Figure 1

Figure 1

At the end of last week’s blog about Windows 8.1, I pointed out the option to go straight to the desktop when opening Windows. If you’ve been to that dialog box you will have seen that it also offers the option to tick a box to display the desktop background image as a background image on the Start Screen. This does make the switch between desktop and Start Screen less jarring. See Figure 1 for the full dialog box.

You will also see another option in this dialog box that suggests that Microsoft have been listening to feedback from users. A lot of us found it a real nuisance that navigating to the top righthand corner of a screen in order to close a program would often bring up the list of so-called “charms” because we’d moved the mouse past the corner of the screen. This unwanted result can now be prevented by unticking the box next to “When I point to the top-right corner, show the charms”. There is a similar option to stop the intrusion of the last “app” used when sliding off the top lefthand corner of the screen.

How do I get the upgrade to 8.1 if I declined it when the offer popped up on my screen?

The upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 takes place from the Windows Store. It is not just a link in any old Microsoft web page. This means that even if you normally sign into Windows 8 with a “local account”, you will need to sign into your Microsoft account to get at the upgrade (see this recent blog re signing in to Windows 8 ). So, if you are one of those people who found it a pain creating a Microsoft account when installing Windows 8, and didn’t think you would ever need it, here’s an example of an occasion when you will need to have its details handy.

I suppose it’s just possible that I had a senior moment during the upgrade process and that something happened (or didn’t happen) that left me needing to sign in to my Microsoft account to open Windows 8.1 when the upgrade had taken place. The cynic in me says that Microsoft have nudged me in the direction they want me to go. The pessimist in me says that I’m probably losing the plot and took a wrong option somewhere during the upgrade process. The realist in me reminds me that it doesn’t matter as it’s possible to switch back to using a local account as detailed in this recent blog.

Tiled Apps

There are many changes, additions, and enhancements to the “tiled apps” available from the Start Screen. I’m not sure whether I ought to apologise for not being able to give you an enthusiastic, in-depth analysis of these changes. The truth is, I just don’t care very much about this side of Windows 8 computing. If I want to do “fun things” I’ll pick up my iPad.

Homer and Windows 8.1Of course, if my computer support clients want to know more about these “apps” then I will pay them more attention. As I recently said, though, I’ve only ever had one client even mention Microsoft’s Surface computer to me (where these “apps” presumably shine), and I can only think of one client in the last year (since Windows 8 was released) who has shown any real enthusiasm for the Start Screen and its “tiled apps”. Maybe you all love them but don’t want to risk incurring my disdain by saying so. I doubt that, somehow, so I’m going to continue not paying them much attention. If you’d like a more enthusiastic view of this aspect of Windows 8.1, then try this blog.

There are also changes to how things are displayed in “File Explorer” (or “Windows Explorer” as it was called prior to Windows 8). We used to look for “My Computer” as the option to prowl around the contents of the computer. This became less patronising in Windows 7 by just calling it “Computer”. In Windows 8.1 it has become “This PC”.

Summary

8.1 Install Screen

ZZzz………zz…….zz…….

I must stress that this is the first time I’ve upgraded Windows 8 to 8.1 so the experience may not be typical. Yours may be different. If it’s possible to conclude anything from a single instance, I would say that the upgrade process is slow but that 8.1 seems to have user advantages over Windows 8. Whether you actually need to perform the upgrade is another matter, but I’d say that the security argument probably wins the day. I can’t yet say whether it was Windows 8.1 that broke my Outlook calendars, but I’m glad I took a copy of my Outlook “pst” file just before the upgrade.

And now, after one more week’s experience of 8.1, I’m happy to report that everything seems to be back to its previous speed. Not only that, but my calendar synch is working again – with no intervention from me. Nothing else has happened that shouldn’t have, and I’m a happy bunny who is glad to have Windows 8.1 instead of 8.

