Windows 8: 15 tips and tricks   Leave a comment

Looking for Windows 8 tips? Paras Malik runs through 15 ways to ease the upgrade transition

We’ve spent more than a year immersed in Microsoft’s multiple Windows 8 beta and final releases, so we feel we know it better than we know our own mothers.

Windows 8 brings countless small improvements to the operating system we’re all used to, but it also introduces bigger changes that can only be fully appreciated after a period of adjustment.

We’ve covered the merits or otherwise of those changes before, notably in the best features of Windows 8 and our full Windows 8 review; now let’s leave the debate behind. In this feature, we look at how you can make the transition to Windows 8 as smooth as possible, whether it’s by introducing hidden or non-existent options and utilities, or simply by making proper use of the tools that are already present. From keyboard shortcuts and layout changes to Registry hacks and God Mode, there’s plenty to get started on.

 

1. Take charge of the Start screen

 

15 tips to improve Windows 8

Microsoft understandably gives its own apps due prominence on the Start screen, but you’re free to change that. You can drag tiles around the grid, and a right-click on certain tiles brings up options to make them larger or uninstall them completely.

You should make good use of Windows 8’s tile groups. You can drag any tile to a blank space on the Start screen to create a new group, but for some baffling reason you can’t name those groups immediately. Instead, you have to use Semantic Zoom – pinch to zoom out on a tablet, hold Ctrl and scroll the mouse wheel, or click the tiny minus symbol in the bottom-right corner. Then, when in the zoomed-out view, just right-click or swipe a finger upwards on a group to give it a name. It might not sound like much, but when you have a lot of applications installed, it makes a significant difference to usability.

As for the grid layout, there’s also a way to change the number of tile rows on the Start screen – but don’t get your hopes up. The highest supported row count is six and the maximum for any given device is determined by screen size and resolution, so if your tablet boots with three rows then you probably won’t be able to increase that number. Still, it can be useful for lowering the row count on a big monitor – perhaps to match the layout of a smaller tablet or laptop for consistency.

To tweak this, search for and run “Regedit”, and before you do anything, click File | Export and save the Registry in case anything goes wrong. Then navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionImmersive-ShellGrid and look for an entry named Layout_MaximumRowCount. If it isn’t there, right-click on an empty space and create a new DWORD value, and give it that name. Then edit that entry, enter the number of tile rows you’d like and reboot your system.

 

2. Add a proper Shutdown button

 

We know it’s only three clicks to shut down a PC in Windows 8, but it’s the location of the power controls that’s annoying. Instead of them being hidden away in a charm, it’s easy to create your own power buttons for both the desktop and the Start screen.

Right-click on the desktop and select New | Shortcut. In the box, type “shutdown /s /t 0” (replace the /s with /r for a Restart button), and name it. To give it an icon, right-click your new shortcut and select Properties, then click Change Icon and choose the big power button. That’s your desktop Shutdown button. To add that to your Start screen tiles, right-click the icon and choose Pin To Start.

15 tips to improve Windows 8

Of course, the Windows-I key combination takes you directly to the Settings charm for a saving of one click, or you could use Ctrl-Alt-Del and the power button that pops up in the bottom-right of the screen, but many people – including several here at PC Pro – still prefer a single-feature button in plain sight.

 

3. Customise the lockscreen

 

On a home PC you may not see the lockscreen often, but on a tablet it pays to set it up properly. In the Personalise menu, choose a lockscreen picture and a selection of apps, which will show quick status updates without the need to unlock the system. By default, you get Messaging, Mail, Calendar and Weather, and even if you intend to use other apps for these tasks, it makes sense to set up each with your accounts, if only for this purpose. You can also choose one app to push more detailed data, although right now the choice is limited.

 

4. Use a picture password

 

Although it works reasonably well with a mouse, this option is intended to take away the pain of logging into Windows 8 on a tablet. Rather than going through the hassle of bringing up the onscreen keyboard and tapping out a password, Windows 8 lets you log in by tracing lines or shapes onto a photo. You choose the image and the three distinct lines or shapes drawn on it in order, so it’s important to create your “password” carefully, using the objects in the picture as pointers. Unless you do something incredibly unimaginative, such as drawing the three sides of a triangle on a picture of a pyramid, it’s secure – and easier to remember than a traditional password.

 

5. Install DVD software

 

15 tips to improve Windows 8

Microsoft has opted to remove the DVD codec from Windows 8 – every licence costs money, and a large number of people will never use it – so you’ll want to download a free player instead. The best supported is VLC media player, which plays back DVDs and CDs along with a range of other file types.

Alternatively, if you’re running Windows 8 Pro, until 31 January you can add the Media Center pack for nothing.

 

6. Make full use of multiple displays

 

The “Modern” UI has proved divisive among PC users, but in our experience, those with a second display find it far less annoying. Since those big tiles appear only on one screen, you can nip into Modern to open an application without disturbing the document or browser that’s open on the other monitor.

