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Sharpen your Windows 8.1 proficiency -- and become a more valuable support resource for your users – with the help of these practical pro tips.
If you're an IT pro, you wear at least two hats — one as a power Windows user interested in personal productivity, the other as the person responsible for keeping an organization's Windows infrastructure up and running. And most of us also wear a third hat, the one that identifies us as the IP expert in the family, the person who gets a call when someone's PC isn't working right.
The tips in this article are some of my favorites for making those official and unofficial support tasks more manageable. Most of them assume that you're using Windows 8.1 Pro or Enterprise editions, which are designed for IT pros connected to enterprise networks.
1: Keep a virtual machine handy
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Having a Windows virtual machine at your fingertips is essential for any IT pro. The last thing you want to do is install an untested program on a production PC, where it can do all sorts of mischief. Likewise, you should never visit a suspicious web link unless you're using an appropriately sandboxed virtual machine.
Windows 8.1 Pro and Enterprise editions include Hyper-V virtualization as a built-in feature on supported hardware. You'll need to use the Turn Windows Features On Or Off dialog box, shown in Figure A, to enable the Hyper-V Manager.
After that's done, you can create a new virtual machine and install any Windows version in it.
If you don't have a spare Windows license lying around, you can register for and download the Windows 8.1 Enterprise Evaluation, which is good for 90 days.
2: Take advantage of system image backups
If you're familiar with Windows 7, you know all about its image-based backup tool, which allows you to save a snapshot of a system you can restore by booting into the Windows Repair Environment. This option is especially useful when you're doing informal IT work for friends and family members, where your corporate deployment tools aren't available. Having that image backup available makes it possible to restore Windows quickly and easily if a virus or hardware failure renders the system unbootable.
In Windows 8, this option is so well hidden as to be nearly invisible. But it's still there if you know where to look. In the desktop Control Panel, search for File History (it's in the System And Security category). You'll find the System Image Backup shortcut in the lower-left corner of that dialog box, as shown in Figure B.
You can back up a system to an external hard drive, to optical media such as DVD, or to a network. Keep the backup nearby and you can quickly recover from any disaster.
3: Use Ninite to install popular desktop programs
Installing desktop software on a newly deployed Windows PC can be a pain. Not only do you have to find and download the programs you're looking for, but you also have to avoid the minefield of unwanted software that sometimes tags along with free programs.
To simplify the process, use the free Ninite service to install the latest version of more than 90 popular programs, in the background, all without any browser toolbars or other "unwanted junk." To manage those installations and keep them up to date on a corporate network, use the Ninite Pro service, which starts at $20 a month for up to 100 seats. With a Pro subscription, you can use the Ninite One app, which is a Windows desktop program (Figure C), instead of a Web page.
For informal "friends and family" IT assignments, consider the $10 per year Ninite Updater service, which helps you make sure those desktop programs are kept up to date without annoying prompts or unwanted add-ons.
4: Install a fingerprint reader for quick logons
Having a strong password is an essential step to securing your workstation. It's also a hassle when it comes to unlocking your PC or signing in to your corporate account. One way to remove some of the annoyance factor without compromising security is to add a fingerprint reader that lets you sign in without having to type a long, complex password.
Windows 8.1 has built-in support for fingerprint readers. The classic models, which use a swipe gesture to authenticate based on a stored fingerprint, are available at very low cost (I'm using this model, which cost less than $25 from Amazon). New biometric technologies that let you hold a finger against a reader without swiping it are due this year.
You'll find the fingerprint sign-in options in PC Settings, under the Accounts heading, as shown in Figure D.
Note that you can assign different fingerprints to different accounts, making it possible to switch between accounts quickly with just a swipe or a tap. Best of all, you can sign in using a standard account and use your fingerprint to authenticate whenever you get a UAC dialog box. If you had to enter a complex password for each of those prompts, you'd probably go quietly mad. But with biometric authentication, those speed bumps aren't annoying at all.
5: Expand available storage securely
Many portable devices that run Windows 8.1 (including all of Microsoft's Surface and Surface Pro tablets) include a MicroSD slot. These tiny storage cards can hold up to 128 GB of data and can greatly expand your storage options. But don't just throw in a card and start copying data to it. Instead, make sure you follow these three rules:
- Format the card using NTFS. The default disk format for a MicroSD card is ExFAT, which is compatible with a wide range of devices and platforms. I recommend that you reformat it using NTFS if you plan to dedicate it for use in a Windows 8.1 device. You'll be able to store files with all their attributes on an NTFS volume, and NTFS Is required if you want to relocate offline files from OneDrive storage.
- Secure the card's contents. If you plan to store work files here, turn on BitLocker To Go (this feature is available on drives formatted with ExFAT or NTFS) and set the drive to unlock automatically after you successfully enter your Windows password (Figure E). For instructions, see this article. (Note that you must enable BitLocker To Go on a system running Windows 8.1 Pro, but you can use the encrypted card on a device running any Windows edition, including Windows RT.)
- Relocate system folders. From File Explorer, open This PC and right-click any of the six system folders. Then click the Location tab and specify a location on the MicroSD card to move your files from the main disk to the newly installed MicroSD card. You can also do this with the Location tab for OneDrive, as shown in Figure F, allowing you to keep a secure local copy of important files stored in the cloud.
6: Link your domain account to a Microsoft account
On your business network, you probably sign in to an account on a Windows domain. But you need a Microsoft account to download apps from the Windows Store or to synchronize settings with other devices you own.
The solution is to link your domain account to a Microsoft account. Some people understandably resist this step because of the reasonable concern that mixing personal and business accounts can lead to accidents — sending a personal message to a business list, for example, or saving a confidential work document in a personal folder.
To avoid those concerns, create a new Microsoft account, separate from the one you use for personal activities (Figure G). You can even use an email alias from your business domain as your login name. Use this second Microsoft account strictly for tasks related to keeping your accounts in sync.
With this setup, you can use OneDrive (formerly called SkyDrive) storage assigned to that account as much or as little as you want. Even if you choose not to store any files or photos, you can store BitLocker recovery keys in this OneDrive account in case you forget the password for a fixed or removable drive. You can also consider creating a OneNote notebook for storing serial numbers, product keys, download links, support tickets, and other information you'll need when setting up a new device for the first time.