Last month, I mentioned that the latest release of Windows 8 (Windows 8.1) appeared to cause problems sometimes

– see this previous blog post on Windows 8.1

Not having heard any more discouraging tales, I bit the bullet earlier this week and started the download. If you have been receiving nags from Microsoft that 8.1 is available now and that they recommend that you go for it, then be warned – it’s a big download and then it takes forever to install. I didn’t time it as I wasn’t expecting time to be an issue, but I think it must have been about three hours in all. Admittedly, it doesn’t need much intervention, so you don’t have to attend to it all the time, but don’t start the process when you’ll need the computer in a few minutes.

Should you bother upgrading to 8.1?

The rather modest new Start button

The rather modest new Start button

It does seem to me that there are improvements as to how you move around and find things. What may be more important is that the security is better than in Windows 8. I don’t pretend to be a computer security expert and I certainly don’t have the inclination to research just what security improvements have taken place in Windows 8.1. It’s enough for me to follow the common sense notion that it’s worth keeping vulnerable software up to date (eg browsers, emails programs, operating systems) wherever possible and wherever there is no reason not to. Yes, it is a bit of a hassle being without your computer for hours and having to keep checking on it to see if it’s finished the update or is waiting for some input from you.

Windows needs to be secure. We don't want to let just anyone in.

Windows needs to be secure. We don’t want to let just anyone in.

As I’ve said before, though, there are some things about computers that we just have to accept as being part of the nature of the beast. Computers and the internet give us instant access to information and people all around the world. That’s absolutely marvellous and would have been almost inconceivable longer ago than just one generation. The flipside of that same coin is that all the scumbags, ne’er-do-wells, hucksters, cheats, and slimeballs also have the same access and also see huge opportunities in all this global access and global connection.

We can’t have one without the other. Therefore, we just have to accept that security is important and that we really should take reasonable steps to keep it current. In my opinion, running the latest version of the operating system, and keeping it updated as much as possible, is a large part of the task of “taking reasonable steps”. So, as long as Windows 8.1 isn’t going to break anything or cause any other major problems, I’d recommend going for it.

What did I find on updating to 8.1?

The first thing I noticed when it had finished was that everything seemed so s—–l—–o—–w—-. Booting up, opening everyday programs such as Firefox and Outlook – it was all a pain. And then my Outlook broke. The calendar synch with Gmail (and thence to Macs and iPads, but that’s another story) stopped working and even send/receive wouldn’t work. Falling back on the timeless advice of both Douglas Adams and Corporal Jones (“Don’t Panic”), I just re-booted the machine two or three times. It definitely started getting back to normal as far as the speed was concerned. Outlook send/receive eventually came back (phheww) but the calendar synch is still broken. Maybe it’s a coincidence. I haven’t investigated yet.

So, what’s new?

Figure 1. Right-clicking on the new Start button brings up a useful menu.

Figure 1. Right-clicking on the new Start button brings up a useful menu.

Well, as promised, they’ve brought back a Start button. All it seems to do at first, though, is toggle between either the last start screen app used and the start screen itself, or between the desktop and the start screen (depending upon whether or not you’ve just been using a start screen app). As far as I can see, it’s exactly the same as the Windows key has always behaved in Windows 8. That doesn’t make it any less confusing: just no more useful. Anyway, I think the usefulness of the Start button is apparent when you right-click on it. This brings up the menu as displayed in figure 1. As you can see, a lot of these options have been brought back from the “old” start button menu – including the options to switch off. I won’t go through all these options now, except to point out that they’ve also included some of the more useful options that have always been present, but buried deep in the Control Panel – such as Power Options, Event Viewer, and System. To my mind, this Start Menu is a useful improvement.

Booting into the desktop instead of the Start Screen

If you don’t use the “Start Screen”, with all its bells and whistles and animations and stuff, and just want to go straight to the familiar territory of the desktop whenever you boot up, this is now possible with a little tweak:

  • Right-click on any empty part of the desktop taskbar (the line at the bottom of the screen that includes icons for open and “pinned” applications etc)
  • Left-click on “Properties”
  • Left-click on the “Navigation” tab
  • Tick the box next to “When I sign in… go to the desktop instead of Start” (see figure 2)
Figure 2. Tick the box to avoid the Start Screen when you boot up in future.

