15-Minute Beginner’s Guide to Windows 8


Windows 8 has been released to manufacturing, and is available to developers on MSDN.  It’s quite disorientating for people who’ve worked with Windows for a while.  I’ve been playing with it and wrote some notes for myself, so I thought I’d turn them into a quick guide to navigating your way around it.

I’m going to assume you’re experienced with previous versions of Windows, you’ve managed to get Windows 8 installed, and have got past the logon screen to the start screen.  I’m also going to assume you’re a developer and therefore don’t like to reach for the mouse too much whilst working: there will be a lot of shortcut keys in this.  I’m also assuming you don’t have a touch screen.


The first thing to realize is that Windows 8 is intended to be both a desktop operating system (OS) and a tablet operating system.  This is logical: Microsoft need a version of Windows that can run on low-powered tablets, so they either had to write a new OS or make Windows itself capable of doing it.  They went for the latter.

However, desktop and tablet operating systems are inevitably slightly different.  Windows 8  on a PC is effectively a desktop operating system with a tablet operating system embedded in it.

Windows 8 Style User Interface (previously ‘Metro’)

The tablet part of the new OS has a new tiled user interface design, currently called the ‘Windows 8 style user interface’.  It also has tablet-style apps that run full screen.  There’s a store for the apps: it looks like Microsoft is going to pursue the proprietary locked-in approach to tablet software that other companies are using.  Apple fanboys might want to think about the effects of Apple’s approach on the industry.

Of course Windows 8 still has a full old Windows 7 style desktop within it, including all of the old desktop applications that don’t have to run full screen.

Start Screen

The start screen is the one you see in all the screenshots.

Think of the start screen as a fullscreen and more sophisticated version of the start menu in Windows 7.  It even starts in a similar way: you go to far bottom left of the screen and click.

Obviously you can click on any of the tiles to launch the new apps.  You can also click on tiles for old desktop apps, although you may need to set them up.  You can also navigate and launch apps by using the arrow keys and Enter.

You can get back to the start screen once you’ve launched an app if  you hit the Windows key, or, as already mentioned, if you move your mouse to the far bottom left and click.  Hitting the Windows key again will take you back to where you were.

Rearranging the Start Screen

You can drag tiles around on the start screen to rearrange them.  You can move the mouse to the far left or far right to scroll.  If you right-click the background to the start screen an option for ‘All Apps’ appears, and you can right-click one of these to add it to the main start screen.

You can zoom out by clicking the little minus sign in the bottom right of the screen.  This is useful if you’ve set up a lot of tiles.  It allows you to move groups of tiles around by dragging, and to name them, by right-clicking.


You can just start typing the name of your application with the start screen visible.  It will immediately show a search screen and filter down to your application in a few keystrokes, after which you can just hit ‘enter’.  Again this is very similar to starting an application with the keyboard in Windows 7 via the Start menu, except it’s faster and far more powerful.

You can also bring up the search screen from the charms menu (see below), or with Windows+q.

You can search for files or settings; just use the options underneath the search box. You can also search WITHIN an app in the same way.  For example, the way to search in the Wikipedia app is to use the Windows 8 search menu: there’s no visible search functionality in the apps own screens.

You can add applications to the start screen from the search screen as well.  Find the item you want to add with the search features and right-click it.

Windows 7 Style Desktop

You can get to the old style desktop by clicking on the desktop tile on the start screen, or by hitting Windows+d.  If the desktop is already running there are other ways of getting to it: more on this later.

The only really noticeable change in the new desktop is that the Start button has disappeared, to be replaced by the start screen as discussed above.  There are a few minor improvements to the desktop as well: for example, Task Manager is far more powerful, and if you do a large file copy you get a little chart of the speed over time in the copy dialog.  Also Windows Explorer now has a ribbon interface.

Missing from the Windows 8 desktop are the gadgets that you could set up on the desktop, and the Aero glass look for the title bars of the windows.  They aren’t available.  Window title bars don’t even have a gradient, they are just solid blocks of colour.  This is the new ‘chromeless’ look: it also affects things like scrollbars and buttons.

‘Charms’ Menu

Windows+c, or move mouse to bottom right or top left brings up the so-called ‘charms’ menu from anywhere.  It slides out from the right side of the screen.  This has icons for Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings.  Search and Start bring up the relevant screens discussed above.


The Settings icon on the charms menu lets you access the full tablet settings screen by clicking on ‘Change PC Settings’ at the very bottom.  Here you can do things like change the picture on the lock screen or change the background to the Start screen (under ‘Personalize’), or change your password (under ‘Users’).

Tablet Apps

The tablet apps need work, although some of them are already pretty good.  Obviously you visit the Store app from the start screen to browse and install additional apps.  Here’s the default weather app, which has a lot more detail if you scroll to the right:

Many of the apps have menus in them.  To bring these up right-click on the background, or use Windows+z.

You can close an app with Alt + F4 or by moving the mouse to the top middle of the screen and dragging all the way to the bottom.  You can also right-click in the left-hand slideout menu mentioned above.

You usually have to scroll in an app by moving to the bottom of the screen and using the scrollbar that appears.  There don’t appear to be any mouse gestures to scroll.

Moving Between Apps

If you move the mouse to the bottom left and then move up, or to the top left and then move down, then a slideout menu appears on the left side of the screen with all the tablet apps previewed apart from the one you are currently in.  You can click on one to go to it.  This menu treats the entire desktop as one tablet app.

You can also bring up the slideout menu and tab between apps with Windows+Tab.  This is actually a bit annoying as it doesn’t include the current app so you can’t change your mind and stay where you are.

You can move to the last tablet app you were in by moving the mouse to the top left and clicking.

You can move between all open applications, desktop plus tablet, with Alt-Tab.

Tiling Tablet Apps

You can’t actually fully tile tablet apps, but you can show a main app and have a second one in a sidebar at the left- or right-hand side of the screen.  This is called the ‘Snap’ feature.  The sidebar will stay there as you show different apps in the main window area, including if you bring up the desktop.

By default this only works on fairly high resolution screens, 1366×768 or higher, which means it won’t work on most laptops or corporate desktops unfortunately.

To set this up bring up the lefthand slideout menu (bottom left and move up with the mouse), leftclick the open app that you want in a sidebar, and drag it into the sidebar position.

You can make the desktop itself into a sidebar, in which case it shows the open desktop applications.  You can also drag the sidebar divider to the right or left, which will close the sidebar or make it the main app.


There are actually two versions of Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8: the tablet app version and the version that runs on the desktop.  The app version has a less easy interface, but more significantly it will only run Adobe Flash on certain websites that Microsoft has vetted as safe.  The desktop version has no such restrictions.

Old Windows Keys Combinations

Most of the useful old Windows keys combinations still work from anywhere, including in tablet apps.  So Windows+e will bring up a Windows Explorer window on the desktop from anywhere, Windows+m will go to the desktop and minimize all applications.

Start Screen Right Click Menu

If you move your mouse to the bottom left to bring up the start screen icon and then right-click instead of left-clicking you get a handy power user menu for desktop functionality.  This works from anywhere.  The menu includes options to go directly to the Explorer, Task Manager, Event Viewer, Control Panel, Search, Desktop or an admin Command Prompt.


2 thoughts on “15-Minute Beginner’s Guide to Windows 8

  1. thanks for your efforts. i am so upset with windows 8 on my new laptop, i hate it! i hate charms, its too intuitive, i will take time to adjust
    sorry for the whine


  2. While Windows 8 is certainly different, your marvelous introductory tutorial has made everything a lot simpler and I now appreciate the wonderful innovations in Windows 8.

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