20 must-know Windows 8 tips and tricks

With just a little hand-holding, the OS suddenly becomes much less mysterious.

Windows 8 is rife with features and behaviors that conspire to perplex even the most experienced PC users. Not all of them are bad, per se, but few of them are immediately intuitive. Making matters worse, the OS was primarily designed for touch control, and as a result, many mouse and keyboard commands feel like tacked-on afterthoughts.

But help is on the way.

We've assembled a list of our favorite Windows 8 shortcuts, tricks, and workarounds. Many focus on making the most of the OS on a traditional desktop PC, so if you're interested in touch gestures, please check out our article that focuses directly on the Windows 8 touch experience. Now let's start our journey of discovery with a look at easy-to-use (though often tough to remember!) Windows 8 hotkey commands.

The hottest hotkeys we know

Hold down the Windows key (normally located between Alt and Ctrl) when (Windows) is shown.

  • Press (Windows) to enter the tiled Start screen.
  • (Windows) + M minimizes everything that's showing on the desktop.
  • (Windows) + E opens Explorer for quick access to folders.
  • On the Start screen, press (Windows) + D to instantly get to the desktop.
  • (Windows) + Tab opens a list of currently running programs.
  • (Windows) + Print Screen takes a screenshot and saves it in a Screenshots folder nested in your Pictures folder. 
  • To take a screenshot on a Windows 8 tablet, simultaneously press the Windows button and the volume-down button on the tablet chassis.
  • (Windows) + Q opens a global search menu. Type what you're looking for and where you would like to look.
  • (Windows) + W opens a search in your system settings to quickly locate and change system properties.
  • (Windows) + F opens a file and folder search.
  • (Windows) + Pause opens the system properties page to show you a quick rundown of your specs.
  • (Windows) + "," (that's the comma sign!) makes all current windows transparent, giving you a peek at the desktop as long as you hold down (Windows).
  • (Windows) + "." (the period) snaps a window to the right or left side (toggling each time you press ".").
  • (Windows) + R prompts the Run commanduseful for quickly launching apps and other routines with a command prompt.
  • (Windows) + X opens the Quick Access Menu, exposing system functionality such as the Command Prompt, Disk Management, File Explorer, Run, and more. It's perfect for people who Start Menu. Alternately, you can right-click on the bottom right corner of the screen to spawn the Quick Access Menu.
  • (Windows) + I opens the settings menu, giving you quick access to the Control Panel, Personalization, and your Power button, among other features.
  • (Windows) + O locks orientation on devices with an accelerometer.

Zoom in tight

The Start Screen is full of nice, big, chunky tiles that represent all your apps. The tiles are easy to see in small groups, but what if you have hundreds of apps installed? Most will be hidden from view, unless you want to do a lot of scrolling. Enter the new semantic zoom feature. If youre using a touch display, simply squeeze the Start screen with two fingers to receive a birds eye view of your entire screen contents. And the feature is also available to mouse and keyboard users: Simply hold down the Ctrl button, and use your mouse wheel to zoom in and out.

Categorize your apps

Your Start screen can become a cluttered mess if you collect too many apps and other elements that have been pinned to the screen as tiles, so take advantage of built-in organization tools that let you divide everything into labeled groups.

First, drag all the tiles you want to assign to a single group to the far right-hand side of your Start screen in vacant territory; the OS should sequester the tiles together. Once you're satisfied with your assembly, use semantic zoom (described above) to get a bird's eye view of your desktop. Now right-click the group (or simply drag down on it) and select the "Name group" option on the left of the bar that appears below. Type in the name and enjoy your newly organized Start screen!

Close an application

Closing an app sounds simple enough, but you'll quickly notice that close buttons are hard to find in Windows 8. That's because Microsoft encourages us to run apps in the background where they'll take up minimal resources, but still be accessible at any time.

Nonetheless, if you insist on being rebellious, you can close an app by dragging it with your mouse or finger from the top of the screen all the way down to the bottom. As you drag, the app will miminize into a thumbnail, and when you reach the bottom it will disappear from view. Alternately, you can still close apps via Alt+F4 and through the task manager.

