Smarter Not Harder: Twelve Ways to Tame Windows 8

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By Lance Whitney
By Lance Whitney

People diving into Windows 8 for the first time may feel challenged by all of the new bells and whistles. Many of these features work fine on tablets and touchscreen devices, but they can leave PC users scratching their heads. All’s not lost, though. Once you learn the necessary tips and tricks to using Windows 8 on your desktop or laptop, you will find yourself more in control. Here, I offer my advice on how to tame Windows 8.

You fire up your new computer, fresh with Windows 8, looking forward to trying out all of the new features and commands. Normally, you would enjoy poking around the latest version of Windows discovering what’s new and improved. But when Windows 8 pops up, its Start screen and colorful tiles staring you in the face, you feel a little bit like you did when you got your very first PC with Windows way back when. You’re just not quite sure how to maneuver around this new environment or how to access all of its new features.

Or at least that’s precisely how many newcomers to Windows 8 will feel. But not to worry, armed with a host of quick tips, you can easily learn Windows 8 just like you’ve learned previous versions of Windows.

Like anything new and unfamiliar, Windows 8 can be frustrating to people accustomed to Windows 7 or XP. But the more time you spend with it and the more shortcuts you pick up, the easier it gets.

I’m an expert at figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to new technology. I have been writing about and reviewing new technology for the past 20 years. And as with any break-from-the-status-quo technology upgrade, Windows 8 will certainly have its fans and foes.

People don’t like change. Those of us accustomed to the familiar Start menu and features of Windows 7, Vista, and XP can find Windows 8 challenging and frustrating, at least at first. In my new book, Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time, I emphasize that once you learn your way around the new interface, you may actually start to appreciate and even enjoy the new Start screen and other touch-based elements. Even better, along with the new touch features, Windows 8 offers a host of other improvements that can speed up and simplify how you use your PC.

Read on for my top twelve tips on how to master Windows 8 so that you can control it rather than the other way around.

“Start” it up your way. The most dramatic change in Windows 8 is the one that stares you in the face as soon as you log in—the Start screen. Replacing the traditional Start menu familiar to longtime Windows users, the new Start screen is based on tiles. Instead of clicking a Start button to open a cascading menu of folders and shortcuts for your applications, a Start screen appears where you click on tiles to launch your apps and features. People used to launching their software programs through the Start menu may at first be thrown off by the Start screen, which presents a totally new and different way of organizing and opening your applications.

Whether you’re hooked on the Start screen, or you try to avoid it whenever possible, you can customize it to help you zoom through whatever you’re doing more efficiently. You can move the Start screen tiles around to sort them alphabetically or by category. You can separate tiles into individual groups so that any one tile is easier to find. You can also name a group of tiles and even sort the groups so the apps you access more frequently are within easy reach.

The Start screen can seem a bit wild at first. Every app you install creates one or more tiles, so the screen can easily become messy and disorganized. But by moving your tiles around and storing them in named groups, you can tidy up much of that clutter.

Stay up to date with live tiles. Thanks to live tiles, new information pops up on a Start screen tile as soon as it arrives. So without even leaving the Start screen, you can view notices alerting you to your latest emails, appointments, news items, weather forecasts, stock prices, and more. Not all apps support live tiles. The built-in Windows apps that do include Mail, Messaging, Calendar, News, Weather, Sports, Finance, and Travel. Enabling a live tile is as easy as launching and configuring an app for the first time. Once you’ve done that, the live tile is turned on by default. And if you’d rather not be bombarded with all that information, you can easily turn the live tile off.

Live tiles can be a good way to start your day because with a quick glance you can see what awaits you. One look at the live tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen quickly fills you in on new emails, messages, news, weather, and a lot more. I typically scan my live tiles to see what’s up and then move on to my work.

Quickly launch the apps you need. You can launch any Windows app through its tile on the Start screen or All Apps screen. But you can also launch an app just by typing its name at either the Start screen or All Apps screen. The Windows Search charm pops up to display the name you just typed. And a list of items matching your term appears on the search results. Just click on the tile for the app you wish to launch. You can even access Windows 8 settings and your own personal documents and files simply by typing their name at the Start screen.

