Windows 8 cheat sheet

How to find your way around Microsoft's new OS and make the most of its features

Ready or not, Windows 8 is here. One of the most controversial versions of the operating system ever released, its main interface feels designed more for touch-screen tablets than traditional computers. What's more, the Desktop has been hidden away and weakened with the removal of the Start button.

But I'm not here to talk about the controversy. I'm here to help you use Windows 8, because whichever version of Windows you're upgrading from, you'll find it a new experience. The horizontally oriented Start screen (once called the Metro interface) sports big tiles that practically beg you to touch them. And the Start screen and the Desktop feel as if they're dueling operating systems, because each works differently from the other in many ways.

All this might sound overwhelming, but as you'll see, it's not that tough to master Windows 8. In this cheat sheet I'll show you how to get the most out of the new Start screen and its apps, the Desktop, the new Charms bar, Internet Explorer 10 and plenty more. I've also provided quick reference charts listing useful touch-screen gestures and keyboard shortcuts.

Note: If you want to get the most out of Windows 8, you'll have to use a Microsoft ID as your user account. Without a Microsoft ID, you won't be able to use a number of new Windows 8 apps, including Mail and People, and you won't be able to sync settings among multiple devices. So when you set up Windows 8 for the first time, sign in with an existing Microsoft ID or create a new one. (You can also switch to a Microsoft ID account later on via the "PC settings" screen.)

There's a new lock screen in town

When you start Windows 8 (whether booting up initially or waking from sleep), you'll see the first big difference from previous versions of Windows -- a whole new look for the lock screen. Like the lock screens on Windows Phone devices, it sports a big graphic image and displays a variety of information, such as the date and time, the local weather, the number of new emails you have, the strength of your network connection and how much power you've got left on your device.

Windows 8's new lock screen mimics the lock screens on mobile devices. Click to view larger image.

This information isn't interactive; you can't click or tap to see your email, for example. (Later in the story I'll cover how to change the information that appears on your lock screen.)

To log into Windows, tap a key or click the mouse -- or, on a touch system, swipe from the bottom up -- and you'll come to a sign-in screen. Select an account if you've got multiple accounts, then type in your password and press Enter to sign into Windows 8.

Meet the Start screen

Once you've logged into Windows from the lock screen, you head directly to the new Start screen rather than the familiar Desktop interface. Like it or not, this is the new face of Windows.

Initially Microsoft called this design the "Metro" interface, but now it's just calling the new UI "Windows 8 design." Laptop and desktop PC users might dislike the Start screen's big tiles and horizontal orientation, but I've got some advice for you: Get used to it -- it's your new home. Here's what you need to know about it.

Tiles. The Start screen is made up of a grid of colorful tiles. Each tile represents an app; click (or tap) the tile to run the app.

Your new home: the Windows 8 Start screen. Click to view larger image.

To begin with, you'll find tiles for several simple new apps -- People, Mail, Calendar, Messaging and others -- that are built into Windows 8 and have the same look and feel as the Start screen. Formerly called Metro apps, they're now variously referred to as Windows 8 apps, Windows Store apps, Modern apps or Start apps by industry watchers. In this cheat sheet, I'll call them Windows 8 apps to distinguish them from Desktop apps (more about those in a moment).

Notifications. Some Windows 8 apps grab information from the Internet and show live updates known as notifications on their tiles. For example, the Calendar app displays upcoming events and friends' birthdays on its tile, the People app tile displays social media updates from friends, and the Mail app tile displays the sender and subject line of your most recently received emails. (Some notifications can also appear on the lock screen, depending on how you've configured Windows 8.)

A word about Windows RT

Buying a new Windows-based tablet this fall? Some tablets, such as Microsoft's own Surface RT, don't come with Windows 8 but are instead based on Windows RT, a lightweight version of Windows 8 that's designed for devices with energy-efficient ARM processors. Windows RT shares the new Windows 8 interface and many of its features and apps, and it ships with its own version of the Office 2013 productivity suite. It doesn't, however, run most traditional Desktop-based applications.

This cheat sheet is for users running the full version of Windows 8, but Windows RT users can use this guide to learn about the Start screen, the Charms bar, Windows 8 apps and navigational gestures.

(Deciding between a Windows 8 tablet and a Windows RT tablet? See Seven things to consider for a Windows tablet.)

By default, those apps that show notifications have larger Start screen tiles than those that don't.

You'll also find tiles for Desktop-based apps on the Start screen, and the Windows Desktop itself is now accessed via a Desktop tile. Desktop apps are traditional programs like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop; as a general rule, any application that you've run on previous versions of Windows is a Desktop-based app.

Desktop-based app tiles don't show notifications, and they have smaller graphics on them. Also, tiles for Desktop apps often appear on the right side of the screen, and they (and other tiles as well) may be off of its edge, so you'll have to scroll (or swipe, if you've got a touch-screen device) to see them.

Charms bar. If you move your mouse pointer to the upper-right or lower-right corner of the screen, the Charms bar appears as an overlay on the screen -- sometimes directly on top of tiles or other content. This bar gives you quick access to features such as search and system settings from anywhere in Windows 8. I'll provide a detailed look at the Charms bar later in the story.

Scroll bar. The Start screen has a horizontal orientation, so when you want to see more tiles on the screen, you'll have to scroll or swipe to see them. The scrollbar is not normally visible, but it makes its appearance when you move your mouse. You use it as you would any normal scroll bar, except you'll scroll to the right and left rather than up and down.

