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6 Ways to Improve Windows 8.1

When Windows 8 launched in October, 2012, it faced a storm of controversy, particularly from desktop and laptop users lamenting the loss of the start menu and the very obvious bias towards tablet and touchscreen functionality. A year later, Microsoft addressed many consumers' concerns with the launch of the free Windows 8.1 update, followed in April, 2014 by Windows 8.1 Update 1. While Windows 8 has no doubt improved immensely over its earlier editions, it still leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, with a few simple tweaks and third-party programs, there are ways to get Microsoft's latest operating system working just how you want it.


1 - Use OblyTile to Customize Your Start Screen

The start screen is still far from ideal by itself, particularly with regards to the way that shortcuts to desktop programs are displayed in the form of low-resolution icons in large, unwieldy tiles. However, the tile-based interface can also be made to look better on the desktop screen, thanks to a free program called OblyTile. OblyTile is a portable application, which means that it doesn't need to be installed. You can use it to create shortcut tiles to any Web address, program, file or folder on the start screen. Best of all, you can fully customize the appearance of the tiles you create by adding your own images or using tile packs from sites like deviantart.com. No longer does the start screen have to look like an ugly abomination on any device other than a tablet or smartphone!


2 - Use a Start Menu Replacer

No doubt the most controversial feature of Windows 8 was the removal of the start menu, and although the start button returned in Windows 8.1, the start menu itself remains a thing of the past. Fortunately, a whole range of start menu replacement programs quickly appeared to address this issue. Although there are some paid start menu replacements out there, the free ones, such as Classic Shell and IObit Start Menu should provide you with everything you need. Alternatively, you can create a similar functionality by using the taskbar toolbar support without installing any third-party software.


3 - Boot to the Desktop

Windows 8.1 introduced a minor but important new feature for desktop users by which they can boot directly to the desktop without going straight to the start screen. Particularly if you are using a start menu replacement utility, you'll likely want to avoid using the start screen as much as possible. To boot directly to the desktop, right-click on the taskbar, click "Properties," open the "Navigation" tab and check the appropriate option. While you're here, you'll probably also want to check the option to display your desktop background on the start screen too, which will make the transition between the old and the new interfaces much more seamless.


4 - Reactivate the Libraries

Libraries were introduced with Windows 7, allowing you to sort files across multiple folders for quicker and easier navigation. The feature was included in Windows 8, and it remains in the latest editions too, but inexplicably, it was turned off by default. To get the Libraries feature back, simply open the File Explorer, right-click in the navigation pane to the left and click "Show Libraries". You can now use them in exactly the same way you did with Windows 7.


5 - Customize Your Desktop with Rainmeter

Rainmeter is a must-have tool for any desktop customization enthusiast. While it works with earlier versions of Windows as well, it is particularly valuable in Windows 8, since it effectively replaces the widgets discontinued after Windows 7 or the sidebar removed after Windows Vista. Of course, the Windows 8 start screen provides a similar functionality by way of its live tiles, but you likely wouldn't be reading this article if you're completely satisfied with them. Rainmeter instead displays a highly customizable and skinnable set of widgets, menus, toolbars and other controls on your desktop. Some skins include system information widgets, clocks, media players, news feeds and a whole lot more. You can download skin packs and widgets for Rainmeter from customize.org, deviantart.com or themebin.com among others.


6 - Use Custom Visual Styles

Particularly if you're using Rainmeter, you'll probably want to style your taskbar in such a way that it matches your Rainmeter theme, but to install custom visual styles in Windows 8.1 requires some additional steps, as was the case with previous versions of the operating system. In order to use third-party themes, you'll need to download a third-party tool to patch certain system files. One of the most popular is UltraUXThemePatcher, but if you prefer not to tamper with your system files, you may want to try the UxStyle utility instead, a service which runs in the background to enable the use of third-party visual styles. Both utilities are completely free, and you can download custom visual styles from a variety of websites, including those mentioned in the previous section.

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