Finding Your Way Around Windows 8

Windows 8 is coming, but the sky isn’t falling in spite of much of the coverage of the release. You’ve read articles describing how terrible it is. You’ve listened to tech writers describing it as the disaster that will kill Microsoft. You’ve heard that no company will adopt it and everyone will either move to another platform or stay on Windows 7 forever instead of enduring Windows 8.

Of course all this has been written about every recent version of Windows. Those same tech departments that refuse to give up Windows XP today once said they’d never go to Windows XP. The people saying they’ll never leave Windows 7, once said they’d never install Windows 7. Every version of Windows brings changes that range from minor to extensive.

I’ve been running Windows 8 as my primary work machine for over a month now and can safely say that it’s not as big a chance as you might think. Windows 8 is the biggest change to the appearance of Windows since Windows 95 replaced Windows 3.1. The world of the PC is changing influenced by the popularity of tablets from Apple and running Android and Windows 8 is Microsoft’s response to make the PC more like those environments.

The same features that many tout as making Windows 8 less usable are the same as those touted as making tablets so easy a child can use them.

Underneath that new appearance Windows 8 is still Windows. So beyond the fear, uncertainty, and doubt of Windows 8, what does the normal user need to know? Here we’ll look at a few tips to make the change easier and help you find the things in Windows that moved.

The Start Screen

The Windows 8 Start Screen

The new start screen replaces the start menu. Notice the live information displayed on many of the icons.

The start button is gone and isn’t coming back. Accept that and you’ll find many of the fears go away once you embrace the new start screen. The start screen works with a mouse, a touch pad, a touch screen, or any other input methods. Everything that was formerly in your start menu is now on the start screen. Instead of a set of folders each containing icons, all your icons are now on one screen. Icons are no longer limited to static pictures, but can display information such as the current weather, stock information, email and other examples you can see in the screen shot above.

Typing to Quickly Find an Installed Program

Typing ‘apps’ quickly brings up the matching installed program.

So how do you find your programs quickly? You can arrange the icons in order you like by dragging them around. Instead of folders you can make columns to group similarly themed icons and links. Or to find something quickly just start typing the name of the program. The list will filter down to the ones that match what you type. In a few keystrokes you’ll likely have just the program you want. And if you open the screen by accident and want to go back to the desktop, hit the Esc key.

The App Store and Design Formerly Known as Metro

Windows 8 brings an app store similar to the ones you might be familiar with from your phone or tablet. Most of these apps use the new style formerly known as Metro and now called Microsoft Design Style. Much has been made of the new app store and new apps that implement this style. On tablets running the reduced Windows RT, you can only run programs from the app store. But in the full version of Windows 8, programs in the app store are an option, but not the only programs that run. Your standard PC running Windows 8 will still your other Windows applications from Office to Photoshop to Diablo III.

Compatibility so far has been good as I’ve only found one program for Windows 7 that would not run under Windows 8 natively. After the install failed, Windows 8 asked if I wanted to install using compatibility mode and it then installed and runs with no errors or problems.

The Windows 8 Desktop

The Windows 8 Desktop

The start screen includes an icon to show the desktop. You can also always get back to the desktop by pressing Windows Key + D. This is the standard Windows desktop you knew from earlier versions of Windows. You’ll see the taskbar, any icons you pin to the taskbar, and the status tray along with the icons there. Everything is there except the start button. Your old programs will run on this desktop just fine. In my time with Windows 8 I spend most of it still seeing this familiar interface.

Settings and Devices

Charms Menu

The Charms Menu that provides access to the Devices and Settings along with new Windows 8 options for search and sharing.

One of the things power users will think have vanished are the familiar settings to customize and modify Windows and devices attached to it. Where do you select wireless networks, power down the computer, manage attached devices, and similar tasks?

All are now in the charms menu on the desktop. You can get to the menu by either swiping in from the right side of the screen if using a touch pad or touch screen or move your mouse into the top right or bottom right corner. After a moment the menu will slide into view.
Your attached devices can be access by clicking the next to last icon and Settings from the bottom icon. To quickly access either you can press the Windows Key + K for Devices menu and press the Windows Key + I for Settings.

Under Devices you’ll see you printers and other attached peripherals you would have found under Devices and Printers in Windows 7. Under settings you’ll see links to the Control Panel icons from earlier versions of Windows and Personalization options to customize the look of your PC. You’ll also see icons to select a wireless network, change the sound volume, change the brightness of your display, along with Power, keyboard, and the ability to temporarily hide notifications.


The Ctrl-Alt-Delete Screen in Windows 8

The Ctrl-Alt-Delete Screen in Windows 8. The icon in the bottom right corner allows access to the restart, sleep, and shutdown power options in addition to logging out and locking the computer.

I admit this one took me a while to find. When you want to restart or shut down your Windows 8 computer you can press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and you’ll see power options in the bottom right corner of the screen. You can also bring up the Settings panel as noted above and get the same options from the Power icon there. Either way will give you the familiar options to sleep, restart, or shut down.

Learn to Use the Keyboard

If you don’t have a touch screen or touch pad, as most of us do not yet, use keyboard shortcuts to save time. I’ve noted key commands for some of the options that I’ve discussed because that’s the fastest way to do many of these actions. A good list of these shortcuts can be found on the MSDN blog.


Windows 8 brings a lot of change to Windows. The changes are largely visual and beneath the new visuals Windows is much the same as before. It does take a few days to get used to the changes, but I found after two or three days the new habits started to become part of my normal routine. I still occasionally have to think of how to do something in Windows 8, but now usually don’t have to think very long. The changes are mostly logical and work.

I’m note sure most users will see a compelling need to upgrade. Unless you’re an advanced user or want to take advantage of the new features, you’ll likely use Windows 8 first on the next computer you buy. When you do I think after a short adjustment, you’ll see Windows 8 works just fine.