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Configuring Windows 8.1 to Be a Great Desktop Operating System

Many people perceive Windows 8.1 as being a tablet operating system that works poorly on desktop and laptop PCs. Certainty, if we look at the Windows 8.1 Start screen, we see it looks very much like a tablet interface that's designed for touch.

Windows 8.1 Start Screen

It is therefore true that, in its default state, Windows 8.1 delivers a terrible user experience on desktop PCs. However, the Metro interface is really just a layer which runs on top of a fundamentally solid desktop operating system. With a bit of work, Windows 8.1 can be configured to provide a great desktop experience, that offers significant advantages over Windows 7 in terms of speed, efficiency, functionality and user interface.

In this article we will run through the process of configuring Windows 8.1 for desktop use, but before we get started let's take a look at why you would want to use Windows 8.1, what it offers over Windows 7, and what its bad points are.

Improvements in Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 offers a number of enhancements over Windows 7 which, while not exactly earth shattering, combine to make Windows 8.1 my favourite Windows since Windows 2000.

Speed and Efficiency
Since the painfully slow and inefficient Windows Vista, Microsoft have been working to reduce boot times and memory usage, while increasing the overall speed of Windows. Windows 7 was a big improvement over Vista, and 8.1 is another big improvement over 7. Windows 8.1 is so efficient, it even runs well on a low end tablet with a 1.33GHz Atom Z3735F processor and 1GB of RAM. I didn't find the Windows 8.1 tablet to be of much use, so I configured it for desktop use, put it in a keyboard case and use it as a mini laptop when I don't want to carry my main laptop. Despite having only 1GB of RAM, the tablet handles sophisticated desktop applications admirably, and shows how considerable the efficiency improvements in Windows 8.1 are.

Windows 8.1 Tablet

User Experience
If we ignore the Metro elements of the UI, which are easily avoided, the Windows 8.1 interface offers a number of useful enhancements. The redesigned Task Manager is a great improvement over the old version. A new right-click menu has been added to the Start button, which offers rapid access to commonly used functionality. The file copy and file replace dialogs have been vastly improved over the dreadful Windows 7 designs. Enhancements have also been made to multi-monitor support, and the option now exists to have a taskbar on each monitor. Other small touches add to the user experience, such as the window title now being in the centre of the title bar, and the up one directory button finally being restored to the File Explorer. These improvements combine to deliver a far superior user experience compared to Windows 7.

Theme
Themes are entirely a matter of preference, so this could be considered a negative feature, particularly if you were a fan of Aero Glass. I personally didn't like XP's Luna theme, or Vista/7's Aero Glass, and I continued to use Windows Classic in those operating systems. I was initially concerned about the removal of Windows Classic in Windows 8, but have found the new Aero Lite theme to be very much to my liking. Having a visual style that matches your tastes contributes considerably to your enjoyment of an operating system, and I think the new theme is one of the reasons I like Windows 8 so much.

New Features
Windows 8 introduced a number of new features, including Storage Spaces, which allows you to treat multiple drives as a single volume, and Hyper-V, for running virtual machines. A feature was also added which enables users to reset their machine back to the default state without having to reinstall Windows.

The Negative Side of Windows 8.1

Aside from the extensive amount of customisation required to make Windows 8.1 usable, it has two other significant negatives.

Windows 8 Takes Windows in the Wrong Direction
While Windows 8.1 can be turned into an effective desktop operating system, it is very apparent that Windows is headed in entirely the wrong direction. Windows is a productivity platform, yet Microsoft are dumbing it down to the level of a tablet operating system. They've added a cumbersome tablet UI that fails to take advantage of the precision mouse input offers, they're encouraging developers to write dumbed down Metro apps instead of sophisticated desktop applications, they're removing customisation options, they're adding invasive features, and they're putting advertisements in the Metro interface. All of this can be easily worked around in Windows 8.1, but if Microsoft continue down this path it is likely that Windows will eventually become unviable as a desktop operating system, and useless as a productivity platform.

You Cannot Change the System Font
In what has to be one of the most absurd design decisions in the history of software, Microsoft have removed the ability to change the the system font, and forced the terrible Sergio UI font on everyone. The reason for this change is because elements of the Metro UI employ characters from the Sergio UI font in place of icons. Not all fonts have these characters, so changing fonts can cause characters not to display, which breaks the Metro interface. You can still change font via the registry, and if you avoid the Metro interface you rarely see any issues, but there are a few problems, such as the cursor keys and backspace symbols not showing on the On-Screen Keyboard. This is an extremely lazy piece of design, and could easily have been worked around to allow the user to select their own font, but it appears that the UX designers at Microsoft do not believe in customisation and user choice. This is an ongoing trend with Windows, with each new version having fewer customisation options, which takes us back to the above point about Windows heading in the wrong direction.

Configuring Windows 8.1 for Desktop Use

It takes a substantial number of modifications to make Windows 8.1 usable on a desktop PC, but most of the changes are performed using a registry script, so the whole process can be completed in about an hour.

Step 1: Install Windows 8.1 - Privacy Options

Windows 8.1 contains a number of features that can represent a significant to your privacy, but these features can be easily disabled. During installation you will be presented this screen where you can press Customise to change certain settings, including privacy settings. We will be configuring these settings via a registry script in Step 4, so you can skip the customisation process. However, we'll look at some of the important options now, just to highlight some of the privacy threats in Windows 8.1.

