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50 Windows 8 tips

Everything you need to know about installing and getting the most out of Microsoft's Windows 8 Release Preview and its Metro interface.

Windows 8 represents the biggest shake-up of Windows' user interface since Microsoft went from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. The new tiled system is known as Metro UI and is an attempt to unify the desktop and touchscreen experience.

If you've ever used a Windows Phone 7 device, you've already seen it in action, albeit in a much smaller form. Given the magnitude of the change, many users may feel trepidatious about making the switch. If that describes you, we've got you covered. This guide lists everything you'll need to know, from getting the Windows 8 Release Preview running (if you're feeling adventurous), to making the most of Metro UI.

Setting up

50 Windows 8 tips: setting up

1. Download the Windows 8 Release Preview installer

Go to this link to download an application that will determine your computer's compatibility with Windows 8. It will then install itself over your current operating system. To go back to your previous installation of Windows, you'll have to restore from back-ups.

2. Download the ISO

If you want to do things the old-fashioned way, you can download the ISO image from here, or let the set-up application (above) download it for you. This way, you can use the ISO to create a bootable DVD or USB drive (using the Windows 7 USB/DVD tool). Remember to set your bios to boot from either your CD/DVD drive or USB flash drive before you use this.

3. System requirements

Microsoft states your computer will need the following specifications. Do note that Metro apps won't work on a screen resolution below 1,024x768 pixels. To snap apps (see below), you need a screen resolution of at least 1,366x768 pixels.

Windows 8 Release Preview works great on the same hardware that powers Windows 7:

  • Processor: 1GHz or faster.
  • RAM: 1GB (32-bit) or 2GB (64-bit).
  • Hard disk space: 16GB (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit).
  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver.

Additional requirements to use certain features:

  • To use touch, you need a tablet or a monitor that supports multi-touch.
  • To access the Windows Store and to download and run apps, you need an active Internet connection and a screen resolution of at least 1,024x768 pixels.
  • Internet access.

4. Completely wipe your system

Assuming you're installing from the ISO, you'll be given an option to completely wipe your operating system and have Windows 8 installed in its place. If you do this, you'll have to make sure you have all your files backed up on an external drive (or a partition), and be ready to re-install all your applications.

5. Keep your files and apps

There is another option on the Windows 8 ISO installer that will install over your current operating system, but it will attempt to keep all of your personal files and do its best to retain all of your applications and settings.

6. Dual boot

If you want to try Windows 8 on your PC and keep your existing Windows 7 set-up, it will take a little extra work but it's completely possible.

Firstly, you'll need to create a partition for Windows 8 to be installed to. In Windows 7, hit your Windows key and type 'partitions', and select the 'Create and format hard drive partitions' application. Assuming you just have a C: drive (not counting your restore partition, which is usually at the start of the disc), you'll need to shrink it down and then create a new partition. It's recommended you use at least 25GB. When you boot from your Windows 8 USB/DVD and start the install, select the empty partition for installation. When you next boot, you'll be given an option for Windows 8 or Windows 7.

7. Use a virtual machine

Virtual machines are simulated computers running as an application on your desktop. If you've downloaded the Windows 8 ISO file, direct your virtual machine manager (see our how-to guide on this) to use it as the machine's optical drive. Then you can follow the install procedure and use Windows 8 without making any changes to your system at all.

8. Change your hard drive

If you're not keen on any of the above options and you're confident replacing parts in your PC or laptop, then try using a spare hard drive. Temporarily exchange it with your current primary hard drive and use the Windows 8 USB/DVD (created from the ISO file) to create a fresh install. This way, all you have to do is re-install your original hard drive to go back to the way things were. Just make sure you use a back-up service like Dropbox or SkyDrive to keep all your personal files up to date.

9. Refresh your PC

If you find that your Windows 8 system isn't as nippy as it was when you first set it up or you're having lots of crashes, don't worry, it's easy to pep things up again. Press Windows+C (for the 'charm' bar), and select 'Settings', then 'Change PC Settings' (you'll find it close to the bottom of the screen). In the 'General' section there's an option to 'Refresh your PC without affecting your files'.

As the name suggests, this procedure won't delete your personal files but it will reset Windows back to its factory conditions. You'll need your Windows 8 USB/DVD at hand for this. Also, apps you've installed from the Metro UI app store will be saved, but any apps you've installed from disc or download will be removed.

10. Reset your PC

If you want to take your system back to an 'as new' state, you'll need this option, which can be found in the same place as the Refresh option.

Here, all personal files, settings and every application will be removed from your system. If your PC has more than one drive, you'll be asked whether you want all or just some drives to be erased. There is even the option for a 'thorough' erasure of data or just a mass deletion of all files.

