Windows 8: It's Not Just for Touch Screens

by Joseph Moran

We list 15 tips to help you find your way around Windows 8 using a keyboard and mouse.

Being familiar with a previous version of Windows used to mean that -- new features and interface tweaks notwithstanding -- you’d always know your way around the latest version of the operating system pretty well.

That’s no longer the case with Windows 8, which officially launched on October 26th. Because Windows 8 sports a heavily redesigned user interface, even Windows users of long standing will likely find the new operating system an alien landscape that takes a little (or a lot of) getting used to. It doesn’t help that Windows 8 was designed first and foremost for touch screens.

That’s fine for tablets, but what if you’re one of many people that will be using a conventional desktop or notebook PC that lacks a touch-enabled display? Fear not. We've compiled 15 tips that will help your find your way around Windows 8, and do it using an old-fashioned keyboard and mouse.   

Before we get started, let’s define some terms we’ll use throughout this article:

  • The Start screen is the tile-based, horizontally scrolling, new user interface of Windows 8
  • The Desktop is the familiar pre-Windows 8-style desktop, which is still available behind the scenes in the new OS
  • A Windows 8 app refers to one that’s designed specifically for Windows 8 (and runs full screen only)
  • A conventional Windows program is any Windows software written for an earlier version of Windows  (most of which just work fine under Windows 8)

15 Tips for Navigating Windows 8

Start Screen and Desktop

Tip #1: Easily navigate the Start screen

You don’t necessarily have to fiddle with a mouse cursor over a tiny horizontal scroll bar to scroll the Start screen (or any Windows 8 app). For more precise control, use your mouse’s scroll wheel instead. Many laptop touchpads will likely support scrolling gestures (e.g. swipe left to scroll to the right) as well, though you may need to update them with Windows 8-compatible drivers first.

If you want to zoom out to a birds-eye view of the entire Start screen, click the dash button in the lower-right corner.  

Tip #2: Go to the old-style Desktop

The conventional Windows 7-esque Desktop may not be front-and center in Windows 8, but it’s still there in the background. Get to it from the Start screen by clicking on the Desktop tile (at bottom-left by default) or pressing Windows + D. (Also use this keyboard shortcut to reach the Desktop from within a Windows 8 app.) Hint: if you just want to view the desktop without switching to it, press and hold Windows + <.

Windows 8 navigation tips

Figure 1: Clicking the Desktop tile takes you to a Windows 7-esque desktop.


Tip #3: Quickly return to the Start screen

Jump back to the Start screen from virtually anywhere in Windows 8 by pressing the Windows key or CTRL+ Esc. Another option is to move the mouse to the lower-left corner and click on the Start screen thumbnail that appears.

Tip #4: Organize your Start screen into groups

As you add more apps and programs to Windows 8, the Start screen can become a jumbled mess of tiles You can keep things tidy by organizing your tiles into groups. To create a new group, click and hold a tile, then drag it to the right until you’ve passed the light gray vertical bar that appears.

You add other programs to the new group by dragging and dropping their tiles beneath or adjacent to the first tile. (Notice that groups are vertical columns of tiles rather than tiles within a tile.) To create additional groups, drag tiles to the far-right until you see the gray bar again.

To name your groups, first click the dash button in the Start screen’s lower-right corner to zoom out. Right-click the group you want to name, then click name group -- the name you type will appear above the group. Hint: While you’re zoomed out, you can also rearrange your groups by left-clicking and dragging them to a new location.

Right-click a tile to unpin it from the Start menu, shrink or enlarge it, or turn live info on or off.

Figure 2: Right-click a tile to unpin it from the Start menu, shrink or enlarge it, or turn live info on or off.

Tip #5: Customize Start screen tiles

Right-click on any tile for options to unpin (remove) it from the Start screen, uninstall the underlying app, make a large rectangular tile smaller (and vice versa), or for certain tiles, toggle the live feature on or off. (Live tiles constantly update themselves with new information and images).  You can select several tiles at once if you just want to unpin them.

Windows 8 Apps and Searching

Tip #6: Go back to the last app you were using

Why is it still called Windows when apps now run full-screen? We don’t know, but we do know that moving the mouse to the upper-left corner will pop-up a thumbnail of the last program you used. Click it to jump back to that app, and keep clicking to move further back through your recently used apps. (Note that when you’re using the Desktop, this thumbnail will always take you to the last Windows 8 app you were using.)

small business windows 8 tips

Figure 3: Move the mouse to the upper-left corner and then down slightly to see thumbnails of your running apps.

Tip #7: View and switch between open apps

To see all your open Windows 8 apps, move the mouse to the upper-left corner as described above, then down slightly along the edge of the screen to display a vertical row of your app thumbnails—clicking on a thumbnail switches to that app. Note that you can’t switch directly to a conventional Windows program this way, only to the Desktop. (Another option: hold down the ALT key and press the TAB key to view and cycle through your open apps. With this method, you can switch to a particular conventional Windows program.)

Tip #8: View all installed apps

Right-click an empty part of the Start screen then click All apps to see a complete list of Windows 8-built apps plus any you’ve installed yourself.

Tip #9: Close or access settings of a Windows 8 app

Technically, you should rarely need to close Windows 8 apps (they’ll run unobtrusively behind the scenes), but if you must, use ALT+F4. You can also right-click a program thumbnail and choose Close. To view or change the settings of a Windows 8 app, press Windows + I.

Tip #10: Searching your PC

You won’t find a Windows 7-style search box in Windows 8, but fortunately you don’t really need one. To search from the Start screen, just start typing. Windows 8 will automatically display matching app and program items, and also report how many settings and/or files match your search term so you can see those, too. To directly search for settings or files from the Start screen, press Windows + W or Windows + F, respectively.

Internet Explorer 10

small business Windows 8 tips

Figure 4: Right-click a Web page then click the plus button to open a new tab in Internet Explorer 10.

Tip #11: Open new tab in Internet Explorer 10

Internet Explorer 10 lacks the "New Tab" button of its predecessors, so to open a new tab, right-click somewhere on the Web page and click the + button at top-right (or just press CTRL + T).

Tip #12: Make IE open in the Desktop

If you’re not digging IE’s new look-and-feel, you can force the browser to open the old-fashioned way. Start by opening IE from the Desktop, then click the gear icon (at upper-right), then the Programs tab. Under Opening Internet Explorer, select Always in Internet Explorer on the desktop and check the box labeled Open Internet Explorer tiles on the desktop.


small business Windows 8 tips

Figure 5: Click your name on the Start screen to lock or log off the computer.

Tip #13: Log off, lock, shut down or restart the computer

To lock or log-off (sign out) options, click on your name at upper-right. You can also press CTRL+ALT+DEL to lock, log off, or switch users. And clicking on the power button at lower-left will allow you to shut down or restart. Another way to summon shut down and restart options from the Start screen is by pressing Windows + I and clicking Power.

From the Desktop, press ALT + F4 to get sign out, shut down, restart and switch user options.

Tip #14: Check your Windows password for typos

Not sure if you typed your Windows 8 password correctly? Click and hold the eye icon to view the characters.

Tip #15: Quickly summon administrator-related features

Pressing Windows +X from virtually anywhere in Windows 8 will bring up a menu of more than a dozen old-timey Windows features and settings (things such as Device Manager, Command Prompt, Event Viewer, and Power Options) that will be of interest to administrators and power users.

A final note: a slew of touch-enabled mice and external trackpads are waiting in the wings, which should make getting around Windows 8 a bit easier than with a conventional mouse. Look for their debut along with Windows 8.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Oct 31st 2012
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