Centralized, contextual search

The Search function located on the Charms bar is packed with power, letting you search the directories of not only your Windows 8 machine, but also the greater Windows ecosystem. Simply choose the bucket of data you want to sift throughit could be all your installed apps, your system settings, your files, your mail messages, or even an external service like the Windows Store or Bing Mapsand then type in a keyword and hit Enter. The Search function will then return the results, perfectly contextualized for the database youve addressed

Oh, and how's this for cool: You don't even need to hit the Charms bar to access Search. From the Start screen, simply start typing, and you'll be quickly whisked to the text-entry field for search queries. Try it. It works!

Adjusting privacy settings

A lot of apps tap into very personal information by default. Indeed, your pictures, location and name are libreally woven throughout the system, and like many users you may not be comfortable trusting your machine with that much sensitive data. To adjust the settings, press (Windows) + I, and go to Change PC Settings. Select the Privacy option and personalize the settings for your personal data there.

Adjust SmartScreen settings

SmartScreen warns you before running an unrecognized app or file from the Internet. While it's helpful to be aware of a file's source, constant warnings can also get a little annoying. By default, you need an administrator's permission, but this can easily be adjusted to just a warning or no indication at all. Using the magic search function described above, type "security" at the Start screen and find the "Check security status" in the Settings tab. From this area, you can adjust various security settings, including the Windows SmartScreen.

Quick Access Menu

Right-clicking on the lower left of the screenwhether youre in the Windows 8 Start screen or in the desktopwill bring up the Quick Access Menu, which enables a direct line to many key system management chores, including Disk Management, Task Manager, Device Manager and Control Panel.

Use Windows 8 apps and your desktop simultaneously

Because the Windows 8 experience is split between new Windows 8 Store apps and old-school desktop apps, the operating system is prone to some strange behaviors. Case in point: When running a multi-monitor set-up, Windows 8 apps will consume your main screen, leaving your secondary screen running the desktop. This arrangement would seem to allow full-screen multitasking among both types of appsa modern app on the left side, a desktop app on the right sidebut this isnt the case. Indeed, as soon as you begin using the desktop on your secondary screen, the new-style Windows 8 app disappears, and your primary screen begins running the desktop.

But heres a workaround. On your primary screen, use the new Windows 8 split-screen snapping function to run the desktop and a new Windows 8 Store app together. The desktop can take up the left-hand sliver, while the Windows 8 app consumes the majority of the screen. Now use your second display for a full desktop view. In this arrangement, you can fully multi-task between new-style apps and desktop apps, and both windows will be large enough to be useful.

Startup items are now on task manager

You no longer have to run the MSCONFIG program to change startup items. Startup items now show up in a tab on Task Manager. Simply hit Ctrl+Alt+Del and select Task Manager. Click the "More details" tab at the bottom and find the Startup tab at the top.

Share and share alike

Windows 8 is Microsofts first social media-aware PC operating system. Using the Share button located on the Charms bar, you can pick any number of elements from your Windows 8 Store appssay, a location from your Maps app, a news story from the Finance app, or a even a contact from your People appand then distribute that item to friends via other Windows 8 programs.

Perhaps most conveniently, you can quickly sharing a photo via email or Twitter, or to your own SkyDrive or Windows Phone. The Share button is contextual, and the more you use it, the more youll discover which apps share with each other, and which dont. (Hint: None of your desktop apps offer sharing opportunities through the Charms menu.)

Create a picture password

Using a picture password is a fun way keep your device secure while not having to remember a complex password. To enable it, press (Windows) + I to get to the settings charm. Click "Change PC settings" at the bottom right, and go to the Users tab. Under "Sign-in options" will be the "Create a picture password" button. This will give you the option to choose any picture, and then define three gestures anywhere on the image. Your gestures can be circles, swipes and clicks.

For example, to set a picture password for the image above, you could click on the highest palm tree, draw a circle around the island, and then swipe down from the lens flare in the upper right. Just beware: The direction of each gesture matters! After confirming it a couple times, your picture password will be set.

Boot to the desktop without an app

One of biggest complaints about Windows 8 is that it boots straight to the Start screenan annoyance for many committed desktop users. The Start8 utility helps you avoid this indignity (among other cool features), but you can actually boot straight to the desktop without installing anything extra.

Go to the start screen and type in "schedule" to search for Schedule Task in Settings. Click on Task Scheduler Library to the left, and select Create Task. Name your task something like "Boot to desktop." Now select the Triggers tab, choose New and use the drop-down box to select to start the task "At log on." Click OK and go to the Actions tab, choose New and enter "explorer" for the Program/Script value.

