8 tips for businesses thinking of switching to Windows 8.1

Windows XP extended support officially ends on 8 April 2014. Undoubtedly, many businesses are busy evaluating their systems' upgrade paths. A survey from Spiceworks (sponsored by CDW) from December 2013 reveals that 76 per cent of IT professionals currently run Windows XP on some devices, and that 36 per cent will leave Windows XP on at least one device, despite the operating system's forthcoming lack of support.

That's a lot of systems needing upgrades. The survey also shows that most of these systems will likely be upgraded to Windows 7. "Of those IT professionals who still run Windows XP on company desktops and/or laptops, 49 per cent plan to upgrade at least some of their devices to Windows 7, while seven per cent of IT professionals plan to upgrade to Windows 8 or 8.1."

The Windows 8/8.1 figure sounds tiny, but only if you don't know how surprise-averse IT managers can be when it comes to upgrades. They want to know what they can expect from a newly rolled-out operating system. Windows 7 has been around long enough to be a fully mature OS with few nasty security surprises for IT. Add to that the fact that there has been a lot of bad press about Windows 8, and it's little wonder IT professionals are skittish about moving to Windows 8 and 8.1.

IT pros should not, however, be so quick to dismiss an upgrade to the most modern, device agnostic Windows OS yet. There are many new business features and security options in the latest iteration of Windows. Couple that with the capabilities in the Windows Server 2012 R2 portfolio, and an upgrade to the latest OS may make sense.

Of course, upgrade possibilities vary depending on the hardware a business already has deployed. In some cases, you may have to go to Windows 7 before Windows 8 and 8.1, or you may just want to opt for new hardware. In all likelihood, businesses will end up with a mixture of Windows 7 and Windows 8 clients, perhaps migrating XP desktops to Windows 7 and assigning Windows 8.1 mobile devices to end users. A good reference table is available on TechNet outlining the possible upgrade paths to Windows 8.1.

IT pros should take a look at this rundown of some key business features of Windows 8.1 and consider whether the new features make a case (along with budget, manpower, and a host of other factors IT weighs before deciding on upgrades) for bypassing Windows 7 and going straight to Windows 8.1.

1. Boot to Desktop

Users asked for and received the ability to tell their systems to boot directly to the desktop again, bypassing the tile interface previously known as Metro. Microsoft has made Boot to Desktop available in all editions of Windows 8.1. For business users, IT Pros can use Group Policy to push this feature out to Windows 8.1 clients on corporate networks.

Currently, there is no explicit Group Policy setting for Boot to Desktop. However, this TechNet blog post shows how you can create a new registry item in GP under User Configuration > Windows Settings with the following parameters:

Key: HKEY_Current_User\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\StartPage\

Value: OpenAtLogon

Value Type: Reg_DWORD

Value Data: "0" Boots to the Desktop

Value Data: "1" Boots to the Start Screen

2. Power Command Menu

From a Windows 8.1 client, power users and IT can bring up a Power Command Menu by pressing Windows Key+X. This menu contains handy administration tools, such as Admin-level Command Prompt, Device Manager, Disk Management, and more.

3. Start Screen Layout

Start Screen Layout is a Windows 8.1 Enterprise feature that lets IT create an image of the start screen and push it out to users' accounts. Users then have a consistent screen layout no matter which device they use. From Microsoft's TechNet: "You can use a Group Policy Object (GPO) to deploy a customised Start screen layout to users in a domain. No reimaging is required, and the Start screen layout can be updated simply by overwriting the .xml file that contains the layout."

A Start Screen Layout template is in Group Policy under User Configuration > Administrative Templates > Start Menu and Taskbar. Also, you can use the new Export-StartLayout cmdlet in Windows PowerShell to export a description of the current Start screen layout in .xml or .bin file format.

4. Easy network access with new ribbon

Many IT pros and power users will appreciate the new ribbon in Windows Explorer. In particular, the "Add Network Location" allows you to add an Internet or Intranet URL, network path, FTP site or other network location to Explorer. You can then send this location via email or in a document. The new ribbon also has icons for quickly mapping drives and opening the Control Panel. There's even a wizard that takes you through the process of creating the mapped drive.

5. List desktop apps first

Power and business users typically have custom, line-of-business apps installed. A new handy feature allows them to list all desktop apps first in the Start screen and then the modern, tablet-oriented Windows apps. This lets you quickly access business and third-party apps. You can enable this feature by going to the Navigation tab in the Taskbar and Navigations Properties window. Of course, you can simply set up the Start screen to show important desktop apps first manually, or via the Group Policy Start Screen layout tip above.

6. Work Folders

Work Folders is a feature that lets users sync corporate data across Windows 8.1 and RT 8.1 devices (there are plans to add Windows 7 and iPad support in the near future). The feature requires the Work Folders service to be deployed on a Windows Sever 2012 R2 file server. Work Folders is a good option for companies with sensitive data on the corporate network, as folders can be encrypted and published using SSL certificates. Users can be sure they have the same up-to-date data whether they are on a desktop or Windows 8.1 mobile device. If you want to create a quick test setup for Work Folders, read this excellent TechNet how-to which guides you in creating a test deployment using virtual machines.

7. NFC tap-to-print

Even in our digital world, there are times when people in the office just need to print. It can get annoying for IT to run around connecting users to the nearest available printer, especially when they're increasingly bringing their personal mobile devices to the office. NFC tap-to-print allows a user to tap a Windows 8.1 device to an NFC enabled printer, connect to the printer, and then print. No configuration is required from IT – except, of course, the initial setup. There are some printers on the market with NFC already built-in, such as the Brother MFC-J870DW for example.

However, IT can create NFC tags for existing non-NFC printers using Windows Server 2012 R2 or a Windows 8.1 client connected to the same network as the printer to be enabled with NFC. The process is detailed in this TechNet article on printing services in Windows 8.1.

8. Workplace Join

With Windows 8, devices were either joined to a domain or not. With Windows 8.1, IT can set up user devices for a middle ground. A user's personal device can access specific corporate resources using the Workplace Join feature. Workplace Join requires Windows Server 2012 R2 Active Directory, AD FS, and web server. However, on the client side, all a user needs to do is enter his or her user ID or click the "Join" button under PC Settings > Network > Workplace.