Desktop Windows 8 survival guide

Microsoft’s new Windows is its best yet, under the covers. It does have peculiarities though, thanks to its combination of a new touch-friendly user interface which I will call Metro, and the old Desktop user interface. The first encounter with Windows 8 is usually pretty painful, as you struggle to do things which are second nature for seasoned Windows 7 or Windows XP users. It is not really so bad though: most things still work once you have figured out how to find them. Here is a brief survival guide for keyboard and mouse users – no mention of touch here. I am also mostly avoiding third-party utilities. This is for out-of-the-box Windows 8 as far as possible.

If you have a Windows 8 machine with a touch screen, see here for tips specific to touch.

Options are shown a, b , c etc where they are alternatives. Steps are shown as 1, 2, 3 where needed.

Where is the Start menu?

The Start menu is a now a full-screen Metro application. You can find it in several ways. Press the Windows key, or Ctrl-Esc together, or put the mouse in the bottom left corner where the Start button used to be and click.


I have the Start menu or a Metro app running. How do I get back to the desktop?

Click the Desktop tile in the Start menu, or press Windows and D together, or put the mouse to the top left corner of the screen and click the desktop image that appears.


I hate the “live tiles” in the start menu, how can you turn off all the flickering activity?

Yes, I’m not sure about them either. In the Start screen, right-click a live tile so a tick appears in the top right corner. Then click Turn live tile off at the foot of the screen.


There is also an option to remove personal data from live tiles. To get this, display the Start screen, move the mouse to the bottom right corner of the screen, then click Settings – Tiles. Click Clear.


How do I organize the Start screen into groups?

The new Start screen is not hierarchical, but does support named groups. Two things you need to know:

1. To create a group, click and drag a tile right until it passes a grey vertical bar. Release to start the new group.


Add further tiles to the group by dragging them under one of the existing tiles in the group.

2. To name and/or move the group, click the tiny horizontal bar at bottom right of the the Start screen.


This will zoom out. Now, right-click the group you want to name. This selects the group. Then you can click Name group to name or rename it, or drag the group elsewhere on the Start screen.


How do I start an application when I can’t even see it in the Start screen?

Can be a problem. Before you give up though, there are a few things to try:

a. The quickest way to find an application is by typing a search. Display the Start screen and type a few letters; all the matching applications are listed.

b. Right-click on the Start screen and click All apps in the bottom right corner to display all the icons in a smaller size. If you can’t find it in the alphabetical list (maybe you forget the name) scroll right to see the grouped list which follows.

c. Still can’t see it? Try showing Administrative tools. Mouse bottom right or press Windows key and C, settings, Tiles, Show administrative tools.

d. Still stuck? Windows key and R together brings up the Run dialog. Type the name of the executable, or click Browse to find the executable, which is most often somewhere in Program Files or Program Files (x86).

How can I avoid the Start screen? It is jarring to have it occupy the full screen when I am working in the Desktop.

a. Make sure your usual applications are pinned to the taskbar and start them from there. If you use lots of applications, you can make it double-height to fit more on, or it will scroll.

b. Use Windows key and R together to bring up the Run dialog and start an application there.

c. Right-click in the bottom left corner to show the Administrative menu. Here you can start most of the utilities that can be tricky to find. You can also get this with Windows – X.


d. Put more shortcuts on the Desktop and use Windows – D to bring up the desktop when you need it.

Where is control panel? The real one, that is.

If you have read this far, you should know several ways to find it.

a. Start screen, type control, click Control Panel

b. On the desktop, mouse bottom left corner, right-click, choose Control Panel.

c. On the desktop, mouse button bottom right or press Windows – C for Charms, Settings, Control Panel.

d. Right-click in the bottom left corner for the Administrative menu, or press Windows – X.

How do I switch between applications, since Metro apps do not appear in the taskbar?

Annoying I agree, presuming you use both Metro and Desktop apps. The only thing that really works properly is pressing Alt and Tab together. This brings up a program switcher. Press tab again until you get where you want.


Another thing you can do is to move the mouse top left of the screen and drag down. An odd movement at first but it works; or you can use Windows and Tab together. This shows all the running Metro apps as well as the current Desktop app. It is a bit hopeless though because it does not show all the Desktop apps. Then again, you can use the taskbar as your switcher for Desktop apps so it is just about viable.

I’m in a Metro app running full-screen. Where are the menus and settings?

There are two places to look. To get menus, like the tabs and address bar in Metro Internet Explorer, right-click with the mouse. To get settings, mouse to top or bottom right corner or press Windows key and C, and click Settings. The settings are contextual, so you will get the settings for the current app.

I’m in a Metro app. Where is the search function?

Quick answer: Press Windows key and Q.

