A Guided Tour of Windows 8 and 8.1

Windows 8's New Start Screen
Image used courtesy of Microsoft. Bob Kingsley

Hello and welcome to Windows 8, the exciting and potentially baffling operating system from Microsoft. Most likely you’ve poked around Windows a time or two before, but a lot has changed since the old days of Windows 7. I’d like to take this opportunity to show you around a bit. I’ll highlight the major changes, point out a few features and, hopefully, impart enough knowledge to keep you from getting lost when you strike out on your own.

  

Please note the Microsoft support policy for these products. Customers who used Windows 8 had until January 12, 2016 to update to 8.1. Those who did will continue to enjoy Mainstream Support until January 9, 2018. After that, they can avail themselves of Extended Support until January 10, 2023.

When you first turn on your Windows 8 computer, you’ll be greeted by a screen without any form of button or visual cue to let you know what to do. This is the lock screen; something you may have seen on a phone or tablet. To begin the tour, simply press any key to flip up the lock screen and log in to your account. 

The Start Screen 

After inputting your account information you’ll be dropped into a full-screen Start menu of sorts. This area is known as the Start screen and it’s where you’ll come to find and launch programs on your computer. Each rectangular tile is a link to an app or program that will launch when you click it.

 One of the first things you’ll need to understand is that these two bits of software (modern apps and desktop programs) are not the same.  

  • Desktop Programs – Software that launches on your desktop and runs just like any program you’ve ever used on a Windows computer 

  • Modern Apps – Software installed through the Windows Store which opens in a full-screen environment just like mobile apps you’ve used on a smart phone 

    Finding programs or apps is a snap in Windows 8. For software with a tile you simply have to scroll through the Start screen, find its tile and click it. Not every program has a tile though. In Windows 8 tiles are created for every installed application but Windows 8.1 disables this action to prevent overcrowding on your Start screen.  

    To find an application that doesn’t have a tile, you’ll need to find your all apps page. In Windows 8, just right-click the background and click “All Apps” from the menu that appears at the bottom of the screen. After updating to Windows 8.1, you’ll just have to click the arrow in the bottom-left corner of the screen.  

    Though finding apps manually from the Start screen or All Apps menu doesn’t take long, it isn’t the most efficient way to get the job done. Just like in Windows 7, you can launch a program much faster by searching. In Windows 8, to search from the Start screen you just start typing. The Search bar will open up and receive your input automatically. Type a few letters that start your program name and tap “Enter” or click its name when it appears in the results list.  

    Though launching programs is the primary focus of the Start screen, this is also where you’ll head to lock your computer or log out of your user account.

    Click your account name and picture in the top-right corner of the window for a list of options. 

    This Start screen has come to be known as the modern interface of Windows 8. Many users look at it like a completely separate operating environment from the desktop they’re more comfortable with. This is an inaccurate viewpoint however. The desktop is still the primary operational space of Windows 8, the Start screen is just a Start menu that takes up the whole screen. Think of it this way and you’ll have a much easier time getting used to things. 

    The Windows 8 Desktop 

    Now that you’ve seen the Start screen, we’ll move on to the desktop; A place where you should feel right at home. To access the desktop simply click the tile marked “Desktop” on the Start screen. Immediately you’ll notice that very little has changed here from Windows 7. You still have your background wallpaper, taskbar and system tray just as before. You can still create desktop shortcuts, pin apps to your taskbar and create toolbars as you could in earlier versions of Windows. You’ll find the link to the file explorer right in the task bar as well in case you need to access a file on your hard drive. There is one difference though, the Start menu is gone. 

    Of course, you shouldn’t be surprised by this as we’ve already seen its replacement, the Start screen. For Windows 8 users, that bottom left corner of the screen is simply empty. The taskbar starts with pinned apps and that’s all you’ll see. Don’t let that confuse you though, click that bottom-left corner and you’ll return to the Start screen, just as though there were a button. Click the Desktop tile to come on back. In Windows 8.1 a Start button has been added to make this a bit clearer to new users.  

    Though the desktop looks mostly the same, there are a few new features hidden away that are unique to Windows 8.  

    Windows 8’s Hot Corners 

    On your Windows 8 desktop, all four of the corners have a hidden feature assigned to it. These features help you get around the operating system so you’ll need to acclimate yourself to them before you can comfortably use this new OS. 

    We discussed the first hot corner, and the one you’ll use most often, in the previous section. The bottom-left corner of the desktop, whether there’s a Start button or not, will take you to the Start screen.  In Windows 8, when you move your cursor into the corner, a small thumbnail of your Start screen will pop up to guide you, in Windows 8.1 there’s a button, so you won’t need a thumbnail. 

    The top-left corner of the desktop activates the app switcher which lets you bounce between modern applications you have open on your computer. Place your cursor in the top-left corner and you’ll see a thumbnail of you’re the last app you had in focus. Click it to switch to that last app. To switch to another app, move your cursor into the corner and slide it down towards the center of the screen. This opens a sidebar with thumbnails for all of your open apps. Click the one you want or click the “Desktop” thumbnail to return to the desktop. You can switch between the desktop apps by clicking their links on the taskbar.  

    The last two hot-corners share a single function. Place your cursor in the top or bottom-right corner and slide it towards the center of the screen to open the Charms bar which contains links that serve various purposes: 

    • Search – Use this Charm to search your computer for files and programs. Windows 8.1 also integrates Bing search results from the Internet 

    • Share – This Charm allows you to Share various media using Windows 8 apps such as sharing images with Facebook or a screenshot via email 

    • Start – Click the Charm to access the Start screen 

    • Devices – Use this charm to access connected devices, print from Windows 8 apps, change multi-monitor setup or send media to connected Xbox or phone 

    • Settings – The Settings charm is where you’ll go to change PC Settings, alter settings for any and all modern apps, access the Control Panel and Shut down your computer 

    Conclusion 

    By now you should have a decent handle on how to get around Windows 8 and perform basic tasks. If you need more details, check out Windows.about.com for more in-depth articles on Windows 8’s features. Of course, you could also strike out and explore on your own to find out what the new operating system has to offer.  

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