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Step 2: Install Windows 8.1 - Creating a Local Account

The next step installing Windows 8.1 involves creating an account. You are pushed towards using a Microsoft account, but this will result in significant violations of your privacy, including tracking of your browsing and search history, which is again used for targeted advertising. To avoid these privacy issues it is therefore best to create a local Windows account, rather than use a Microsoft account. When presented with this screen you have to click "Create a new account." On the next screen you click "Sign in without a Microsoft account," after which you will be promoted to create a local Windows account.

Step 3: Remove All Metro Applications

After installation is complete we can start configuring Windows 8.1 for our desktop or laptop PC. Windows 8.1 comes with a large number of Metro style tablet applications, which are of little use on a desktop PC, and should therefore be removed. The easiest way to get rid of them by running Powershell as admin and entering this command:

Get-AppxPackage -AllUsers | Remove-AppxPackage

Alternatively you can use the Command Prompt (Admin) with this command:

powershell "Get-AppxPackage -AllUsers | Remove-AppxPackage"

If you wish to keep the Windows Store but remove all other Metro apps, you can use this command from Powershell run as admin:

Get-AppXPackage | where-object {$_.name -notlike '*store*'} | Remove-AppxPackage

Or this from Command Prompt (Admin):

powershell "Get-AppXPackage | where-object {$_.name -notlike '*store*'} | Remove-AppxPackage"

After removing the Metro apps, the Start green will have changed from the one pictured at the top of the article, to this.

Step 4: Configure Windows Using a Registry Script and Theme

Since Windows 2000, each version of Windows has required progressively more and more changes to the settings in order to make it usable. It can now take hours to configure all the settings after installation, so the easiest solution is to write a registry script that can configure your system instantly. In this step we'll be using such a script to configures 118 different settings for a more desktop friendly experience. The script can be viewed here, or downloaded here. Each section of the script is commented so you can see what it does. The script configures Windows to my preferences, so you likely wouldn't want to run it as is, and should instead copy the entries you want to build your own script.

We'll also apply this theme file that uses the Aero Lite theme and disables features such as sound effects, screen saver and wallpaper. After applying the registry script and theme, you must restart your computer for all settings to take effect.

Step 5: Manual Configuration

There are a number of settings that cannot be changed through a registry script. The first setting we must change manually is to disable MAPS in Windows Defender, as this can potentially lead to personal files being sent to Microsoft. To do this launch Windows Defender and go to Settings -> MAPS -> I don't want to join MAPS. The other important setting is to enable the Quick Launch bar, which can be add by right clicking on the taskbar, selecting Toolbars -> New toolbar and entering the path:

%appdata%\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch

Right click on the Quake Launch bar and uncheck Show Title and Show Text, and reposition the bar next to the Start button.

Step 6: Third Party Software

Things are improving, but we're still lacking a Start menu and other essential features. To get a Start menu download Classic Shell and install the Classic Start Menu component (I disable the other components). You can configure it to your preferences, but I use this configuration. Unfortunately it doesn't save the icon size, so you have to go to Classic Start Menu Settings -> Show all settings -> Menu Look tab -> Large icon size, set it to 16 and then restart.

Next we need some essential customisation options for the taskbar, so we'll download 7+ Taskbar Tweaker. After installing, you can configure it to your preferences, but I use these settings.

The next essential component we need is a way to manage file types. In Windows XP you had precise control over file types, but starting with Vista Microsoft dumbed down the management of file types. You can no longer modify actions, such as the edit action, and cannot make modifications to the command line parameters used in actions. Third party software is required to restore this functionality, and I have been using Types. Looking now, it appears that the Types GitHub page has been removed, though the software is still available here.

Windows File Explorer has always been rather lacking, with the absence of tabs being its most fundamental failing. It has been getting progressively worse in newer version of Windows, and the UI can now only be described as a work of total insanity. A third party file manager is therefore essential to make Windows 8.1 a usable desktop operating system. There are quite a few options in this area, but I personally use Explorer++ with this configuration, as it works most closely to the way I desire. It does have some issues, including occasional stability problems and no support for dragging and dropping onto executables, but it gets the job done a lot better than Windows File Explorer.

There is other software that can be used in place of the bundled Windows 8.1 components to make Windows far more usable. Archive support in Windows is useless, so 7-Zip is necessary. Windows Photo Viewer is terrible, so I use XnViewMP with this configuration. Notepad is worthless, so I use Notepad++. Windows Media Player is dreadful, but there are various other choices, such as Media Player Classic, SMPlayer and VLC. The Metro style Mail app is a joke, so I use Thunderbird. IE also needs replacing with your choice of browser. There is obviously a lot of other software you can install, but that replaces most of the useless software that's bundled with Windows 8.1, and concludes the setup process.

End Result

After configuring Windows 8.1 in this way, we now have an extremely effective and efficient desktop operating system. Unless you specifically try to access the Metro elements of Windows 8.1, you'll never see any Metro interfaces, and can use Windows 8.1 just like earlier versions of Windows. We have disabled all the privacy threats in Windows 8.1, so you can use it without concerns about being tracked. We have replaced many of the useless bundled Microsoft apps with superior third-party alternatives. We have added a well designed branching Start menu, which is far superior to the dreadful Windows 7 Start menu that required you to scroll up and down to access your programs. These changes, combined with the improvements in Windows 8.1, give us a version of Windows that is without doubt the best version since Windows 2000.

Windows 8.1 After Configuration

It does take far more effort than it should to make Windows 8.1 usable, so it's fair to say that Microsoft are doing an appalling job with the Windows user experience. I do fear for the future of Windows, but for now Windows 8.1 has us covered until 10 January 2023.

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