Windows 8 tips and tricks

You may need to break old habits to get the most out of Windows 8, but it doesn't have to be a cataclysmic event.

Making the most of Windows 8: The diehard's guide

If there's one consistent element to all the talk about Windows 8, it's about what's missing: the Start menu, the Aero transparencies, the many details people take for granted that make Windows, well, Windows. It's little wonder, then, that many folks are seriously considering skipping Windows 8 altogether.

But what if you can't? Or what if you've decided to take the Windows 8 plunge and want to know not just how to get by but how to thrive in this brave new Windows world? Here we discuss how to do just that: How a legacy Windows user, with existing hardware, can make the best of Windows 8, focusing on the most immediate and pressing changes that will impact your moment-to-moment Windows use.

Coping with Windows 8 Start: Taskbar pinning

The legacy Start menu is gone for keeps. In its place is the full-page Metro-powered Start screen. Because the new Start menu takes up the whole screen, it's bound to be jarring. One way to get around this is to move the Start screen to a secondary monitor; another way is to use the taskbar that much more. Apps can be pinned to the taskbar and accessed with a single click, just as in Windows 7. Right-click on legacy Windows items on the Metro Start screen to pin them to the taskbar as a way to avoid having to traverse the Start screen to launch them. The taskbar should have enough space on most systems for several commonly used applications. (Click to enlarge.)

Coping with Windows 8 Start: Type-to-search

It may look like it has vanished, but type-to-search remains another useful way to avoid getting hung up on the Windows 8 Start screen. Type-to-search behaves roughly the same way as it does in Windows Vista and Windows 7: Begin typing, and you see results. (You do need a physical keyboard, so this technique won't work on a tablet with just an onscreen keyboard. Instead, open the Search charm by swiping from the right edge of the screen.) Note that the context of the search is determined by the highlighted item directly below the search box. (Click to enlarge.)

Coping with Windows 8 Start: Type-to-search

A major difference with Windows 8 is that results from type-to-search are visible only one category at a time, instead of showing the first three choices from each category, as is the case with Vista and Windows 7. In Windows 8, categories are listed beneath the search box. Just use the arrow keys or mouse to navigate between categories to reveal relevant results. Triggering a search from within a Metro app by pressing Win-Q will automatically have the current app used as the context for the search. (Click to enlarge.)

Coping with Windows 8 Start: Third-party options

Another way to keep from getting hung up on the new Start screen is to use a third-party program to re-create the behavior of the legacy Start menu. Stardock, makers of a number of desktop-enhancement utilities for Windows, has released Start8, an application that moves the Start menu back onto the legacy desktop and makes it behave more like the old Start menu. It even re-creates the original Start button on the taskbar. And now that Stardock has succeeded in working around Microsoft's latest attempt to block Start menu alternatives, expect other options to arise soon. (Click to enlarge.)

Coping with Windows 8 Start: PortableApps

To circumvent the Windows 8 Start screen, you can always go with the likes of PortableApps to access popular apps from a menu on the legacy desktop. PortableApps offers a curated collection of free and open-source apps that run in a self-contained way, without touching the Registry or other system settings. It might prove a useful way to organize and update many apps you might already work with, such as Skype, Chrome and Firefox.

Navigating Windows 8 without touch

If your system lacks touch, you will need to use your mouse to emulate touch commands. Problem is, the mouse isn't really a one-for-one substitute: Flicking, for example, is impossible to execute with a mouse. Mouse movements are also used to expose functionality like the app switcher or charms bar, by flicking the cursor to a corner of the screen -- all the more difficult when using multiple monitors. Windows 8 offers new keyboard shortcuts to access features and settings, but utilities with Win-key combinations will likely override these shortcuts or make them behave strangely. Press Win-C to open the charms bar no matter what system context you're in (pictured). The resulting menu can be browsed using the arrow keys. (Click to enlarge.)

Metro apps: Best for consumption

Metro's interface isn't its only facet. The way apps work under Metro is also significant -- so much so that Microsoft engineered an app-development platform and design language around it, WinRT. The Metro model works best for apps geared toward information consumption -- what some have called "lean-back mode" -- or where interaction is reduced to a few simple gestures. A Metro video playback app is going to be more useful than, say, a Metro-based text editor. On the other hand, a Metro Twitter client might be a good compromise; you'd still need to type, but not as much. Not surprisingly, most Metro apps thus far are content consumption apps or apps designed for simple interactivity, such as games. (Click to enlarge.)

Knowing when to go Metro

You're best off not trying to replace existing desktop apps with Metro apps, except for ones primarily designed for consumption. Don't expect every single app to turn up in a Metro incarnation -- at least not until Windows users are comfortable enough with Metro to attempt working with more sophisticated apps. One example of a good replacement app would be the Metro Kindle app. It's slightly easier to deal with via a touchscreen device than the legacy/desktop Kindle app, and its power consumption optimization will stand you in better stead if you're taking your Windows 8 machine with you. (Click to enlarge.)

