How to use Windows 8's new interface
As the official launch of Windows 8 looms, and with the Release Preview now out in the wild, here's our guide to using the new Metro UI.
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Using the old faithful keyboard and mouse combination can be a little disorientating with Microsoft's latest operating system. So if you're taking your first steps with Windows 8, this guide will help you get up to speed with the Metro UI and how it works.
Metro is the Start menu
You may have read that Windows 8 does away with the Start menu (you may also have seen some hacks for getting it back), but the Metro interface actually is the Start menu in the new operating system. It's referred to as 'Start' and not 'Metro' within Windows 8.
The familiar desktop environment is launched as an app from within Metro. You can return to the tiled grid of programs and shortcuts by hovering the mouse down in the lower-left corner of the screen (where the Start orb used to be). Left-click switches to the Metro Start page and right-click brings up a quick list of Control Panel and Windows shortcuts.
Once you get into Metro itself, scroll left and right using the scroll wheel on your mouse, or use the scroll bar at the bottom. You can return to the desktop by hitting Esc or clicking in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.
As with the existing Start menu, applications and other shortcuts can be 'pinned' to the Metro screen if you think you'll be using them often. Some programs will automatically create their own shortcuts, which again is what already happens in Windows 7. To see all of the applications installed on your system in Metro, right-click on a blank bit of screen and select 'All apps' from the menu that pops up at the bottom.
You'll notice the programs are split into two sections -- touchscreen-friendly ones that run in Metro and those that run in the desktop environment as normal. Right-click on any app and you'll be given the option to pin it to the Start page (or the desktop taskbar in the case of desktop apps). On the the Start page (click in the bottom-left corner), you can right-click on apps to resize or remove them, as well as drag them around using the mouse.
Desktop applications can have shortcuts on the Start page or on the desktop itself, as usual, and you can still pin apps to the taskbar.
Starting and stopping Metro apps
Metro apps run in full-screen mode and have chunky, touchscreen-friendly controls that mimic the Start page itself. If you're running the, you'll notice that almost all the Metro apps have been built by Microsoft, though more third-party offerings will follow in due course.
Metro apps are different beasts to traditional desktop programs. You may even find Metro and desktop versions of the same application, as with Internet Explorer. They are downloaded from and updated through the Windows Store (itself a perfect example of a Metro app). Click on any Metro app to launch it.
As with the Start page, you can move around using the scroll wheel or the scroll bars, and right-click to bring up a menu of options at the bottom, which will vary depending on the program you're running.
When you return to the Start page or the desktop, the app will remain running in the background. If you want to shut it down completely, move the mouse to the top of the screen (where it should turn into a tiny hand), then click and drag down to the bottom. The good old Alt+F4 keyboard shortcut will still do the trick as well.
Switching between apps
To switch between apps in Windows 8, you can use the traditional Alt+Tab keyboard shortcut. All of the running desktop and Metro apps will be listed together with a thumbnail. Alternatively, with the mouse, move the cursor to the top left-hand corner -- click once to switch to the next app in the list, or move the cursor straight down to see thumbnails of all available apps, including a link to the Start page at the bottom. Click on any thumbnail to switch to the app. This second method doesn't list individual desktop programs, simply a link back to the desktop environment.
One trick you can perform with the list of apps available on the left is to split your monitor into two -- a thin window and a wide window. Click and drag any Metro app down into the screen and you'll have the option to pin it to the left or right-hand side. Many Metro apps support this 'mini' mode, including Weather and People, and it's handy to have another app available while you work in the desktop.
Two Metro apps can be run side-by-side, but the feature doesn't work with desktop apps -- with these programs you can use the window snapping tools carried over from Windows 7.
The four corners Windows 8
As you've no doubt already noticed, moving the mouse cursor to the corners of the screen is the way to access most of the screens and shortcuts available in Windows 8. I haven't yet covered the right-hand side of the screen, where the top and bottom corners work in the same way -- move the mouse cursor here and you'll see five shortcuts, or what Microsoft is calling 'charms'.
The same five charms appear whether you're in the Metro or desktop environment, no matter which program you're currently in -- Search, Share, Start (simply a link back to the Metro Start page), Devices and Settings. Hover over any of these shortcuts and an information panel appears on the left displaying the time, date and current Wi-Fi signal strength.
As I'm mainly focusing on using the Metro UI in this guide, I'll only briefly cover these charms. Search does what you would expect and lets you look for apps, settings or files. It can also be used to search inside Metro apps (for a location in Maps, for example, or a contact in People).
This search tool will look for files but runs in a Metro-style interface. To use the traditional search interface, open up Windows Explorer and run a search from there.
Share allows you to quickly post something from a Metro app -- be it a map address or a link -- to your friends and followers on whatever social networks you have plugged into the People application. It's still in the formative stages. As yet, you can't share anything from within the desktop.
The Devices charm lets you send content to another device, such as a second screen, a printer or a media streamer. Again, you can expect to see a much-improved version of this feature in the full Windows 8 release.
Finally, Settings provides access to key configuration screens. If you activate it from within a Metro app, you'll see app-specific options. If you launch it from the desktop, you'll see links to Control Panel, desktop personalisation screens and diagnostic information. Wherever you access the Settings charm, a selection of standard options covering network connections, volume and power are always available.
As the official launch looms, Windows 8 is still a work in progress, even with the Release Preview now out in the wild. If there are any mouse and keyboard shortcuts or tricks that I've missed, do let me know in the comments.