Windows 8.1 tips and tricks: Here's what your PC or tablet can do now

Microsoft is to finally to release its long-awaited update to Windows 8 today. Windows 8.1 brings a whole batch of new features aimed at improving your PC or tablet user experience.

When the software giant first released its new operating system in August 2012, it was always on the proviso that it would gauge what worked and what didn't after real-world use, and that has resulted in the first major update, one that is free to Windows 8 users. It's easy to download and install, but will it make your life better is the big question?

READ: Windows 8.1 launches today: What you need to know to get ready

We're not about to answer that here - you'll be able to find out exactly what we think of the latest OS for PCs and tablets elsewhere on Pocket-lint - but we will give you a few pointers of some new features that we think you'll love playing with. These things weren't possible or available before the update.

READ: Windows 8.1 review

Not all the new features are covered, some you may never even use, but we think you'll admit that this collection is cool.

Start button

Most of the pre-launch hype on Windows 8.1 has involved the return of the start button. Actually, it's not exactly the start button you'll be used to from XP, Vista or Windows 7. Instead, the new icon in the lower-left of your desktop screen allows you to zip back to the Win 8 tile user interface at a click or tap.

The more traditional options come when you right-click on it, then you get the ability to shut down or restart your computer and access several other useful tools including, yay, the Control Panel.

Boot to desktop

For those who don't have a laptop, desktop PC or tablet with a touchscreen, the tiled user interface might not be the place you spend most of your time when sat at the computer. Yes, there are plenty of lovely looking modern apps on the Windows Store, but you will more than likely revert to the original and traditional view of the Windows desktop for most of the time.

In Windows 8.1, you now have the option to bypass the modern tiled UI when you boot the computer and have it open on the desktop from the off. Under the new Taskbar and Navigation properties menu, which is accessible by right-clicking the taskbar at the bottom of the desktop screen, there is an option under the Navigation tab that you can tick. Click on the box next to "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in", close and restart. You will now automatically boot to desktop.

If you want to change it back, you'll have to un-tick the same option.

Universal search

One of our biggest bugbears in the original Windows 8 is that when searching for a document, application or Windows system feature in the modern UI you had to choose where to search, either in Apps, Settings, Files or within individual applications by opening them first. Now search has been streamlined to work universally, meaning you just type the search string and you will get results across the categories without having to be so specific. Even the Internet will be included in the search.

There are intelligent search functions too. Start to type a word and it will find answers without having to enter the entire word or phrase.

Configure Smart Search

Smart Search in Windows 8.1 provides results from your PC, SkyDrive and the Internet - giving you universal search functionality. To configure how Smart Search works, or even turn it off, visit PC settings. From there, go to Search and Apps, and then Search.

You will see many options for Search History, Search Bing online, Your Search experience, SafeSearch and Metered Connections. Each possibility gives a summary of its task; choose which you'd like to leave on or off. Your best bet is to just try everything by default, though. Hey - maybe you'll like what the feature has to offer.

Use the app bars

The app bar is a feature in every Windows 8.1 app. To use it, right click the app's screen with a mouse or and swipe up from the bottom of the touchscreen. Once you do this, you'll see the app's functions and options.

Smaller app tiles

Not really a tip as such more a statement of fact. You can now have smaller tiles for applications on your Start home screen. Cool.

Find apps

Windows 8.1 doesn't pin newly installed apps to Start screen, meaning many users won't know where find their apps nor how to pin them to the Start screen or Taskbar

Have no fear, though. This is how you do it: Install an app, and then access the Apps view below the Start screen by swiping up from the bottom of the touchscreen. If you have a mouse, click or tap the lower left corner of the Start screen. Once the Apps view shows up, you'll see all your new apps. You can then use Search in the right corner of the Apps view to finely search, or you can sort the Apps view by Recently installed.

Once you've selected an app, choose Pin to Start screen or Taskbar from the app bar that'll appear. Metro apps can't be pinned to the Taskbar.

Find libraries

Windows 7 introduced libraries, which allowed you to see and access all of your content. Windows 8.1 doesn't show the Libraries link by default, though. So, to view it, just open the View menu from the ribbon menu in File Explorer. You'll then need to choose Show Libraries from the Navigation drop-down menu.

Find Charms

You can get to the Charms anywhere in Windows 8.1. It's a menu rail found on the right side of the screen, and it features actions like Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Move your cursor to the top-right corner and then down or swipe from the right on a touchscreen to view the Charms menu rail.

Automated app updates

This is a feature that is quite hard to believe wasn't already on Windows 8. Go to the store, activate the side menu bar on the right-hand side (the Charms menu), select Settings and then choose App Updates. You can switch on automatic updates from there.

Disable automated app updates

Tablet users might not want automated app updates mode on all the time, but if you run a desktop with a permanent connection to the Internet, there really is no reason not to have apps update automatically.

Still, here's how you disable the feature: Open Windows Store. From there, go to Settings, and then App Updates. You'll want to change the option "Automatically Update My Apps" to "No".

Name app groups

You can give each Start screen app tile group its own name now (like"High school friends" or "College friends). Just right-click on the Start screen and choose Customise to enter the heading.

Dock an app

You could dock Start screen apps to the side of the screen in Windows 8, but you can do even more in Windows 8.1. You can dock two Start screen apps, for instance, enabling you to ignore the desktop completely and view two apps alongside each other. You can also adjust the size of each pane.

Match your desktop wallpaper in your Start home

Some might find the aesthetic change between the wallpaper on the desktop screen and the Start home background behind tiles a bit jarring. We liken it to being ripped between two portals or parallel dimensions. Probably.