Mitigating the misery of multiple monitors

Windows 8 doesn't handle multiple monitors well. The big obstacle is Metro, which runs on only one display at a time, by default the primary display. There's no way to span Metro across more than one screen. You can move Metro apps between displays by moving the Metro desktop itself. If you have Metro visible, press Win-PgUp or Win-PgDn to move it between displays. You can accomplish the same effect by clicking near the top of the Metro desktop when an app is open (the cursor turns into a hand) and dragging the app between screens. (Note: The margin at the bottom of the left-hand desktop is due to the difference in the size of the two displays). (Click to enlarge.)

Mitigating the misery of multiple monitors

If you have the legacy desktop across two screens, icons in the taskbar are duplicated across both screens. This can be confusing: For example, if you go to screen 2 and click on an icon for an app minimized on screen 1, it restores on screen 1, not 2. Charms work on all monitors, but finding them can be tricky. With a single monitor, you can flick the mouse to the right edge of the screen and the charms bar will appear automatically. If the right edge leads into the left edge of another monitor, you'll need to slow down and feel around for the charms bar to appear. On the plus side, wallpapers can now span multiple monitors. (Click to enlarge.)

Managing windows in Metro mode

Metro is only meant to run one app at a time, which stands in stark contrast to most users' typical way of working on Windows, with multiple windows open side by side or on top of each other. To ameliorate this shortcoming, you can "snap" a Metro app to run in the margins of the screen, while another Metro app -- or the legacy desktop -- runs in the remaining space. The screenshot at left shows the Metro Weather app snapped to the right side of the display and running side by side with the legacy desktop. The draggable bar lets you reposition the snap to the other side of the screen or close it entirely. (Click to enlarge.)

Snapping the desktop into a sidebar

The desktop can also be snapped into a sidebar with Metro apps, as shown at left. (Click to enlarge.)

Snapping limitations

Snapping apps isn't a cure-all for the one-app-at-a-time restriction. For one, snapping only works if your display resolution is higher than 1,366 by 768; it simply doesn't work with anything smaller. Also, not all apps run properly when snapped into a narrow amount of screen space. For instance, when snapped, the Metro app store only shows the store icon against a green background, not the store itself. (Click to enlarge.)

What the new-look Aero gives back

Much has been made about the scaling back of Aero, both for aesthetics and power consumption on portable devices. The Aero subsystem, which was introduced with Windows Vista, hasn't been completely removed; the underlying window-compositing functionality remains. But some of the fancier effects, like rounded corners and blurred glass effects, are dialed down or absent completely. The Release Preview of Windows 8 offered an Enable Transparency option in the Personalization control panel's Window Color and Appearance pane, but it has been removed in the final RTM code. Turning off transparency reduces battery consumption, offers visual consistency between the classic desktop and Metro, and translates to fewer UI elements to keep track of and render properly, making your system that much more responsive.

Browsing the Web on Windows 8

Windows 8 ships with Internet Explorer 10, albeit in two editions: desktop and Metro. The differences are more than cosmetic; they're incarnations of Microsoft's philosophy of how Web browsers should behave in Windows from now on. When the first test releases of Windows 8 became public, the Metro version of IE 10 (the default version bundled with Win8) didn't support Flash. Microsoft has backtracked slightly by using a workaround familiar to users of Chrome. Flash's functionality is now baked directly into Metro IE, rather than included as an add-on. Windows 8 users who work with IE can stick with the desktop version for the full gamut of functionality, but can still load a page in the Metro version without worrying about losing Flash.

Browsing the Web on Windows 8

Things get sticky if you want to use a browser other than IE in Metro. Microsoft has restrictions about Metro apps that perform Web browsing. By default, those apps are encouraged to use the IE engine to keep performance and security consistent. An app that is primarily a legacy-desktop app can implement a Metro "facet" for that app, as long as the app in question is installed as the system default browser. Google Chrome supports this behavior, although the Metro edition of Chrome is little more than the desktop version running full-screen. Expect future editions of Chrome to have closer Metro integration. Firefox users will have to wait, as Mozilla is planning a full Metro-themed UX overhaul. Opera is rumored to be doing something similar.

Stripped-down Task Manager

Don't panic if you fire up Task Manager and see what looks like a nearly empty window. By default the program just lists what apps (desktop and Metro) are open and running, and lets you perform the most basic operations on them: switch between them, kill them, bring them to the fore and so on. Click More Details at the bottom of the window if you want to see the more full-blown version of Task Manager we all know.

Task Manager: An eye on consumption

Another Task Manager change, more potentially useful, is that the App History tab in the expanded view of Task Manager lists Network and Metered network columns. If your Windows 8 device has both conventional broadband and cellular connectivity, those two columns let you see at a glance which types of network media are being consumed. This comes in handy if you have a Windows 8 device with a data plan and want to keep an eye on it.