Debunking five Windows 8 myths

You don't need a Start button; use more keyboard shortcuts, not fewer; enable File History; confirm file deletions; and shut down apps quickly. Plus: tweak your Windows 8 laptop's touch pad.

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
6 min read


"What was Microsoft thinking?"

That's the standard reaction of longtime Windows users to their first experience with the latest version of the operating system. No Start button? No way to shut down so-called Windows apps (the ones run from the new Start screen rather than the desktop)? No "are you sure you want to delete" warning?

The best thing about Windows 8 is that the OS gives users more options than ever. You can do with Windows 8 everything you could with previous versions, and then some. The learning curve for Windows 8 isn't as daunting as some experts would have you believe.

The Windows 8 Start screen beats the Start button
Longtime Windows users have become attached to the familiar Start button in the corner of the Windows desktop. The knee-jerk reaction of many Windows 8 newbies is to find a third-party add-on to restore the Start button. (My favorite free add-on for reverting to the old-style Windows interface is Classic Shell.)

In fact, the Start screen is an improvement over the Start button. For one thing, you don't have to click anything: just start typing to find and open a program, file, or setting. (If you're on the desktop, press the Windows key and then start typing.)

Much has been made of the multiple clicks required just to shut down your machine. Several experts suggest adding a shutdown shortcut to the desktop or taskbar. Don't bother.

To shut down from the Start screen, press Windows-I, click Power, and choose "Shut down" (or Sleep or Restart). Even faster, press Windows-D to open the desktop (if necessary), press Alt-F4 (you may need to hold down the Fn key while you do so), and press Enter to shut down. The other options on the shut-down menu are Switch user, Sign out, Sleep, and Restart.

Do anything and everything (almost) from the Windows 8 keyboard
Last week I described how to create a Surface RT keyboard-shortcut cheat sheet you could use as a desktop background. Here's an expanded list of shortcuts for Windows 8:

Windows-C: Open charms
Windows-H: Open Share charm
Windows-I: Open Settings charm
Windows-K: Open Devices charm
Windows-L: Lock device
Windows-M: Minimize all open windows (show the desktop; same as Windows-D)
Windows-Shift-M: Restore all open windows
Windows-O: Lock screen orientation
Windows-F: Search files
Windows-Q: Search apps
Windows-W: Search settings
Windows-E: Open My Computer
Windows-R: Open Run command window
Windows-U: Open Ease of Access Center
Windows-X: Open "power menu" options
Windows-[number]: Open taskbar app (in the order they appear on the taskbar)
Windows-Tab: Cycle through open apps
Windows-Shift-Tab: Cycle through open apps in reverse order
Windows-up arrow: Maximize current window
Windows-down arrow: Minimize current window
Windows-left arrow: Maximize program to the left
Windows-right arrow: Maximize program to the right
Alt-F4: Close open program or app
Alt-Esc: Cycle through items in the order they were opened
Alt-Enter: Open Properties of selected item
Alt-left arrow: Back
Alt-right arrow: Forward
Alt-Tab: Switch between open apps
Ctrl-Shift-Esc: Open Task Manager

Windows 8 power menu
The Windows-X keyboard shortcut opens the "power menu" that provides one-key access to Windows system tools. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The one keyboard shortcut you probably don't know but should is Windows-X, which opens the power menu from which you can access more than a dozen Windows system apps by pressing the underlined key in its name.

Keyboard shortcuts let you keep your hands on the keys and off the mouse, which some experts claim makes you more productivity. Of course, other experts insist the mouse-toolbar-menu interface is faster. For me, it's a matter of ergonomics: mousing makes my wrists ache. In any event, it's great to have options.

Enable File History
If you use a Windows Live ID to sign into Windows, you can use Windows 8's File History to back up files automatically to your SkyDrive account (or to an external storage device or any other folder). To activate this handy feature, press the Windows key (if you're on the desktop), type "control panel" (without the quotes), and click File History.

