6 tips to make Windows 8 less annoying

While Windows 8 may be a useful OS for mobile devices or touch-screen displays, it's not winning universal raves from desktop and laptop users.

"Who thought having to point your cursor to a random edge of the screen in order to display a basic toolbar would be a good idea?" groused a friend on Facebook recently. "Why does it take 3 steps to just shut down the computer?"

His early impression of Windows 8: "What's the opposite of intuitive?"

Many of the new mouse gestures are particularly irritating if you've got a large desktop display or are trying to use a trackpad.

Fortunately, there are ways to tame the OS for use with keyboard and mouse. After a few weeks on a spanking new PC, here are my top tips for making Windows 8 less annoying.

Think of the Start screen as a glorified Start button; then move on. I'm not sure that's how Microsoft wants you to view it, but I don't need super-large icons when I've got a keyboard, a mouse and a 23-inch non-touch display. I'll glance at my live calendar and weather tiles after bootup to the Start screen, but otherwise I usually head to my Desktop. That's what most power users -- and many intermediate-level users -- I know who are reasonably satisfied with Windows 8 are doing. Many consider the Desktop to be a faster-running version of a largely Windows 7 experience.

Use the Start screen's speedy search: Just start typing. The Start screen does have a lot of functionality of the old Start button, but some of it isn't screamingly obvious. For example, while there are several ways to search your computer with Windows 8, one of the easiest is to simply start typing when you're at the Start screen. No need to open the Charms bar or a search box; simply begin typing (even though no text entry field is visible). Windows 8 answers with a live search that will show matching apps, system settings and files -- not only files with names matching your search term, but all files containing the given phrase.

If you're in the Desktop, you can access search via the Charms bar (move your mouse to the upper right screen corner or hit Windows-C, then click the search icon); or, to specifically search your files, click Windows + f.

Keyboard shortcuts are your friend. You don't need to point your cursor to the upper right corner to open the Charms bar, or move your mouse to the top of the screen and then swipe down to close a Windows 8 app. You can, but there are easy keyboard shortcuts for most tasks. My favorites so far:

  • Windows key (that key near Ctrl and Alt on your keyboard with the Windows logo): Toggles between your last two locations. If, as I do, you regularly go back and forth between Desktop and Start, Windows is an easy way to move between them.
  • Windows key + d: If you're in the Start screen or a Windows 8 app, this sends you to the Desktop. If you're already in the Desktop, it minimizes all your open windows (a second Windows key + d restores all the windows).
  • Windows key + e: Opens file explorer.
  • Windows key + f: Search files
  • Alt+F4: Closes a Windows 8 app (instead of moving your cursor to the top of the screen and swiping down)
  • Windows key + r: Opens the Run dialog. You can type in the name of a program to launch it (not all my applications were recognized, though; "excel" opened Microsoft Excel but "word" didn't find Word).
  • Windows key + x: Gives a text menu with a lot of the old Start button's options, including Task Manager, Control Panel, Search and Run.

If you're a power user, ignore most Windows 8 apps for now and opt for their desktop counterparts. The Windows 8 Mail app doesn't let you create folders or rules. Windows 8 Skype can't let you share screens. Windows 8 Adobe Reader doesn't let you resize a window while doing something else on your system: It's either full screen or narrow sidebar. If you like full-sized, aesthetically pleasing displays, you might find some apps designed for Windows 8 compelling. But if you're used to customizing applications and using advanced features, you'll likely be frustrated by most current Windows 8 app offerings.

There's an easy answer, though: Get the Windows 7 versions that run on the Windows 8 "Desktop," even if that means duplicating functionality of Windows 8 apps. Now that I've got Mozilla Thunderbird back for email, Nitro Reader for PDFs and the Skype Windows 7 app so I can share screens with family and friends, I'm a lot happier than I was with the limited apps that came installed on my PC.

Miss the Start button? Install a replacement. I find the Start screen and keyboard shortcuts fine for my needs, especially combined with my own "All Programs" folder (I create an extra shortcut for every program I install and put each in the folder). However, if you really want that Start button back, there are a number of alternatives. In his excellent Windows 8 Cheat Sheet, Preston Gralla recommends StartFinity Starter Edition or Start8. My husband is quite happy with Win8 StartButton on his laptop, which both restores a Windows 7-like Start and allows you to boot directly into the Desktop. (More details in this PC World write-up).

Requiring multiple keystrokes to shut down your computer is just silly, and Microsoft should fix that in a future release. Meanwhile, though, that's easily rectified by making your own shortcut to the shutdown /s /t 0 command (Laptop magazine has some useful step-by-step instructions). Choose an icon and then pin it to both your Desktop taskbar and Windows 8 Start Screen for easy one-click shutdown. You can make another, similar shortcut for Restart.

Shutdown icon for Windows 8 shortcut

  Create your own Shutdown shortcut.

With these modifications, I'm finding Windows 8 a reasonable desktop experience -- even if it remains a less-than-ideal UI to keep switching between the Start and Desktop look and feel.

Do you have other tips for making Windows 8 more agreeable? I hope you'll share in the comments below.

Want more tips on using Windows 8? Check out the Computerworld Windows 8 Cheat Sheet, including a more detailed list of keyboard shortcuts.

For more Windows 8 news, reviews, blogs and more, see our Windows 8 complete coverage.

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