Long answer: I was surprised to see reviews of the Wikipedia app bemoaning the lack of a search function. How could an encyclopaedia app not have search?

It does of course. It is just that it is not obvious where to find it.

The reason is that Windows 8 has a system search feature. You summon by displaying the Charms bar (Windows key + C, or mouse to top or bottom left corner) and clicking Search. Search defaults to the current app, but you can search elsewhere by clicking another option.

Better still, learn the following keyboard shortcuts:

Windows key and Q: Search apps

Windows key and F: Search files

Windows key and W: Search settings

I’m in a Metro app running full-screen. How I can see the on-screen clock?

This annoys me as well. However, Windows key and C will show it temporarily.

I’m in a Metro app running full-screen. How do I close it?

The idea is that you don’t normally need to close an app. Rather, you switch away from it, which you can do using techniques already described: Windows key, or alt-tab, or mouse to top left and (if necessary) drag down.

Metro apps may be hibernated when not in use, so they do not grab system resources in the way desktop apps sometimes do.

However, you might want to close an app because it is misbehaving, or just because you have a tidy mind. You can use alt-F4, which works here as it has done is Windows forever.

If you prefer to use the mouse, move the mouse to the top of the screen so it becomes a hand cursor. Hold the left button down, and drag down the screen and off the bottom. This closes the app.

Alternatively, switch to another app, then do the mouse to top left corner and drag down move. Right-click the app icon you want to close, and click Close.


Having two versions of IE is confusing. I keep losing track of which sites are open in which browser.

Agreed. The best solution is to make Desktop IE the default, so that Metro IE rarely opens. Go to Control Panel, type Internet in the search box, and click on Internet Options. Click the Programs tab, and under Choose how you open links, select Always in Internet Explorer on the desktop. Finally, check Open Internet Explorer tiles on the desktop.


How do I play a DVD?

Windows 8 does not include a DVD player. However your PC may come with DVD playing software bundled by the PC manufacturer. If not, download Videolan (VLC) from here. It’s free, and DVDs will play fine.

How do I shut down or restart the computer?

Windows key and I brings up the Power menu.

Alternatively, Windows key and C, or mouse to bottom right corner, and click Settings, then Power.


This is somewhat hidden because Microsoft intends that normally power management, or shutting the lid on a laptop, or the soft power-off on a tablet, will be enough. Still, some of us like to turn the PC off completely.

If you want a quicker way to do this with the mouse, it is trivial to create a single short-cut. Right-click the desktop and choose New – shortcut. In the dialogue that appears, type:

shutdown -s


Click Next, name it as you like, and then Finish. For a restart, use:

shutdown -r

These commands also work in batch files or in the Run dialog.

How do I log off or switch user?

Go to the Start screen and click the user name at top right to display a menu, including Lock, Sign out, and Switch account.


How can I stop PDF documents opening in Metro?

Windows 8 is set up to open PDF documents in the Metro-style Windows Reader. It is not too bad, but can be annoying and does not have the range of features in the Adobe reader. To fix this, make sure that the latest Adobe reader is installed by downloading it from here. Once installed, right-click a PDF file and click Open With and then Choose Default program.


In the dialog that appears, click Adobe Reader:


Now PDF documents will open on the desktop in Adobe Reader.

Where has backup gone in Windows 8?

It’s still there, but for reasons best known to Microsoft it is now called Windows 7 File Recovery. Open desktop Control Panel, type recovery top right and press Enter. Click Windows 7 File Recovery.


How do you run an application as administrator?

Several ways, but these are the easiest:

a. Hold down Ctrl and Shift together, then click the icon in the taskbar (for an application pinned to the taskbar)

b. Go to the Start screen (Windows Key), find the application icon and right-click. Then click Run as administrator from the menu bar at the foot of the screen.


22 thoughts on “Desktop Windows 8 survival guide”

  1. This is delicious! I am printing this must-have guide and keeping it beside my keyboard, now that I am using the preview full-time. Thank you so much.

  2. Windows 8 is the first windows OS I won’t be upgrading to. It’s completely counter intuitive. I know for sure I won’t be upgrading my parents to it 🙂

    1. This is what people said to the first version of Windows too.
      They hated the switch from console to graphics.

      Give it some time.

  3. If an operating system needs a survival guide to do things like starting a program or finding the control panel, is it not time to have a little re-think? Why would any IT manager in any large corporation want to roll this out across his organisation? What possible benefits are there? And were told that PCs are dead, a thing of the past. Really? So we’re all honestly going to be walking around with little pads looking cool and drinking coffee? This is all nonsense. Stop trying to chase the iPad market and get real, that train has left the station and already arrived at the destination, and you’re trying to catch up with this half baked, cludge of a schizophrenic OS that no-one needs or wants. I’ll either stick with Vista/7 or use Ubuntu or (horror of horrors) I’ll swap over to a MAC. Damn, I never thought I’d type those words!