The former option is good for those selling a PC that once contained sensitive data (and which PC doesn't?). At this point I don't know how thorough the erasure is, but Windows 8 warns it will take several hours.

Metro UI

50 Windows 8 tips: Metro UI

11. Metro and the desktop

For users, the biggest change in Windows 8 is the new Metro UI -- as seen on Windows Phone 7. Since Windows 95, we've all been used to the idea that the 'desktop' was the base on which everything else was presented -- the task bar, the start menu and application windows.

This has all changed. The tiled 'Start screen' is the new base but the desktop is still there as an application in its own right, where users can access non-Metro applications such as Office and Google Chrome, and other essentials like Windows Explorer and the Control Centre.

12. Applications and tiles

Just because Windows 8 has Metro UI and tiles, doesn't mean you can't use your old applications. You can still install apps via CD/DVD or download, but when you launch them, you'll be taken to the Desktop 'application'. However, you can browse the Microsoft app store for new Metro apps for the tiled interface, enabling you to get the best combination of tiles to suit you. The benefit of 'live tiles' is that they're not just a shortcut, they also present information, just like widgets on your phone.

13. Arranging tiles

To rearrange your tiles, simply drag one with your cursor or finger. By right-clicking (or the equivalent touch gesture), you can choose whether to make the tile large or small.

14. Pinning tiles

'Pinning' is the verb used to describe adding a tile to the Start screen. In the application list (Windows+Q), right-click or touch to select an application and then see the context bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. There you'll see options to pin it as a tile or add it to the Desktop taskbar. Note that Desktop applications can both be pinned as a tile or to the taskbar, while Metro apps can only be pinned as tiles.

15. Windows key: the new home button

Now that the Metro tiles of Windows 8 have replaced the desktop as the home screen of Windows, so too has the function of the Windows button changed. Windows 8 doesn't have a start menu so the Windows button will now take you back to the Start screen. Press it again and you'll go back to the last application you were in. If you find the Start screen confusing, think of it as being a full-screen start menu on steroids!

16. Navigating through tiles

When you have more tiles than will fit on your screen, it's easy to move around. On a touchscreen, just swipe to pan across as on any smart phone. You can zoom out too to get a 'high altitude' view of your tiles. Just use a pinching gesture on touchscreens and with a mouse just hold down the Control key and use the scroll wheel.

17. Select multiple tiles

If you want to get rid of multiple tiles at once, you'll need to select them first. With a keyboard and mouse, hold down the Control key and click the desired tiles. On tablets, just perform a long press. Once selected, tiles will be outlined in an accent colour with a tick in their top-right corner. The context bar will let you unpin them or clear the selection.

18. Finding apps, files and settings

Finding whatever you need in Windows 8 is actually very easy. No matter what you need, just start typing from the Start screen. If you're using a tablet, you'll need to tap the Search icon in the charm bar. As you type, Windows 8 will narrow down the matching items in real time and split the results into three categories: Apps, Settings and Files.

You can also right-click -- or swipe from the top or bottom bezel on tablets -- and a context bar will appear with a link to 'All Applications', to show all of your Metro and desktop applications. You can also call this list by pressing Windows+Q.

19. The Metro application history

Windows 8's Metro UI brings in a new way of switching between applications. The app history is a sidebar that appears on the left with previews of all the currently running applications. You can access it via a mouse or trackpad by placing the cursor in the top-left corner and then moving downwards. Touchscreen users just have to swipe in from the left-hand bezel and back. Keyboard users can cycle through the app history by repeatedly pressing Windows+Tab.

20. Switching between apps

Most people know that pressing Alt+Tab switches between applications. Fortunately, this shortcut still works in Windows 8. Also, if you have a touchscreen, just swipe in from the left-hand bezel and you can switch between your running applications. Bear in mind that while Windows+Tab lets you cycle through items in the application history, desktop applications aren't listed. However, using Alt+Tab will cycle through desktop and Metro apps alike.

21. Enable Windows snap

Snap is Windows 8's way of getting around the full-screen nature of Metro applications. With it, you 'snap' an application into a narrow sidebar while allowing another application to occupy most of the screen. Because Metro apps are written in HTML5 and CSS, they will adapt to the narrow space.

You have to have a screen resolution of at least 1,366x768 pixels though. To enable it in the release preview, you'll need to use Regedit -- just type its name from the Start screen. Once there, edit (or create if necessary) a folder called HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ImmersiveShell\AppPositioner. There, set a key called AlwaysEnableLSSnapping equal to 1.

22. How to use Windows snap

If you're using a keyboard and mouse, open the app history and drag your chosen app to either side of the screen. You'll see a dividing bar appear and space open up to accept the application you're dragging. Once in place, the Metro application will rearrange its user interface to suit the narrow bar. You can drag the divider to alternate between which application is in a sidebar. Also, dragging the divider completely to one side of the screen will remove the respective application.