Hit OK, save the task and restart to test it out!

Log in without a username or password

To speed up the log in process, you may want to disable the username and password log in screen. This can be done by opening the run windowwhich you can do by hitting (Windows) + Rand typing in "netplwiz" to access the User Accounts dialogue. Un-check the box near the top that says "Users must enter a user name and password to use this computer." Click OK and enter the user name and password one last time to confirm your choice, and you are all set for easy access to your system.

Refresh your PC

If your system is feeling a little sluggish, it may be time for a refresh. In the past we would have to find our copy of Windows 7, back up all of our data and perform a fresh install to enjoy that back-to-factory-fresh feeling. But now Windows 8 allows you to perform a fresh install from within Windows without losing any data.

In order to perform the refresh, go to Settings and click the Change PC Settings tab near the bottom. Select the General tab and find the "Refresh your PC without affecting your files" section near the middle (you may also select "Remove everything and reinstall Windows" to get the true factory settings treatment). Select "Get started" and press "Refresh." After a few minutes the PC will restart and you will have a fresh copy of Windows 8.

Start in Safe Mode

Safe Mode is a great way to get into your system when something won't allow you to start up normally. Troubleshooting becomes a breeze when corrupted drivers and files aren't loaded that prevents a system from functioning. It used to be as easy at pressing F8 when the system starts up, but doing so with Windows 8 will take you to the Automatic Repair mode. The trick to getting back to good old fashioned Safe Mode? Hold down the Shift key and press F8 while booting up.

This takes you to the Recovery mode. Select "advanced options," then "troubleshoot," then the "advanced options" again (there are a lot of advanced options). Select "Windows Startup Settings" and finally the "Restart" button. This will reboot the computer and give you the option to boot into Safe Mode.

If you need to get into Safe Mode from within Windows, open the dialogue box ((Windows) + R) and type "msconfig" (no quote marks). Select the "Boot" tab and check the "Safe boot" box. The system will continually boot into Safe Mode until you go back and uncheck the box.

Turning Live Tiles on and off

When looking at the plethora of tiles on your Start screen, the view can get stagnant, despite all the pretty colors.This is where Live Tiles come in. They offer real-time data right on your Start screen, and you don't need to open any apps. For example, the Weather tile will show you the current conditions, and Mail will show you the subject of the latest message you've received.

You can customize which apps are live and which aren't by right-clicking on the tiles. A settings bar on the bottom will pop up with an option to turn the Live Tile on or off. Simply select the preferred option, and you're all set. Note, however, that not all apps have a live, real-time data streaming option.

Windows games folder

Currently, the games folder used in Windows 7 isnt present in Windows 8. Fear not, if you install any current-generation PC game that would regularly save to this folder, it's automatically created. For a quick way to find it, right-click on the game icon on the Start screen and choose Open file location at the bottom.

Family safety

Want to avoid some nasty surprises on your credit card? Create a separate, standard account on the device for your kids (Family Safety can't be applied to an administrator account). You can activate Family Safety by going to the Control Panel, User Accounts and Family Safety and selecting the account you would like to apply it to. From these settings you can get reports on the accounts activity, set a level of web filtering, set time limits and enforce Windows Store, game and app restrictions.

Shut down with one click

Windows 8 hides the Power button in the Settings menu, forcing a multi-step process just to shut down one's PC. But thanks to a crafty shortcut trick, you can pin a Shutdown button right to the bottom of your desktop. Here's how.

Create a shortcut on your desktop (right -click, go to New, then Shortcut). Enter "shutdown /s /t 0" (with no quotes, and, yes, that a zero not an "O") as the location of the item, and hit next. Now name the shortcut (prefereably "Shutdown") and hit Finish.

Right-click the shortcut and navigate to Properties. Choose "Change Icon" in the Shortcut tab, and OK out the warning box. Choose an icon of your choice from the list. In the screenhot above, you'll see we chose a Power button.

Right-click the shortcut again and select "Pin to Start." You can place the icon on your Start screen wherever is convenient. Hitting it will instantly shut down your computer.

This story, "20 must-know Windows 8 tips and tricks" was originally published by PCWorld.

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