8. In Windows 8, you're forced to boot into the touch-oriented Start screen, and because it is primarily designed to launch Modern-style apps, many people would prefer to bypass it and head straight to the desktop when they log in. Microsoft made that impossible in Windows 8. Like many people, I was not pleased.

Finally, in Windows 8.1, you can bypass the Start screen and go to the desktop when you log in. Oddly enough, to do that, you don't change a setting on the Start screen. Instead, you have to do a bit of tweaking over at the desktop.

Windows 8.1

The Navigation tab lets you go straight to the desktop when you sign in.

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Go to the desktop, then right-click the taskbar. Select Properties and from the screen that appears, click or tap the Navigation tab -- a new tab added in Windows 8.1. Divided into two sections, Core navigation and Start screen, it lets you customize many of the frustrating things about the way the Start screen works.

Look for the setting "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in" then check the box next to it. After that, each time you sign into Windows, you hop straight to the desktop. It's simple and straightforward, and desktop fans will be extremely pleased -- me among them.

There's more on that little tab that can go towards making the Start screen a more useful tool. If you have no need for the Start screen's tiled interface, and mainly use it as an app launcher, there are several settings that do that for you. Check the box next to "Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start," and every time you head to the Start screen, you'll instead see the Apps view -- a listing of every Modern and desktop app on your system. Click an app to launch it. I find this far more useful than the Start screen's normal multi-sized tiles.

Windows 8.1

The Apps view is a listing of every Modern and desktop app on your system.

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If you mainly use desktop apps rather than Modern ones, make sure to check the box next to "List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it's sorted by category." That way, your desktop apps show first on the screen, so it's easier to find them. I have found this small tweak quite helpful, because I frequently head here to launch Office. Now it appears high on the list.

Note that even if you leave the normal tiled Start screen intact and don't change the settings on the Navigation tab, there's now an easier way to get to the Apps view. On the Start screen down towards the bottom, there's a new arrow that was introduced in Windows 8.1. When you click it or tap it, you're sent to the Apps view.

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