Cleaning the dross from Windows 8.1
Some three decades ago the watch industry suffered through an agonizing transformation. The electronic quartz oscillator replaced the finely-crafted mechanical escapement, injection molded plastics took over the precision machined metal cases, and new manufacturers in the Far East set up production and started to take over the majority of watch manufacturing. To add insult to injury the plastic watches became chic.
About that time I had occasion to visit a European watch manufacturing plant. The main hall was filled with long lines of precision metal-working machine tools, there was not an injection molding machine in sight. The company had decided to fight for its life and to compete with the stylish new plastic watches head on. The cases were finely machined as had been done for decades, but now the final step was to apply a thick color lacquer coating to make them look like cheap plastic.
The computer industry is now undergoing a painful transformation also. The latest craze is smart phones and tablets, and the laptop and desktop machines are languishing on store shelves. These new devices run operating systems from Apple and Google. And now Microsoft is looking at a bleak future. The folks in Redmond took a similar approach as that watch company, apply a make-up to Windows so it looks like the simplistic interface needed on small screens: Windows 8! Unfortunately computer interfaces have to be more than skin deep and in Windows 8 the ugly goes a good ways down. Not only the look has been watered down, a new set of “apps” was introduced. These new apps, unfortunately, are pale imitations in functionality of the programs they are meant to replace.
Fortunately for those of us who need and use computers as tools, the full Windows operating system is still there underneath the filigree, or more precisely, the dross. The “old” programs from Microsoft and many other companies still operate as expected. A bit of “scraping” and a new Windows 8.1 computer is every bit as useful and familiar as the power-houses of the past.
Let’s walk through the cleanup step by step. The first thing is to install the new Windows 8.1. Microsoft, having heard the wailing, made a few improvements, and the new “update”, Windows 8.1, makes a few concessions to those of us who use PCs as tools, not just play toys.
Upgrading to Windows 8.1 is just a matter of going to the “Store” and downloading the new version. For a more detailed look at the installation sequence see How do I upgrade to Windows 8.1 ? over at Ask Ludwig.
The upgrade, or as Microsoft prefers, the update, preserves your personal data, the installed programs and apps, the look and arrangement of the Start screen and the desktop. There is a change on the taskbar, however. There is a “Start” icon, on the left end, where the Start button used to be in days of yore (Windows 7 and earlier).
Clicking the Start icon gets you to the Start screen. But you can do better than that. We will come to that shortly.
Right-clicking the Start icon brings up a rudimentary menu. This is not unlike what was available in Windows 8, but there are some additions. The most important and useful is the ability to shut down, or sign out, or go to sleep from here. The old contortions with poking the pointer into a right corner, clicking the Settings charm (the little gear), then the Power link and on, are still there.
So far, so good.
Windows 8.1 allows you to set up your PC to go right to the desktop when signing in. And there are a couple of other options that allow you to avoid the silly Start screen almost completely.
Here is the quick procedure: Right-click on a blank area on the taskbar, then click Properties in the pop-up menu.
This brings up the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog. Click the Navigation tab.
The illustration here shows the dialog with the default settings (left) and the settings that will make Windows 8.1 look and work almost like a professional operating system.
Click to check the option “When I sign in or close all apps on a screen, go to the desktop instead of Start”. This is the way to get around the gaudy Start screen.
Click to check the option “Show my desktop background on Start”. This isn’t really important, but by setting the Start screen to use the same background image as the desktop it brings at least a bit of family resemblance to the Start screen.
Click to check the option “Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start”. The “Apps view” is the list of all programs and apps installed on the machine. The closest you can come to the “All Programs” list in the Start menu of Windows 7 (and prior). With this option selected, the indented option, “Search everywhere instead of just my apps when I search from the Apps view”, is also selected. This makes good sense as you may want to get rid of most of the installed childish apps – we’ll get to that.
Lastly click to check the option “List desktop apps first in the Apps view when it’s sorted by category”. This will show the desktop programs listed ahead of the apps dross. Click OK to save these settings. Now you are pretty close to a computer suitable for use by adults.
When you click on the Start icon or press the Windows key you get something like this:
The illustration here shows what I get on my computer when I click Start. As you can see the most useful programs are shown first. Over on the right edge you can see some of the “apps” peeking in.
Most new computers come with “junkware” – I will use the polite term here. Windows 8.1 comes with a vast collection of such garbage apps. If Microsoft had not started to call real programs “desktop apps”, I would say anything called “app” is sheer trash. Sadly, Microsoft has allowed these degraded, nearly useless, apps to take the front and center positions in Windows 8.1.
Some of these apps are “backed in” and cannot be removed. Most can be uninstalled right from this screen. Just right-click on the tile and a blue bar with options opens at the bottom. The illustration here shows just portions of the my screen.
If the app can be removed there will be an uninstall link in the options bar. There will be a confirmation request when you click Uninstall. Click Uninstall in the confirmation dialog and it will be removed without any further fuss.
Apps that are a deep part of Windows 8.1 will not have an uninstall icon, these include Store, Photos, SkyDrive. Some others you should not uninstall. That includes Internet Explorer. Uninstalling IE will get rid of the “modern” app but also the real and useful desktop version. What you can do is to remove the tile from the Start screen by clicking Unpin from Start in the option bar. That way you don’t accidentally launch the aggravating “modern” IE app.
The technical press has given high praise to the Mail app which now is supposedly almost like a real mail client. It doesn’t come close to Outlook or Live Mail. If you have Microsoft Office with Outlook installed, or are using Live Mail, you may wish to uninstall the Mail app. When you do, the associated Calendar and People apps are also uninstalled.
To make frequently used programs readily accessible, you may wish to pin them to the taskbar or to place shortcuts on the desktop. I will use the calculator as an example.
Right-click the program tile. The options bar at the bottom shows a Pin to taskbar link, so that is simple enough. To place a shortcut on the desktop is rather obscure. Here is the procedure:
Click the Open file location link. This takes you to the desktop. File Explorer will already be open with the program selected (highlighted). Right-click the program, then move the pointer to Send to, click on Desktop (create shortcut).
You can clean up the Start screen and remove any unwanted tiles, the apps and programs remain on your computer. Right-click the tile and click Unpin from Start in the options bar.
On rare occasions you may wish to go to the Windows 8.1 pride-and-joy Start screen. To get there, click the circled arrow in the lower left area of the Apps screen. Here is a view of my Start screen on the right. You can see that the only tile that I retained is the desktop tile.
I use the Start screen when I want to switch to another account on my computer. Click your name in the upper right and a drop-down menu shows the other accounts. Just click on the one you wish to go to. You can get to another account from the desktop, but I find this easier. See, I do have something nice to say about the Start screen.
So this is how you too, can get a clean looking computer with Windows 8.1. Not flashy and gaudy, just functional.
There are all the usual customizing features to make your computer look and feel your own way. I will just leave you with a peek at my lock screen.
© 2013 Ludwig Keck