Making the Case for Windows 8.1

by Mark Mizrahi

This article is based on a white paper issued by Global Knowledge . Reprinted with permission.

I have been working with Windows 8 since its earliest beta version, and I love it. That said, I fully understand end users’ resistance to (and sometimes flat-out rejection of) this latest version of the Microsoft Windows operating system. Public and enterprise organizations’ perception of Windows 8 reminds me of Windows Vista and how unreceptive people were to the changes in the new operating system and the slight learning curve of the new platform. Enterprise organizations’ need for backwards compatibility with existing applications was another major stumbling block to full deployment. This need was addressed with Windows 7, perfected in Windows 8.x, and has been further improved in Windows 8.1. (It’s worth noting that Vista was in the retail channel for almost two years as the operating system of choice installed by OEMs, as Windows 8.1 now is.)

This article presents six facts and features of Windows 8.1 that will help mitigate any resistance to moving forward with the latest “best yet” version of the Microsoft Windows 8 family of operating systems. Consider the following reasons to move forward.

Reason #1: It’s “Refreshing”

Whether you’re an individual user or an enterprise IT/support professional, sometimes you have to reinstall your operating system. This is why OEMs build “restore from a recovery partition” processes into computer hard drives: to fix system problems. (Though when destructive imaging methods are used or the physical hard drive is replaced, this feature is useless.) Sometimes it’s cheaper and easier to just reimage the machine, instead of fixing it. Just as mobile devices have an integrated “reset to factory default” option, so too does Windows 8.1. The easy-to-use Refresh and Reset options quickly restore Windows to a factory-default configuration.

If you’re experiencing problems with your computer and want to fix them, or if you’re a support professional troubleshooting a customer’s issue, of the two options, try Refresh first. Windows will restore system files and desktop programs to their default state, saving all your important personal files (and Modern apps, if you use them). IT administrators can even create their own images and make them available on machines for quick Refreshes.

Reset will return your PC returns it to its factory-default state, which is particularly useful if you’re trying to eliminate viruses or malware and you want to remove your personal data as well, or even if you just want a clean start.

However, these features are a bit hidden. Go to your Charms bar by moving your mouse to the top right or bottom right of the display, or press Windows + C; click Settings (the gear icon), and then click Change PC Settings. In the PC Settings app, go the General category and scroll down to find options for “Refresh your PC without affecting your files” and “Remove everything and reinstall Windows.” (I recommend poking around the other PC Settings solutions; you may be surprised at what you find.)

Reason #2: The NT Version and Why It’s Important

Every new Windows operating system is more secure and more fully featured than the previous release. One Windows 8.1 feature that often goes unnoticed is Windows Defender, Microsoft’s built-in antimalware, antivirus, and antispyware application. (Windows 7 has it too, but to get full protection, you need to download Microsoft Security Essentials.) It’s worked so well in my tests that I haven’t purchased any third-party security tools.

And how about the secure-boot environment? Secure Boot, also referred to as Trusted Boot, is a new security feature in Windows 8 that leverages the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) to block the loading and operation of any program or driver that hasn’t been signed by an OS-provided key. Trusted Boot thus protects the integrity of the kernel, system files, boot-critical drivers, and even antimalware software.

With Microsoft ending support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014, many enterprise organizations are in a race to roll out the next operating system. Most are deploying Windows 7, and there’s nothing wrong with that; Windows 7 served me well, and it still does. But why spend time, money, and effort rolling out and/or migrating to a Windows operating system that’s two versions behind?

Reason #3: The Start Menu

Windows 8’s Start Menu isn’t the Start Menu we’re used to, but that’s because the Classic Start Menu is no longer needed. In Windows 8, the Start Menu is spread across the entire display. Right-clicking on the Modern User Interface (MUI) shows all programs, and it’s from this MUI screen that you can invoke the automatic Search feature to search for files (also available by pressing Windows + F). Move your mouse to any corner of the display and you will find your open programs, start menu, and the Charms bar, which is also accessible by pressing Windows + C. Mouse-over the extreme left edge of the display to see the programs that are running in the background; from here, you can right click on the background program you want to close. These interactive elements are part of a Windows 8 called Magic Corners. Windows 8.1 also includes a Start button that provides single-click access to the MUI tiles, as well as a “Classic-style” shutdown. This new Start menu optionally allows a system boot directly to the desktop; this is available as a download for Windows 8 systems.

There’s a small learning curve to the Windows 8.1 Start Menu, which can be compared to learning to use the ribbon bar in Microsoft Office 2007; a little user experience is all it took. If you don’t want your users to go through that (or if you don’t want to go through it yourself), there are workarounds. I downloaded into a test environment a freeware third-party Classic-style Start menu, and I was quite comfortable with the way it booted into the desktop. It bypasses Tiles, but you can go back to the Windows 8-style Start Menu and MUI at any time: simply move your cursor to any one of the Magic Corners of the display or use the Charms bar (Windows + C). Easier still, press the Windows key to toggle between the desktop and the Start Menu MUI (press a second time and see what happens!).