  4. I see positive and negative comments floating from every angle and understand why… but at the end of the day, we’ve got to move forward with the waves of technology, learn why its here and how to use it. Consumerization is here and I believe is here to stay with the younger generation of workers flooding the workspace.

  5. Great guide but I have to agree with the naysayers on Windows 8 – it just isn’t going to work for most computer users and will likely go down in history as being worse than Vista / ME in terms of the public reception.

  6. Talk about making a very easy to navigate and operate OS (Win 7, Vista, XP etc etc) to a heap of junk that requires so much more time and resources to do basic things. I tried using the consumer preview for a while and it was just horrid.

    Looks like Windows 7 and Server 2008r2 (my server solution) are going to be my system platforms for some time to come. Not cool microsoft taking away choice from your customers.

  7. Re-Backup of Files, go to Control Panel and turn on File History. Far better than the old Windows 7 Backup.

    This feature alone is worth upgrading to Windows 8.

    (Using Windows 8 Pro – RTM)

  8. I think it is fair to say when you require a “guide” to explain how to use your mouse and keyboard in the new OS design, your design is flawed. But it goes beyond that. Windows 8 is I believe is a full-on disaster for Microsoft. It is ugly, unintuitive, and aggressively unfriendly. This will be the first iteration of Windows I will skip.

    1. Windows 95 had a guide to help people who were used to DOS make the leap to Windows. Windows 8 is meant to be a leap forward again, and will need such a guide. I just hope Microsoft has realized that and will provide one.

  9. i gotta say, microsft really dropped the ball here, my friend and myself had a go at the beta and were massively dissapointed. it’s ugly, hard to use and annoying

  10. Apple did it right, the introduced their iOS interface to MAC as an add-on, they did not make it the default. it gave MAC users a chance to get used to it. NO I am not a “FANBOY” I have however been in the IT industry for over 20 years seeing the changes from various UI across the years. Windows 8 is a disaster from a UI point of view. Same goes for Server 2012. Don’t get me wrong the under the bonnet features make it a Killer OS and I would gladly use it except for the fact that it takes me longer to get functions that should be under my fingers tips. and don’t come with the “You will get used to it” rubbish or “that’s what happened with OS xyz” Microsoft tried to take a touch interface and apply it the to a device that is so diverse in it’s configuration that it will not work. PC advocates hit at Apple because you can’t “tweak” the hardware. Apple designed it’s OS around it’s hardware. Multitouch Trackpad that works & makes their OS work. What sort of gesture input is the average Joe-Office-User going to have so he can use this new Touch-Driven OS that microsoft is pushing. Start Buttons may be old but they are here for quite some time in the office space. It’s going to be big laugh seeing a receptionist or PA with a Kinect on her desk trying to open apps or playing solitaire

    1. Thanks for the comment. My experience is the opposite though, once you get used to it Windows 8 is no less usable than Windows 7 (even with keyboard and mouse) and perhaps a little better.

      I am not sure what you mean by the “iOS interface to Mac”?


      1. By iOS Interface I mean the Launchpad (iOS calls it Springboard) it’s the UI the iPad and iPhone use. This has now been incorporated into Mac OS X and works extremely well but it is not the default. you can still make use of your Mac in a regular fashion with Finder and the Dock. “Metro” should be an Add-on to break the users into the new interface on their desktops.
        Another quick example is the IE issue you mention above. Apple have allowed users a full screen browsing experience but it can remain in a single Safari session limiting confusion. This can be switched from full screen to windowed at any time. I am going to stop before this becomes a flame ware between Apple an MS which is not my intention, I love both camps for various reasons. they each have their strong points, but when you work day in and day out for many years on both platforms actively you tend to see the flaws in UI design that inhibit productivity

  11. WOW, having worked in IT since windows 3.1 I can honestly say Microsoft have really messed up with this. It is terrible. Absolutely terrible. Have been using it for a few weeks now and can say there is no getting used to it. It will never be used in my office. The UI is far too clumsy. The simplest of tasks requires multiple clicks followed by a search just to find the program you need to run. Tablet software and desktop software should never bt integrated like this. I have given it a few weeks to try and get used to it and today is is getting wipes off my PC for ever. Im moving over to SUSE Linux and advise every PC user to either stick with Windows 7 or Linux.

  12. The fact that such an extensive guide is needed and that the answers are so varied and unintuitive shows the complete and utter failure of Windows 8.

    And what’s with using the search function to find applications? Are we back to a command line operating system? Sheesh.

Comments are closed.