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Getting to Know Windows 8.1

This chapter shows you the basics of starting and using Windows 8.1, the software and operating system that makes your computer work.
This chapter is from the book

As you learned in Chapter 1, “How Personal Computers Work,” the software and operating system make your hardware work. The operating system for most personal computers is Microsoft Windows, and you need to know how to use Windows to use your PC. Windows pretty much runs your computer for you; if you don’t know your way around Windows, you won’t be able to do much of anything on your new PC.

Introducing Microsoft Windows

Microsoft Windows is a type of software called an operating system. An operating system does what its name implies—operates your computer system, working in the background every time you turn on your PC.

Equally important, Windows is what you see when you first turn on your computer, after everything turns on and boots up. Windows is your gateway to every program and app you run on your computer and to all the documents and files you view and edit.

Welcome to Windows 8.1—If You’ve Used an Older Version of Windows

If you’ve recently purchased a new PC, the version of Windows on your PC is probably Windows 8.1. Microsoft has released different versions of Windows over the years, and Windows 8.1 (released in October 2013) is the latest—which is why it comes preinstalled on most new PCs.

If you are moving to Windows 8.1 from a version of Windows prior to Windows 8 (Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows XP), you’re in for a big surprise—Windows 8.1 looks and acts completely different from what you’re used to. Don’t worry, though; everything that was in the old Windows is still in the new Windows—it’s just in a slightly different place, and you have to do something different to get to it.

So what did Microsoft change in Windows 8? Lots! Here’s a short list of changes from older versions of Windows:

  • The Start button and Start menu were removed from the traditional desktop.
  • A new Start screen was introduced to launch all applications—part of what Microsoft dubbed the “Modern” interface.
  • Full-screen Modern apps were introduced, along with a new online Windows Store to purchase and download them.
  • Touchscreen operation was introduced for the Modern interface (actually, Microsoft designed the Modern interface for touchscreen use).
  • The desktop’s translucent “Aero” interface was changed to a flatter, nontransparent look.
  • All the “gadgets” from the traditional desktop were removed.
  • The concept of online user accounts was introduced, so you could log into Windows using your Microsoft account information.
  • Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud storage service was integrated into the Windows operating system.
  • Internet Explorer 10 was included, in both desktop and full-screen Modern versions.
  • Windows Explorer was renamed to File Explorer, with a new ribbon interface.
  • The Task Manager tool was completely overhauled to make it more functional.
  • The Windows Defender antivirus/antispyware tool was included, free of charge.
  • Options to both refresh and reset the operating system in case of severe system problems were added.

Naturally, all these Windows 8 changes carry over to Windows 8.1.

For most users, the most different part of Windows 8/8.1 is the graphical user interface, or GUI. Where versions of Windows prior to Windows 8 operated from something called the Windows desktop, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 hide the desktop (it’s still there, just buried) and the old Start menu and instead rely on a tile-based Start screen. The new Windows puts everything front and center; launching an app or opening a file is as easy as scrolling to the right tile and then clicking or tapping it.

The new Windows 8/8.1 interface isn’t just for computers, by the way; it looks right at home on a touchscreen device, such as a tablet PC or smartphone—in fact, it’s touch enabled. That means you can just as easily operate Windows 8.1 with a tap and a swipe of your finger (on a touchscreen device, that is) as you can with a mouse or keyboard.

If you’re a brand-new computer user, you’ll find the Windows 8.1 interface easy to understand and even easier to use. If you’ve used other versions of Windows in the past, however, you might find the Windows 8.1 interface to be a little confusing; nothing looks the same, and nothing is where you expect it to be. It requires a bit of relearning, but after you get past that, Windows 8.1 is actually quite easy to use.

Welcome to Windows 8.1—If You’ve Used Windows 8

If you’re moving to Windows 8.1 from Windows 8, its immediate predecessor, you won’t see a lot of dramatic differences between the two versions. That said, Windows 8.1 includes a number of incremental improvements that should make it a little easier to use your computer.

For those of you who were early adopters of Windows 8, you know that it represented a major change from older versions of Windows—too big a change for most people. Windows 8’s new Modern interface alienated a lot of users, who resented having to change the way they worked with their computers.

Segue to Windows 8.1, which was released just about a year after Windows 8. Windows 8.1 is a minor update to the Windows 8 operating system, but one that fixes a lot of the problems that bugged people about its predecessor. The changes primary affect the Modern interface and help users work more consistently in a single environment (either Modern or traditional desktop) without having to needlessly shift between the two.

So if you’ve been using Windows 8, here’s what you’ll find new and improved in Windows 8.1:

  • The Start button is returned to the desktop, although there’s still no Start menu; instead, clicking the Start button displays the Modern Start screen.
  • You can now “boot” directly to the desktop on startup, bypassing the Start screen.
  • The Start screen is more customizable, including the introduction of two new tile sizes.
  • You can use the desktop background as the background for the Start screen, so the switch between desktop and Modern environments is less jarring.
  • The Lock screen can now display a photo slideshow.
  • There are more system configuration options within the Modern interface, so you don’t have to open the desktop Control Panel to make most changes.
  • Bing web search is added to the traditional Windows file/system search.
  • Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud storage is more fully integrated throughout the operating system.
  • There are additional “snap” options for displaying multiple Modern apps onscreen at the same time.
  • The Windows Store is completely revamped to make it easier to use.
  • The Xbox Music, Xbox Video, and Photos apps are also much improved.
  • There are several new Modern apps, including Calculator, Alarm, Health & Fitness, and Food & Drink.
  • Internet Explorer 11 is included, in both desktop and Modern versions—with major interface changes to the Modern version.

Some of these changes are relatively minor, some more noticeable, but all are designed to make Windows 8.1 more useable on either a touchscreen or a traditional computing device. If you’ve been complaining about Windows 8, you’ll find that the Windows 8.1 update addresses most of your issues.

Different Versions of Windows 8.1

Not to confuse you, but there are four different versions of Windows 8.1, each with a slightly different feature set. Which version you have depends on which was installed by your PC’s manufacturer.

Most consumer-oriented PCs should be running the basic version, called simply Windows 8.1. This version is designed for home use and comes with all the functionality the average user needs.

Windows 8.1 Pro is designed for professional and business users. The primary additions to this version are features for large businesses and professional IT folks, such as BitLocker drive encryption and an encrypting file system (for greater security), as well as a group policy editor (for managing multiple PCs from a single location). There’s also a Windows 8.1 Enterprise edition, with even more corporate IT-oriented features.

If you’re running Windows on a tablet PC, you could be running either basic Windows 8.1 or the tablet-oriented Windows 8.1 RT. This version of Windows is designed for this type of limited-functionality device, not for full-featured notebook and desktop computers. It’s a lot like the basic Windows 8.1 version, but it lacks the ability to run traditional desktop computer software.

It’s likely, then, that your personal computer is running the basic Windows 8.1 version. That’s also the version we focus on throughout this book.

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