Will workarounds like these make enterprise end users more comfortable? Will they reduce the learning curve and cut down on support for Windows 8.1? On my next real-world rollout, I deployed the aforementioned configuration to end users who were unaware of the third-party customization. Almost all end users agreed that it behaved like Windows 7. One user did want to know how to get back to the desktop from the MUI; the quick fix for that is to either click the Desktop tile or press Windows + D. (Hotkeys like these can help you navigate quickly; there are a number of hotkey “cheat sheets” available on the Internet, and I highly recommend downloading them and making them available to your end users.)

Reason #4: Client Hyper-V

Hyper-V, also known as PC-Virtualization or Client Hyper-V, is a Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 feature in Pro or higher versions that can be installed from the Control Panel (“Turn Windows features on or off”). Most people don’t know this feature exists in Windows 8, let alone what it’s good for. Client Hyper-V mitigates incompatibility by loading a previous operating system with your software onto a virtual machine, making integration with your hardware seamless.

Hyper-V has a few system requirements and behavioral restrictions you should be aware of: first, Hyper-V has stringent hardware requirements. Not every PC will be able to run it. You’ll need a 64-bit processor that can support Second-Level Address Translation (SLAT). You also need at least 4GB of RAM. If you’re in doubt about your PC’s capabilities, you can run a utility like CoreInfo to find out if SLAT is supported on your machine. If you’re running the most recent generation of Intel or AMD processors, then you’re probably good to go.

Client Hyper-V, like the Hyper-V on the Windows Server products, supports a broad range of virtualized hardware, snapshotting, dynamic memory allocation, support for multiple virtual processors, and so on. There’s even a Virtual Network Switch to set up V-Lans for virtual or physical networking.

Reason #5: Task Manager

One of the features of Windows 8 that’s undergone a massive overhaul and is now so much more awesome is the unassuming Windows Task Manager, that modest window that helps you bail out of trouble whenever you hit a brick wall with a stalled application. To launch it, use the old standbys: the Ctrl + Shift + Esc hotkey, type “Task Manager” in search, or right-click on the task bar and select Task Manager.

In Windows 8.1, the columns in the Task Manager can be customized to show PID, Publisher, and even Command Line, which shows you the location an app or process launched from. Task Manager also gives you the ability to collapse into what some users refer to as a compact dashboard: no title bar, no toolbar, no extra window clutter; just a bunch of meters showing you your CPU, memory, disk, and network usage. You can put it off to the side of the screen to help you keep an eye on things. Once you see a spike, you can just double-click a metric to expand the minimized view into a full-view window with a large graph. It’s like making your own custom Gadget!

The App History tab provides information that enables you to get a handle on CPU time, network, Tiles update, and downloads, to name a few. And that’s not all. The Startup tab shows programs that start on bootup and another column shows the Startup impact; you can also right-click to bring up a context menu that allows you to enable/disable programs, search online, and access the properties for an application. It’s also the new location of the MsConfig utility. Other tabs include a Users tab (present in previous versions of Task Manager) and the newer Services and Details tabs. These tabs, and the tabs discussed above, leverage the right-click context menu that allow users and support professionals to view additional metrics, like CPU Priority, CPU Affinity, and Analyze Wait Chain.

Reason #6: File Explorer View

Windows Explorer has undergone an overhaul as well; it’s now called File Explorer. With the new name comes a new interface: the Ribbon bar. Most users are familiar with the Ribbon bar from Microsoft Office 2007. Since releasing Office 2007, Microsoft standardized the Ribbon bar, making it the common interface for all applications. Windows 8.1 users should feel comfortable with the different options and tabs in the File Explorer Ribbon.

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I’m always bragging about the stability of the Windows 8 family of operating systems, and as of this writing, I’ve yet to see a Blue Screen of Death. Windows 8 devices wake up quickly and reconnect to networks easily. And that’s only the beginning. After reading this article, I hope you’ll find, as I have, how easy it is to use this operating system. A bit of patience, a forward-looking frame of mind, and, if necessary, some minor tweaks and customizations, and I know you’ll love Windows 8.1, too.


Mark Mizrahi has been a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) since Windows NT 3.51. He’s a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) and an MCTS and MCITP for Windows Server 2008, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows Server 2012. He currently teaches Microsoft curriculum for Global Knowledge and other training vendors. Mark is also the president of Standard Computer Services. He consults for various Fortune 500 companies, and he designs and implements web-based Internet security and video surveillance systems for a diversified customer base.

Tag(s): trends, virtual desktop infrastructure - VDI, tools


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