Like me, some people might miss the old Windows Start menu. I always found it a quick and convenient way to launch any application. But in lieu of the Start menu, I’ve grown accustomed to opening an app just by typing its name. You don’t even need to type the full name, just part of the name, and Windows finds it for you. The same trick works for settings and files.

Back up your documents with File History. We’ve all been there. You create an important document or store an irreplaceable photo on your computer. And now the file is lost or corrupted. Well, with Windows 8, you no longer have to suffer the pain of losing a critical file.

It tries to prevent that pain through a feature called File History. With File History turned on, Windows 8 automatically backs up your documents, desktop shortcuts, contacts, browser favorites, and other important files. You can choose to back up your files to a USB drive or a network location if you have a networked drive. You can determine which files to back up, how frequently, and how long to keep your backups. If an important file gets lost or damaged, simply restore it from the backup.

File History is one of my favorite features in Windows 8. You just set it up initially to back up whatever files you want, and your part is done. Your files are automatically backed up at specific intervals, and you can quickly restore any file from the backup.

Create picture-perfect passwords. You probably have to remember several passwords to get through your day. Well, here’s some good news. You won’t have to add to that list when you switch over to Windows 8. Instead of struggling to devise and remember a complicated alphanumeric password, you can simplify the process and add some visual flair by using a picture password.

Simply choose a picture, and Windows 8 prompts you to draw three separate gestures anywhere on that image. A gesture can be a circle, a line, or a simple tap. After your gestures are recorded, you simply recreate them on your picture to log in each time. You can even choose a photo from your own collection to make it personal. Gestures work best on a touchscreen or with an external mouse, but even a trackpad will do the trick.

Most people have trouble remembering traditional passwords. The picture password is a great alternative since you have to remember only the three gestures that you draw on the image. The image itself can be anything you want. I set mine up as a photo of my mom’s shih tzu with his tongue sticking out. That’s a memorable one.

Find the right apps in the Windows Store. Microsoft now offers around 50,000 apps in its Windows Store geared for the Windows 8 environment. Some paid, many free. But not all of them are good. So how do you find the best ones? Microsoft highlights what it considers the top apps across a range of categories, including games, business, travel, social networking, and finance. Browsing that list is a helpful way to start. Looking for a specific app? Simply trigger the search charm within the Windows store and type the name of the app. Each app’s description page offers reviews from fellow users so you can see what other people think of the app to help you decide if it’s worth buying or downloading.

I admit the Windows Store can be a frustrating place to shop if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. But Microsoft does try to help by pointing you to the top free and top paid apps in each category. That’s where I’ve found most of the best apps.

Print content from a Windows 8 app. Traditional Windows desktop programs offer their own unique ways to print a file, document, or other piece of content. But all Windows 8 apps use the same process for printing something. Once you know the secret, you can easily print from any app using the same steps. Simply trigger the Print command by pressing Ctrl+P. That opens a Device screen where you can pick the printer you wish to use. The next screen lets you specify the paper size, orientation, number of copies, and other settings. Then click or tap on the Print button, and that’s all there is to it.

To be honest, I wasn’t especially crazy about the new Print function in Windows 8 at first. But I quickly got used to it and grew to like the consistency of it from one app to another.

Easily copy or move files. Copying and moving files is old hat to most Windows users. But with Windows 8, Microsoft actually found a way to improve the process, especially when dealing with multiple files. Now when you copy or move a group of files one after the other, Microsoft displays the progress in one single status window instead of multiple windows. From the status window you can easily pause, restart, and even cancel the copy or move. And when you copy or move files to a location where they already exist, Windows 8 displays the source and destination files side by side so you can decide which files to replace and which ones to skip.

With all the major changes in Windows 8, Microsoft didn’t forget to enhance some traditional features. Copying and moving batches of files is much easier now. And there’s less danger of losing an important file since Windows clearly shows you which files are due to be overwritten beforehand.