The charm bar

50 Windows 8 tips: Charms bar

23. The charm bar

The charm bar is the key to getting most things done on Windows 8, especially if you're a tablet user. It has five icons: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. If you're a keyboard user press Windows+C to call it up. The third icon, 'Start', always takes you back to the Start screen, just like the Windows key.

24. The Search charm

On the Start screen, using the search charm is the same as just typing in an application or file name, as mentioned above. However, the search charm is context sensitive so it will perform a search of whichever Metro application you're currently in.

25. The Share charm

If you use this while viewing various types of content, you'll be presented with options to send or post via applications that support doing so. By default, such applications are the Mail application and the social 'People' application. Other third-party Metro apps will support this too and will appear in the list of possible sharing methods -- very much like we see on mobile devices.

26. The Devices charm

Here you'll find a list of all connected devices, whether it be a second screen, projector, printer or scanner. Selecting any device will present you with a new sidebar menu containing relevant options and actions for that device.

27. The Settings charm

The Settings charm is context sensitive, which means it will present the settings of whichever Metro app you're currently in. No matter which app you're in though, you'll always find icons in the settings bar to adjust your volume and brightness etc. You'll also always find a link to 'Change PC Settings' to get to the main Metro settings.


50 Windows 8 tips: settings

28. Make sure you keep up to date

In the PC Settings section, you'll find a page for Windows Update. Here you can make sure that automatic updates are turned on. There's a button to force Windows to check for updates manually.

29. Synchronise your settings

One of the worst things about transferring from one PC to another is having to re-apply all of your preferred settings. Given that user accounts can be created on Windows 8 based on your Live ID, you can now save your settings to Microsoft's cloud, ready to be updated on other devices that you use. There are lots of options giving you control over what information you do and don't let out of your PC. For example, you can save your personalisation settings, your passwords, app settings, browser history, favourites and more.

30. Changing your PC settings

Even though the Settings charm is context sensitive, there are always the same options at its base. Normally these allow you to check your network settings, adjust volume, adjust screen brightness, disable notifications, shut down or restart your device and set your keyboard language. Additionally, there's a text link, 'Change PC Settings', that allows you to get into the settings for the Metro UI interface and user accounts etc. This doesn't replace the traditional Control Centre but makes common settings easy to find.

31. Quickly access power-user settings

Right-clicking in the bottom-right corner or pressing Windows+X reveals an old-fashioned grey menu. This almost hidden feature gives access to some very deep features of Windows 8. To name just a few, Network Connections, Power Options, Event View, Device Manager, Disk Management, Command Prompt (as admin) and Task Manager.

32. Personalise your device's appearance

From the 'Change PC Settings' page found via the Settings charm, the first section shown is the 'Personalise' screen. Here you can set your lock screen wallpaper and set which apps will show information on the lock screen. You can also choose from a limited set of colour palettes for your Start screen as well as several background patterns.

33. Link to your Microsoft Live ID

If you created a local account rather than linking to your Live ID when you installed Windows 8, it's not too late to change your mind. If you go to the Users section in the Metro PC Settings (via the Settings charm in any app), you'll find an option to link to your Microsoft Live ID. Next time you log in, you'll see your name and profile picture in the top-right corner of the Start screen.

34. Limit notifications

Various Metro applications can post notifications for you. If you find this distracting, you have two options to limit the amount of interruptions. Firstly, from the Settings charm, you can disable notifications for a certain period of time. Alternatively, go to the PC Settings screen (via the Settings charm again), and you'll find a Notifications section, where you can disable notifications on a per-application basis.

Controlling Windows 8

50 Windows 8 tips: controlling Windows 8

35. Keyboard shortcuts

There's a plethora of shortcuts for virtuoso keyboard users:

  • Accessibility settings: Windows+I.
  • Application history cycling: Windows+Tab.
  • Charm bar: Windows+C.
  • Close current application: Alt+F4.
  • Computer: Windows+E.
  • Devices charm: Windows+K.
  • Lock screen: Windows+L.
  • Navigate and select tiles: Cursor keys and Spacebar.
  • Project to a second screen: Windows+P.
  • Run dialog: Windows+R.
  • Settings search: Windows+W.
  • Share an item: Windows+H.
  • Show Desktop: Windows+(D or M).
  • Switch between running applications: Alt+Tab.
  • System menu: Windows+X.
  • Task bar icon cycling: Windows+T.
  • Task manager: Control+Shift+Esc.

