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Windows 8 primer: how to navigate Microsoft's new operating system

Windows 8 primer: how to navigate Microsoft's new operating system


The gestures, keyboard shortcuts, and tips you need to get your bearings in Windows 8 and Windows RT

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Windows 8 custom header graphic segoe ui
Windows 8 custom header graphic segoe ui

Congratulations, you've installed Windows 8. Now what? Now, you have to figure out how to actually use Microsoft's new operating system before your boss, friends, or family expect you to do something productive. That's just what this guide is for. We'll show you how to find your desktop again, how to change Windows settings, and what those fancy new touchscreen gestures are all about. We'll explain how to do the same things with a mouse and keyboard, in the rather likely event that you aren't using touchscreen hardware.

In other words, we'll show you how to get where you're going in Windows 8, so that you can get back to work.


Windows 8's primary user interface looks like something you'd see on a smartphone, and it can be controlled like one too. It even has a lock screen, a nice colorful picture with no obvious button to get to where you're going. To dismiss the screen, swipe up. It's the first of many basic gestures you'll learn. Mouse or touchpad: press any key, or click once.


you'll be greeted by a field of Live Tiles

When you make it to the Start Screen, you'll be greeted by a field of Live Tiles, each one corresponding to a software app. Tap any one of them to launch that program, or press and hold to drag the tile anywhere you want. Pretty easy so far, right? If you've already had enough of the new Windows 8 UI and want to get to your familar Desktop, that's a tile you can click as well. Mouse or touchpad: click to launch, or click and drag to move tiles around. Keyboard: Windows + D gets you to the desktop immediately, no matter where you are.

Swipe down gently on any tile on the Start screen to select it, and open a menu: you can unpin apps, uninstall them, and make some Live Tiles larger or smaller, in addition to a variety of other possible options. You can select multiple tiles at a time this way, to unpin a whole bunch of apps at once. Mouse or touchpad: right-click on any tile.

On the Start Screen, or inside apps, you can also drag across the screen with a single finger to scroll, or get a zoomed out view of all your Start screen apps by pinching two fingers together. Swipe with two fingers on a touchpad or use a mouse scroll wheel to scroll, and hold down Ctrl and use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out.


Once you're in a program — let's say Internet Explorer — swipe down from the top or swipe up from the bottom of the screen to pull up a menu of app-specific commands. In Internet Explorer, you'll see your open website tabs up top, and on the bottom you'll see Back, Forward and Refresh controls flanking the URL bar. With mouse or touchpad, right-click anywhere where it wouldn't activate a different function. With keyboard, Windows + Z.

Drag from the very top to the very bottom of the screen to close an app. Mouse or touchpad: Click and drag instead. Keyboard: Alt + F4.

Put your mouse cursor in any corner of the screen to simulate gestures

Swipe from the right side of the screen to activate the Charms menu, where you can quickly search or share, send documents to devices (like printers) or access computer settings. Mouse or touchpad: you'll use a hot corner instead: put your cursor in the upper-right or lower-right hand corner for Charms to appear. Keyboard: Windows + C.

Tap the Start charm, or press the Windows button on your computer or keyboard, to go back to the Start screen again. Mouse or touchpad: put your cursor in the lower-left hand corner and click.


If you have a few apps open, swipe from the left edge of the screen to cycle through your previously used apps one at a time. You can swipe repeatedly. Mouse and touchpad: put your cursor in the upper-left hand corner of the screen and tap on the little image that appears. Keyboard: Windows + Tab.

Multi_tasking Swipe away from the left edge, and then towards it again, to pull up the app switcher. Mouse or touchpad: place your cursor in the upper-left corner, then drag it down along the left edge.

If you've got multiple apps open, why not view two side by side? Drag an app from the left edge and hold it over the left or right side of the screen to snap a smaller version alongside. Or, drag down from the top of the screen, as if you were going to close an app, then snap it to the left or right. Mouse or touchpad: click and drag from the top-left corner, or right-click on an item in the app switcher.

Drag the three-dot divider to make the smaller of two visible apps larger, or the larger one smaller. Keyboard: Windows + period key.

Where it gets a little tricky is when you're using multiple apps and multiple desktop programs at the same time. The desktop apps won't appear in the app switcher, but if you've got a keyboard handy you can multitask with them, too. Hit Alt-Tab to cycle through both Windows 8 apps and traditional programs.