Sync your settings across different devices. People who juggle more than one Windows 8 device don’t have to struggle to maintain the same settings on each one. Instead, you can simply sync those settings so that they remain consistent from one device to another.

Maintaining the same settings and customizations across multiple PCs has been a challenge in the past. But with Windows 8, you can synchronize various settings so they’re consistent across all of your Windows 8 computers. You can choose to sync all settings or only certain ones, such as your background colors and image, taskbar, passwords, language and keyboard options, and browser favorites.

I juggle a desktop and two laptops, and I like to have the same settings across the board. Windows 8 gives me the ability to do that, and to specify which settings I want synced and which ones I want left alone.

Hit the road with the Travel app. Windows 8 comes with several cool and useful apps courtesy of Microsoft’s Bing team, including News, Weather, Maps, Finance, Sports, and Travel. The Travel app is especially handy for planning trips from start to finish. You can search for hotels to compare prices and other accommodations and even reserve a room through the app. You can also check out and compare all the flights to your destination and book your air travel through the app.

My favorite Windows 8 apps are the Bing-related ones for News, Weather, Sports, and Travel. They come in handy for business and personal use. They’re nicely designed, full of amazing images, and extremely helpful. In fact, while writing about the Travel app for the book, I was able to plan an entire trip to Paris, at least on the screen. Now my wife is waiting for me to actually book it.

Easily use and manage wireless networks. If you are using your laptop remotely and need to connect to and manage wireless networks, Windows 8 makes the process much easier than in previous incarnations of Windows. Just go to the Networks pane to see a list of all available Wi-Fi networks. Simply pick the one you want, enter the security password, and you’re connected.

The Networks pane also shows you accessible cellular and wired connections, so you can choose those as well. Right-clicking on a network displays a list of handy options. One of those options lets you set up the network as a metered connection, especially useful on a cellular plan where you need to keep track of how much data you use. The Networks pane provides a nice visual tool for connecting to and managing wireless, wired, and cellular networks.

Troubleshoot quickly. Of course, no software is perfect, and sometimes Windows gets corrupted or starts misbehaving to the point where it no longer runs reliably. Rather than trying to find the source of the problem, simply refresh or reset your PC to bring it back to a cleaner state. Refreshing your PC keeps your Windows 8 apps, files, and personalized settings intact but loses your desktop applications and changes your PC settings back to their defaults. Resetting your PC reinstalls Windows, removing all of your apps and personal files and changing your PC settings back to the default values. But either option should be able to help Windows 8 behave properly again.

Yes, Windows 8 can lose its way just like previous versions. On one of my computers, Windows 8 recently kept giving me an error that the resolution was too low to run any app, even though it was working fine the day before. No matter what I did to adjust the resolution, I still couldn’t run any apps. Finally, I simply ran a refresh on my computer. And the problem was fixed.

As with any big software change, Windows 8 takes getting used to. Many of the new features aren’t out in the open and require time to discover. But once you learn your way around, you’ll be able to navigate Windows 8 more efficiently so you take full advantage of the new environment.

About the Author:

Lance Whitney is the author of Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time (Wiley, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-118-41864-2, $29.99).

Surviving a long and varied career in publishing, advertising, and IT, Lance Whitney now wears a few different technology hats. By day, he’s a journalist, software trainer, and sometime Web developer. And by night, he’s asleep. These days, he writes news stories, columns, and reviews for CNET, Microsoft TechNet, Computer Shopper, and other technology sites and publications.

About the Book:

Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time (Wiley, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-118-41864-2, $29.99) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit the book’s page at www.wiley.com.

Founded in 1807, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., has been a valued source of information and understanding for 200 years, helping people around the world meet their needs and fulfill their aspirations. Wiley’s core business includes scientific, technical, and medical journals; encyclopedias, books, and online products and services; professional and consumer books and subscription services; and educational materials for undergraduate and graduate students and lifelong learners. Wiley’s global headquarters are located in Hoboken, New Jersey, with operations in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Canada, and Australia.

The Company’s Web site can be accessed at www.wiley.com. The Company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbols JWa and JWb..

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