User account. This shows the name of the current account logged into Windows 8, along with the picture associated with the account. Click it to change the picture, lock your device, sign out or switch to another account.

Check out "Customize the Start screen" later in this article for details about how to change tile sizes, rearrange tiles on the screen and more.

Your old friend the Desktop

The Desktop is no longer front and center in Windows 8, having been delegated to second-class status by the Start screen. As befits a second fiddle, you don't boot directly into it when you log into Windows. Instead, you run it like any other app by clicking the Desktop tile on the Start screen.

When you get there, you'll find a familiar-looking Desktop minus what had been one of its key features in previous versions of Windows -- the Start button and its menu. And that means that you're going to have to get used to a new way of using the Desktop and put up with some kludgy ways of accessing apps and features that previously were directly in reach. (But don't fret -- as I'll show you later in the story, there are non-Microsoft-approved ways to reinstate the Start button and even to boot directly into the Desktop.)

The Windows 8 Desktop, notable for what's missing: the Start button. Click to view larger image.

Other than that, the Desktop is essentially the same as it was in Windows 7. It shows icons for Desktop apps that you've installed; run them by clicking them. (See "Meet the Start screen" for the differences between Desktop apps and Windows 8 apps.) There's a taskbar where you can pin apps and that shows currently running apps as well as a notification area all the way to the right that displays icons showing your network status, the time and date, and more.

Additionally, the Desktop supports all of Windows 8's systemwide navigation features, including the Charms bar and keyboard shortcuts. We'll cover those later in the story.

There is, however, a significant visual change from Windows 7 and Vista. The Desktop no longer uses the Aero interface, along with its transparency, animations and other visual effects and graphics-intensive traits. Instead, windows are now flatter and with simpler colors.

You can't run the new Windows 8 apps from the Desktop. You'll have to either go back to the Start screen (press the Windows key) and click their tiles, or else use the Search charm: Run the Search charm, type the app's name, and then click the icon when it appears. ( Complete instructions below.)

Typically, when you install Desktop applications, they show up both as icons on the Desktop and as tiles on the Start screen, so you can launch them from both locations. Some system utilities and other Desktop apps don't appear as icons on the Desktop by default; you can use the Search charm to search for and launch them.

This handy menu provides takes you to a plethora of power user tools. Click to view larger image.

The lack of a Start button makes the Desktop annoying to use, but it does offer one useful trick: Right-click in the lower-left portion of the screen (or press the Windows key + X), and a menu pops up that gives you access to the Control Panel, File Explorer (called Windows Explorer in previous versions of Windows), the Task Manager, the command prompt and a variety of other administrative and power user tools. (You can also bring up this power tools menu from the Start screen using the same methods.)

Introducing the Charms bar

The new Charms bar offers quick access to several powerful tools for navigating and working with Windows 8. When you move the mouse to the upper-right or lower-right corner of the screen to make the Charms bar appear, its icons aren't labeled, so at first it's not clear what they do. As you move your mouse toward them, though, the full Charms bar appears with labeled, easy-to-see icons on a black vertical bar.

At the same time, a black rectangle appears toward the lower-left portion of the screen, displaying the time and date and, if you're using a portable device, the state of your Internet connection and power supply.

The full Charms bar appears on a black background as you move your mouse toward it.Click to view larger image.

You can also display the full Charms bar by pressing the Windows key + C on your keyboard -- or, if you have a touch-screen device, by swiping from the right edge of the screen toward the center.

You can get to the Charms bar no matter where you are in Windows 8 -- on the Start screen, on the Desktop, in a Windows 8 app, and even in a Desktop app. This feature is one of the ways in which Microsoft has attempted to bolt together the Start screen and the Desktop.

There are five charms on the Charms bar. Several of them are context-sensitive and offer slightly different options depending on what you're doing at the time you invoke the bar. Here's a brief description of what each charm does.

Search. Click this and you can search for apps, files and settings; you can also search inside any app. Underneath the search box is a list that includes Apps, Settings, Files and each of your individual Windows 8 apps. When you type in a search term, click anything in the list to search it. So to search for an app, you'd click Apps, and to search inside an individual app, click the name of that app -- for example, to search your email, click Mail.

Windows 8's Search charm with Apps selected. Click to view larger image.

Windows 8 supports three keyboard shortcuts that take you directly to the Search charm without going through the Charms bar first: Pressing the Windows key + F takes you to Search with Files already highlighted, the Windows key + Q takes you to Search with Apps selected, and the Windows key + W takes you to Search with Settings selected.

Because the Desktop no longer includes a Start button, you'll frequently use the Search charm to run apps from the Desktop. It's kludgy -- press the Windows key + Q to launch the Search charm, type the first few letters of the app's name and click the icon of the app you want to run.

Note that when you're on the Start screen you don't need to launch this charm in order to do a search. Instead, just start typing what you want to search for, and the Search charm appears with your text in the search box. You can't do this from the Desktop, though.

To close the panel for the Search charm or any other charm, just press the Esc key.

Share. Some of the new Windows 8 apps include a built-in Share feature that lets you share information from the app via email, social media, SkyDrive or messaging.

Windows 8's Share charm, accessed from the Photo app.Click to view larger image.

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