Figure 2. Tick the box to avoid the Start Screen when you boot up in future.

Maybe I’ve whetted your appetite – in which case, look out for the second part of this review of Windows 8.1 next week.

A web browser is a program on your own computer that connects to other computers on the worldwide web, sends and receives data, and deals with that data for you (such as presenting it on screen, saving it, printing it).

There are several different browsers, made by different companies, that do the same job. The most prominent (with links) are:

Internet Explorer logoInternet Explorer version 9 (not for XP)
Internet Explorer version 8 (for XP)

 

Firefox logoMozilla Firefox

 

Chrome logoGoogle Chrome

 

Safari logoSafari

 

There is also the AOL browser that is only used by AOL subscribers. AOL subscribers can also use any of the other browsers.

So what’s the difference between them? Not a great deal. Pushed to name the best feature of each, I would suggest:

Internet Explorer – automatic security updates via Microsoft update (that also keeps your Windows updated)
Mozilla Firefox – huge range of add-ons (plugins)
Chrome – fast
Safari – built by Apple, so has the look and feel of a Mac
AOL – er…

Unlike security software (antivirus, other antimalware, and firewalls) you can have as many browsers on your computers as you wish. They do not conflict with each other.

Plugins

Browsers originally dealt with text and images but they can now also handle a variety of types of multimedia (eg video). A lot of this functionality is provided by the addition of specialised programs called “plugins” and “add-ons”.

For instance, you are probably familiar with Adobe Flash Player. This is an extra program, installed separately from your browser, that gives you the ability to watch videos etc directly from your browser. If we didn’t have what Flash Player does then we would probably need to download our video to our computer and then open up a different program to view it. Flash Player allows us to view it within our browser window and also allows us to “stream” the content. “Streaming” means that we are watching the video as it is delivered to our browser, rather than having to save it all first before starting to watch it.

There are many, many other plugins that we can add directly into our browser. I use one on Firefox called Adblock Plus. This does a very good job of removing ads from most websites. It’s available for Firefox and Chrome.

Updates

If your browser tells you that there is an update available and suggests that you download it then I would recommend doing so. This is because at least part of the update is likely to involve improved security for your browser. Remember that the browser’s job is to communicate with other computers, passing data to and from your own machine. This is precisely the area where people with bad intent will try to exploit weaknesses. Therefore, it is important that as soon as a flaw in your browser is discovered and rectified, you should incorporate that rectification as soon as possible by updating your browser.

As far as updating plugins is concerned, you probably often see nagging screens advising you to update Adobe Flash Player. Annoying though they are, I would suggest complying as the update may very well be to do with security. Likewise, if you see nagging messages about updating Java then I would comply for the same reason (Java is powerful programming installed on your own computer that websites call upon to add bells and whistles to their web pages).

Default Browser

If you have more than one browser installed then opening one up may cause a message to be displayed along the lines of “SuperDuper browser is not currently your default browser. Make it the default?”

The “default browser” is the one that loads up when a browser is called for, but none has been specified. Suppose, for instance, that you have a web page saved on your computer. This will probably be an “html” file. If you double-click on that file then your operating system looks for the “default program” (in this case a “default browser”) to open that file.

Obviously, there is only one “default browser” and the message above (when you start the SuperDuper browser) is really no more than your SuperDuper browser screaming “me, me, me” at you. It thinks it’s the most important browser in the universe and that it’s doing you a favour by suggesting that it should be the default browser instead of the one that you currently have as the default.

You can always change your default browser by opening up the one that you wish to be the default. If it doesn’t automatically scream at you to make it the default then look for the option to change the settings. There is bound to be a setting somewhere to make that browser the default.

If you use AVG free then you will no doubt have noticed the popup screens that have been appearing in the last week or two (as below)

AVG Free update screen

Once again, we are being led by the nose to “upgrade” to a paid version of a product that is perfectly adequate in its free version. They highlight the “Recommended Protection” option in orange, hoping you’ll click on this button. To install the latest free version, however, you should click on the “Update Your Free Protection” button.

It seems to me that the free version is still perfectly adequate and I myself am going to continue to use it.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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