36. Touchscreen gestures

If you plan to use Windows 8 on a tablet or touchscreen laptop, there are a range of gestures to help you get around. For instance, swipe in from the right-hand bezel to call the charm bar and swipe in from the left and back to call up a sidebar with previews of all your running applications. For more touch gestures, follow this link.

37. Mouse and trackpad gestures

There are a number of pointing device gestures:

  • Hover top-left: clickable preview of the next active application.
  • Hover bottom-left: reveals shortcut to the Start screen.
  • Hover top or bottom-right: reveals the charm bar.
  • Hover top-left and move downwards: opens the Application History bar.
  • Hover top-left and drag preview down: initiates Windows Snap with the previewed application.
  • Hover bottom-right and right-click: opens the System menu (same as Windows+X).

Metro Apps

50 Windows 8 tips: Metro apps

38. Mail

The Mail app in Metro supports Hotmail, Microsoft Exchange and Google Mail. There's no mention of POP or IMAP support in the Windows 8 Release Preview, which this guide is based on. In full-screen mode, the application has three columns, depending on your screen resolution. The first shows your mail folders, the second shows the message list and the third shows message content.

In snap mode, Mail reduces to a single column showing a message list. It's much like the Mail application found on Windows Phone 7, which is fine unless you need power-user features, in which case you'll still need to fall back on your desktop web mail or Outlook.

39. People

The People application is your unified address book and social networking hub. There are three main views: People, What's New and Me. The People view is a list of everybody in your address book (which is imported when you set up your mail account), plus your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts.

The People app automatically links the details of people with their social accounts. However, I noted that the release preview of Windows 8 wasn't linking (or giving the option to link) Twitter accounts to respective contacts.

The What's New section gives a combined feed of all the status updates across your social network accounts, allowing you to reply, retweet and like. Finally, the Me page offers an overview of your activity, status updates, social notifications and photo albums (stored on your device and on Facebook and SkyDrive).

40. Messaging

The Messaging app is where the instant messaging action happens. Messaging supports Microsoft Live chat and Facebook chat. To start a chat with somebody, call up the context bar (right-click with a mouse, or swipe from the bottom bezel if you're on a tablet), and click the 'Add' button. This will send you to the People app, where you can filter the list down to those who are currently online.

41. Photos

This is Windows 8's gallery application, which enables you to browse not just photos stored on your device, but on all of your cloud accounts, including SkyDrive, Facebook and Flickr. With this app you can set photos to be the application background, the tile image or the lock screen wallpaper.

42. Internet Explorer 10 for Metro

The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 runs on the same HTML5-compliant engine as its desktop brother in Windows 8. The difference is the user interface. IE10 Metro goes for a much more stripped-down design, which makes things more touch-friendly by getting rid of clutter.

However, if you want to bookmark a site, you're out of luck as IE10 Metro only supports pinning sites as tiles, which won't scale well for a lot of sites. You can, of course, install another desktop browser and set that as a default. If you do this, the IE10 Metro browser tile will become unavailable.

43. SkyDrive

For those who haven't heard of SkyDrive, this is Microsoft's online storage solution. If you install the SkyDrive desktop application, it will synchronise your files, just like Dropbox. The SkyDrive Metro application allows you to browse and manage the files you have stored online as well as download and upload files.

44. Weather

The Weather application's live tile shows you the current weather for your default location. You can also add multiple locations around the world.

45. Maps

The Maps application is a Metro app version of the Bing Maps service. However, in testing the Release Preview version, finding locations for the start and end points of driving directions was nowhere near as reliable as using Bing's mapping website.

46. Xbox Live

This gives integration to your Xbox account. Here you can view the latest releases for Xbox, remotely install game previews to your console and connect with your friends.

47. App Store

This is where you'll add new Metro apps to your Windows 8 system -- the experience is just like browsing the app store on any smart phone.

48. Recommended third-party apps

There are a lot of big name applications already in the Windows 8 App Store. Here's my top 10 suggestions to get you started:

  • Allrecipes
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Cut the Rope
  • Evernote
  • Fruit Ninja
  • Slacker Radio
  • Star Chart
  • StumbleUpon
  • Wikipedia
  • WordPress

49. Uninstalling Metro apps

If you want to uninstall a Metro app, you just have to select it and right-click (or swipe from the top or bottom bezel on tablets) to reveal the context bar, where you'll find an option to uninstall. You can even uninstall the core applications discussed here and reinstall them later from the App Store.

50. Monitor your apps

Not strictly a Metro application, but the Task Manager has had a facelift in Windows 8. In the processes tab, you'll get a colour-coded breakdown of which apps are consuming the most CPU, memory, hard drive access, and network access. The performance tab is much clearer too, with better charts than previous versions of Windows. There's even a start-up tab so you can control which apps are loaded when you log in.

Further reading

Image credit: IntelFreePress