How to use the Microsoft Surface touch screen and keyboard

Swipe your way to apps and settings on Microsoft's Windows RT tablet, or use Windows key shortcuts and other keystroke combinations to zip to nearly any program or setting.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Watch this: Getting around on the Microsoft Surface

The Microsoft Surface is more computer than tablet. If you favor keyboards, that's a good thing. But the Surface has a lot to offer touch screen fans as well.

Like a tablet, you tap and slide your fingers on the Surface touch screen to open apps and access settings. Like a PC, you can enter keystroke shortcuts on the Surface Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboards to reach those same programs and system options.

Get the best of both the tablet and computer worlds by using these handy screen gestures and keystroke combinations for the Surface. (Note that the tips were tested on a Windows RT Surface but should also work on a Windows 8 Pro tablet.)

Slide sideways to reveal open apps and 'charms'
The Windows RT Start screen will look familiar to any smartphone user. Some of the squares and rectangles representing programs and other resources are "live," showing news headlines, weather, and other information. Rearrange the squares by pressing, holding, and sliding to the desired location.

To view options for the shortcut, drag it toward the bottom of the screen and release to view options for unpinning the item, uninstalling it, changing the shortcut's size, and deactivating the tile. In the right corner of the bottom strip is a shortcut that opens all your apps.

Microsoft Surface Start screen options
Drag a tile to the bottom of the Surface Start screen to view options for unpinning, uninstalling, resizing, and deactivating the tile. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Swipe up from the bottom of the screen or down from the top to access the shortcut to all your apps, which include the "preview" versions of Office 2013 Home and Student. Also listed among your programs are Paint, Notepad, Calculator, the Snipping Tool, and other Windows accessories. Among the system and accessibility apps are the Command Prompt, Task Manager, Windows Defender, Control Panel, and the renamed "File Explorer."

Five "charms" appear when you swipe from the screen's right edge inward: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. In the bottom-left corner of the window is a box with the time and date along with icons indicating network reception and battery life. These and other screen elements can be changed via the Personalize options: choose the Settings charm, press "Change PC settings," and select Personalize.

Swiping from the left edge inward cycles through your open programs, or swipe back and forth to view shortcuts to all your open apps. Open two programs side by side by dragging one near the middle of the screen and releasing. Then drag the divider to resize each of the two program windows.

Microsoft Surface side-by-side programs
Resize two apps open side by side by dragging the divider on the Surface screen. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Note that the options available vary from program to program. For example, for Word 2013, options for opening a new window, opening a file location, and running as administrator are included along with the unpin and uninstall buttons.

The Microsoft Surface Support site provides a full description of the ways you can interact with the device's touch screen.

Open programs and files via keyboard shortcuts
The Surface Touch Cover and Type Cover attachable keyboards are a step up from the onscreen keyboards of the iPad and other tablets. Without a doubt the key I miss the most when I'm using a tablet is the Windows key. On the Surface, you can search for a program, setting, or file by pressing the Windows key and typing its name.

Your Windows key may get quite a workout on the Surface. For example, instead of swiping the right edge of the screen to open the charms sidebar, press the Windows key plus C. To open the charms themselves, press the Windows key plus F for search, H for share, I for settings, and K for devices.

It's easy to cycle through your open apps by swiping the left edge of the screen, but you can do the same by pressing the Windows key plus Tab. Press the Windows key plus Ctrl plus Tab to snap each program as they cycle. To lock the screen orientation in portrait or landscape, press the Windows key plus O. To see the commands available in the current app, press the Windows key plus Z.

Some Windows key chestnuts still work on the Surface: Windows key plus E opens File Explorer to the Computer folder; Windows key plus up arrow maximizes the current window; Windows key plus down arrow minimizes the window; Windows key plus left arrow maximizes the window to the left half of the screen; and Windows key plus right arrow does likewise on the right half of the screen.

Touch screens let you zoom in by stretching the screen with two or more fingers and zoom out by pinching the screen with your fingers. Press Ctrl and the plus (+) and minus (-) keys to zoom in and out from the keyboard. The Surface keyboards feature a touch pad and left- and right-mouse buttons, so you can select an item and press the right-click button to open its context menu.

A substitute for the missing Print Screen key
Another key that gets a lot of work on my keyboards is Print Screen, but the abbreviated Touch Cover keyboard that attaches to the Surface lacks that key. You can duplicate the Function keys -- such as F1 for help and F3 for search -- by pressing the Fn key plus the buttons along the top row starting with the four media keys and stretching to the PgUp and PgDn keys (not Esc on the far left or Del on the far right).

The workaround for the dropped Print Screen key is to press the volume-down key on the left side of the Surface while simultaneously pressing the device's home button, which sports the streamlined Windows icon. It required a few attempts to get the timing right to capture a screen rather than return to the Start screen and lower the volume. The screen dims for a split second to indicate that the image was captured.

By default, the image is stored as a PNG file in your Pictures folder and named "Screenshot (1)." Your second capture is named "Screenshot (2)" and creates a Screenshots folder inside Pictures for your captured images.