If an external drive is connected to the machine, it will be listed in the File History window. To choose another location for your file backup, click "Select drive" on the left, choose "Add network location," browse to and select a SkyDrive folder or other network location, and click Select Folder.

Click the Turn On button in the main File History window to begin copying the files in your Libraries (Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos). File History also backs up your Contacts, Favorites, and Desktop folders.

File History limits your customization options. To prevent specific folders from being backed up, click "Exclude folders" on the left, click the Add button, and navigate to and select the folders you don't want File History to copy.

Click "Advanced settings" on the left and use the drop-down menus to change the frequency of backups from the default setting of hourly, adjust the size of the offline cache (the default is 5 percent of available disk space, and the other options are 2 percent, 10 percent, and 20 percent), and set an expiration date for saved files (the default is "Forever").

Windows 8 File History Advanced Settings
Windows 8's File History lets you change the frequency of file backups, the percentage of available disk space to reserve, and the length of time before the files expire. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

For more on using, customizing, and restoring files in File History, see Greg Shulz's post on TechRepublic.

Restore the file-delete confirmation dialog
Topping the list of Windows aggravations for many people is the "Do you really want to delete this file?" warning that pops up when you select a file and press Delete. The warning is gone by default in Windows 8, but not everyone is happy about that.

Previously, you could delete a file without having to click through the warning by right-clicking the Recycle Bin, choosing Properties, and unchecking "Display delete confirmation dialog." (You can delete a file without sending it to the Recycle Bin by pressing Shift when you delete it.)

Those of us who like the "Are you sure?" prompt when deleting files can reactivate the feature by opening the Recycle Bin properties as explained above and checking the "Display delete confirmation dialog" option. Likewise, you can bypass the Recycle Bin altogether by checking the option to "Remove files immediately when deleted."

Windows 8 Recycle Bin properties dialog
Restore the "Do you really want to?" warning when deleting files, or choose the option to bypass the Recycle Bin altogether in the Recycle Bin Properties. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Three ways to close Windows 8 apps
Microsoft insists there's no need to close Windows 8 apps. The operating system automatically shuts down idle apps when system resources need to be conserved. The company also claims its power-saving enhancements in sleep mode mean you never have to turn off your machine.

The fastest way to close an app is to press Alt-F4. Closing apps running on the desktop is the same in Windows 8 as in previous versions of the operating system. You can close non-desktop apps by moving the cursor to the top of the screen until the hand icon appears, then drag the hand to the bottom of the screen until the small program window disappears.

Alternatively, you can close an app by pressing Windows-Tab, right-clicking it, and choosing Close. To close multiple programs quickly, open Task Manager by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Escape, select More Details (if necessary), choose the programs listed under the Processes tab one at a time, right-click the entry, and select End Task.

Bonus tip: Prevent opening the charms inadvertently
Laptop touch pads can be more trouble than they're worth, which explains why some people choose to disable them altogether. I was constantly opening the charms on my Windows 8 laptop unexpectedly by brushing my finger across the right side of the touch pad. When this happens you have to click anywhere to close the charms.

To prevent the charms window from opening when you swipe in from the right edge of the touch pad, press the Windows key (if necessary), type "control panel" (without the quotes), press Enter, choose Mouse, select the touch pad Device Settings tab, click Settings, and uncheck Enable Edge Swipes (these instructions are for Synaptics touch pads).

Synaptics touch-pad settings
Prevent accidental touch-pad swipes from opening Windows 8's charms by unchecking this option in the touch-pad settings. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

An alternative to completely disabling the edge swipes is to adjust the sensitivity of the touch pad to require more pressure. In the Synaptics settings, for example, select Sensitivity under Pointing in the left pane, click the gears icon, and move the slider to the right to increase the amount of push needed to sense a motion.

Two great features of the Synaptics touch pad are two-finger scrolling (horizontal and vertical), and pressing with three fingers to open whichever application you prefer.