More handy keyboard shortcuts

  • Windows + H = Opens the Share charm
  • Windows + I = Opens the Settings charm
  • Windows + K = Opens the Devices charm
  • Windows + Q = Search for apps
  • Windows + F = Search for files
  • Windows + W = Search for Windows settings
  • Windows + X = Access common admin tools (you can right-click on the lower-left hand hot corner, too)
  • Windows + E = Launches File Explorer in the desktop environment
  • Windows + O = lock screen orientation
  • Windows + R = Opens a Run dialog
  • Windows + L = Lock the computer
  • Windows + Print Screen = Saves a screenshot to your Pictures > Screenshots folder
  • Windows + any of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0 = Launches the corresponding program pinned to the taskbar
  • Ctrl + Shift + Esc = Open Task Manager

Want even more shortcuts? Here's a lengthier list.

How to find things

So now that you know how to navigate the OS, how do you find what you want? Well, you could try Windows 8's Search charm, which is quite powerful. Simply type anywhere on the Start screen to begin searching, and then simply change the type of search to get different types of results.

For instance, if you want to hear a particular song, you could first search your local files, and if it doesn't turn up, click on Music to search Xbox Music, and if that fails, click on Internet Explorer to begin a web search, all without ever leaving the search bar. In fact, you can search in just about any app from this same box, from locations in the Maps and Weather apps, to stock results in the Finance app, to the names of new apps in the Windows Store.


Each new app you download can potentially add a new search category, if it supports the charm, so you may end up with quite a few. To promote your favorite searches higher in the ranking, press and hold (or right-click) on them and pin them higher, or hide the ones you don't want.

For quick access to your favorite apps and desktop programs, pin them to your Start screen by right-clicking them, or press and hold on a touchscreen.

Many apps add their own new search categories

If you prefer Google Chrome and Google Search rather than Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Bing, you can easily install both from and set them as your defaults.

To determine which app or desktop program a particular type of file gets launched with, right-click on them in File Explorer and select "Choose default program."

Common tasks

Between the familiar desktop interface and the Search charm, you shouldn't have much trouble finding most things, but others are more obscure. How do you shut down the computer, for instance? It took us a few minutes to figure that one out. Here are some things you might be looking for, and others that you might like to know about.

First off, you'll find a number of answers in the Settings charm. You can easily connect to a wireless network, change the volume or screen brightness, adjust the keyboard layout, and yes, power down your computer. Additionally, if you invoke the Settings charm from within an app, you'll be able to adjust that app's specific settings.


The Settings charm also lets you access the familiar desktop Control Panel for a variety of settings... but before you get lost in Control Panel minutiae, go back to the Settings charm and check out Change PC settings at the very bottom. This touchscreen-friendly menu lets you change your lock screen and start screen backgrounds, set up user accounts and passwords, manage desktop notifications and privacy settings, add devices like printers, and check for updates to your computer. Be aware that both the left and right sides of the PC Settings menu can scroll up and down, even if it doesn't look like it.

Charms are also good for sending things from one place to another without requiring drag and drop or copy and paste. For instance, if you're looking at a photo, document, or a webpage, you can pull up the Share charm to send it to any app that supports sharing, like an email or social networking client. If you've got a connected device, like a printer or a smart screen, you could also send that photo or document to be printed or displayed with the Devices charm.

To get a list of all the apps on your computer, go to the Start screen, then hit right-click (or drag up / down, or press Windows + Z), and select All apps. Or just press Ctrl + Tab anywhere on the Start screen to get there even faster.

Where do you go if you want to update your apps? Go to the Windows Store app: all available updates will appear in the upper right hand corner.

Sync your accounts

To get the most out of the new user interface, you'll want to sync up your email, calendar, location, contacts, social networks, and SkyDrive to your Microsoft account, the same one that you use to log into your computer. All your Live Tiles will then pop with new information — new status updates, image uploads, emails, and more. To set these up, you'll need to go to a variety of apps, including Messaging, Mail, Weather, Apps and SkyDrive, then add accounts to each from the Settings charm. The People app is probably the best example: if you access settings on the People tile, you can import your contacts from Facebook, Twitter, Google, Hotmail, Outlook, Gmail, and LinkedIn, and have their status updates appear there. Because these accounts are synced to your Microsoft account, they'll be accessible from any Windows PC you log into.


If you want to add another user, or log in to someone else's PC with your credentials, simply go to the Settings charm > Change PC settings > Users, and scroll down to add a user. If you feel comfortable enough, you can also sync your passwords across PCs. To make your passwords portable, in that same Users menu, click "Trust this PC" and confirm on Microsoft's website.

Now go forth and demonstrate your knowledge of Windows, with your data stored in the cloud!

Evan Rodgers contributed to this article.