Now though you can choose the same background for both, including custom wallpapers. This way there's a more thematic narrative running through the design, one of your own choosing. In the Charms menu (the right-hand side bar that appears), under settings and then personalise, you will be able to see your current desktop background as one of the options.

Customise the lock screen with photo slideshows

Windows 8 allowed users to set a specific photo to their lock screen, but Windows 8.1 kicks the customisation level up a notch by allowing photo slideshow capabilities from the lock screen. To get started, go to the Start Screen.

If you’re on a device with a touchscreen, swipe from the right edge to the left of your screen to activate the Charms Bar. If your device has a mouse and keyboard, set the mouse cursor in the top-right corner of your display.

From there, click or tap the Settings charm represented by the cog at the bottom of the Charms Bar. Click or tap Change PC Settings. It's like the new Control Panel. Under the PC Settings app, click or tap the first option on the left called PC and Devices in the menu. You then want to click or tap Lock Screen.

Finally, tap or click on the switch called "Play A Slide show on the Lock screen" to turn on lock screen slide shows. You'll then want to click or tap the " + icon" to add a folder with the slideshow photos. Use the file picker to select the photos. And - voila! That's it.

If you’d like to have your device auto-show pictures in SkyDrive folder, click or tap "This PC and select SkyDrive" from the drop down menu, and then click or tap Choose folder to select an entire folder of photos. You can also select each photo by clicking or tapping on them.

Remember: Windows 8.1 will auto-sync these options to any PC or device using the same Microsoft Account.

Disable Hot Corners

Hot Corners first appeared in Windows 8, allowing each corner of the screen to have a different function (much like OS X). Users had to use third-party alternatives if they wanted to disable this feature, but not anymore.

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft has included an option to disable hot corners. Simply go to PC settings, and then PC and Devices. You'll management tools under Corner navigation.

Open IE tabs from other PCs

Have you ever wanted to open up Internet Explorer 11 tabs on other PCs? Well with Windows 8.1 you can. In fact, this feature is only available in the final shipping version of Windows 8.1.

Just open a new IE tab window, and then look for the names of your other PCs at the bottom of the page. To see all the synced tabs from a PC, click the PC name. All available sites will show up in a drop-down menu, which you can click to view on the current PC.

To see all the synced tabs from IE 11 mobile, tap the Tabs button in IE 11's app bar, and then tap the PC name in the top-left of the interface to view a list of the available PCs. You'll then want to select one from the list.

IE Reading View

Internet Explorer 11, which came bundled with Windows 8.1, has a new Reading View, and it does exactly what one would think. It makes reading long articles on websites much easier by simply removing the clutter from the page. You can access Reading View by clicking the book icon on the right of the address bar.

Read later with Reading List

Windows 8.1 has a new app called Reading List. Using Share charm to do its work, the app runs side-by-side with Internet Explorer, as well as other reading material like the Bing News or Sports apps, which may have content that you want to save for reading later. Using Reading List, you're able to design an actual reading list and bring up your saved articles at any time. Also, when you find an Internet article or other document in a supported app, you can share it with Reading List.

To read saved articles, launch the Reading List app. It appears full-screen by default and shows a list of the articles you've saved. Upon selecting an article to read, the app opens it in the source app in Snap view.

There are also management tools like searching for articles, removing articles, batch removal, etc. The app will even temporarily store deleted articles (configurable) - kind of like the Recycle Bin. Last, but not least, you can sync Reading List to multiple devices, meaning you can save an article on your tablet and resume reading on your desktop.

The only feature Reading List is missing at this point is an offline mode, but the app is still a useful addition to Windows 8.1 nonetheless.

Set an alarm

Windows 8.1 has a new Alarms app that's accessible from the Start screen. You can add multiple alarms and set various ringtones to wake you or remind you.

Do basic math

There's also a new, basic calculator in Windows 8.1. Open it from the Start screen and you toggle between Standard or Scientific modes. It's a handy app, which many might not think about, but it's often missed when not readily available.

Keyboard Shortcuts

The same old Windows keyboard shortcuts still work. Examples include Alt-Tab to switch between open applications, F5 to refresh the active window, etc.

That said - the Windows Key has many new and oh-so wonderful shortcuts to help you fly through the new OS. Tapping it will switch you between your current app and the Start screen. Windows key-D brings you to the desktop. Windows key-F opens Find. Windows key-L serves up the lock screen. These are just a few of the new additions. Play around and sound off below if you've found even more cool shortcuts.

Move SkyDrive folder

Microsoft has crucially integrated SkyDrive into Windows 8.1, enabling file sync to be by default. You can also manage it from PC Settings (sans a separate app). Previously, within the SkyDrive desktop app, you could configure where SkyDrive synced its files, but this capability was thought to be lost in Windows 8.1 However, it isn't.

Go to PC Settings, of course. When under PC Settings, right-click on SkyDrive in the navigation pane. From there, select Properties and then Location tab. To change the location, you'll only have to click the Move button and designate a new location. Simples, right?

Save to SkyDrive

Do you want all of your applications to save to your SkyDrive folder by default? Just open the Change PC Settings screen, and then choose SkyDrive. From there, all you have to do is make sure the relevant setting is switched to On in the Files tab.

Faster shutdown

Windows 8.1 has the same shortcut menu when you right-click in the bottom left-hand corner of the desktop. But Microsoft has added some new options in the OS upgrade. Examples include being able to shutdown the system or log out of your account. Previously, users had to shutdown through the Settings charm.

Stay tuned for more tips and tricks. We'll continue to update this list as we dig deeper into Windows 8.1.