However, there’s more you can do to improve the experience, including a tweak to make your taskbar more useful. Right-click on the taskbar and select Properties, then in the Multiple Displays section, set Windows 8 to show buttons on the “Taskbar where the window is open”. This lets you see at a glance – and interact with – only the applications running on that monitor.

 

7. Bring back the file delete confirmation

 

The first thing that struck us when we started with Windows 8 was how easily files vanish. Whether it’s a right-click and Delete when you intended to click Rename, or an accidental tap of the Delete key, Windows 8 no longer seeks permission before consigning that vital document to the Recycle Bin. It’s not hard to search through the bin to retrieve a file, but that extra layer of protection can be reinstated.

Search for and open “Regedit”, back up your Registry with the Export option before you begin, then navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionPolicies. Create a new Key within Policies called Explorer, which should appear as a further nested folder in the tree. Within that folder, create a new DWORD value called ConfirmFileDelete, and change its value to 1. You can disable the change by reverting it to 0.

 

8. Set up Storage Spaces

 

One of Windows 8’s rarely discussed but most interesting features, a storage space is essentially a group of physical disks that the system views as one logical storage location. It’s mainly a business feature, but in the home it’s a little like a less complex way to set up a RAID-like array. Just plug in any spare hard disks you have – it doesn’t matter if you mix models and capacities – and search for Manage Storage Spaces. The wizard helps you to set up your extra drives as one simple lump of storage, or in various mirrored modes for added data resilience.

Better still, the storage space you create is flexible. If you have two spare 250GB disks lying around, you could set up a 500GB space; when you fill that, just plug in a third disk and extend the capacity. Windows 8 handles all the behind-the-scenes stuff so that to the user, it just looks like one big drive. You can’t do any of this to your main system disk, so storage spaces make most sense on PCs with a relatively small disk hosting the OS and several large hard disks set up solely for data.

 

9. Use the Task Manager

 

It’s one of our favourite improvements, but it’s still one many people never use – or even know about. Press Ctrl-Shift-Esc to open the Task Manager, and use it regularly to keep an eye on resource-hungry apps, especially if you’re on a metered 3G connection. The handy new App History tab tells you all you need to know, and it’s now easier to disable apps if they’re unreliable.

 

10. Use the admin menu

 

Another feature that Microsoft should make more obvious is the admin menu that gives quick access to the Device Manager, Command Prompt, Control Panel and much more. It’s right there on the desktop if you know where to look. Move your mouse to the bottom-left corner and the Start screen icon will appear, but ignore that and instead right-click to bring up the closest thing Windows 8 has to the traditional Start menu. Alternatively, quickly open the menu by pressing Windows-X.

 

11. Make use of child accounts

 

The Windows Store brings a new complication to PCs. Apps are tied to the user profile under which they were purchased, which confuses matters on a family PC. Of course, you want the kids to access that expensive Encyclopaedia Britannica app, but you don’t necessarily want them to play with your financial files or other apps you’ve accumulated.

 

Child accounts – which you should really be using for the latter reason – offer a clumsy way around the purchasing problem. Set up a child account in the Users tab of Settings, then configure it by searching for Family Safety. If you have a paid-for app on your parent account and want to allow your child to use it too, you can temporarily sign into your Microsoft account from within the Store on his or her user profile, download the purchased app, then sign yourself back out to make sure no further purchases can be made once you’re gone. The app will remain usable on the child account, saving you the expense of buying it twice.

It goes without saying that you should look through the extensive range of settings in Family Safety, which allow you to set time limits on your child’s PC usage and block age-restricted games from the Windows Store. We’re less enamoured by the rather over-the-top child-tracking tools Microsoft has included.

 

12. Enable God Mode

 

No, it doesn’t give you infinite ammo and health, but this long-time favourite of power users provides quick access to every setting and maintenance utility in Windows 8 in one place. Just create a new folder on the desktop and call it “GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}” (omit the quote marks). The OS will automatically tidy up the name and the symbol will change to show that it’s now a system folder. Double-click it and enjoy the power.

God Mode

 

13. Create a locked-down guest account

 

On a similar topic to number 11, it’s also useful to have a special account with restrictions for visitors. Once you’ve set it up and installed a few of the most commonly used apps, you can prevent guests from uninstalling anything from the Start screen. Search for and run “Regedit”, run an Export to back up your Registry, then navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwarePoliciesMicrosoftWindows. Once there, create a new Key under Windows called Explorer, and within that, create a new DWORD value called NoUninstallFromStart. Change its value to 1, reboot, and right-clicking on an app in the Start screen will no longer offer Uninstall as an option. This can also be a useful setting on shared accounts.

 

14. Buy touch accessories

 

Learning the new keyboard shortcuts and pinning your most frequently used applications to the desktop taskbar can make the transition to Windows 8 much smoother, as can spending a little more cash on the right accessories.

Microsoft has produced a range of gesture-based touch mice and keyboards that have their own charm shortcut keys – we’ve previously reviewed the Wedge Touch Mouse and Mobile Keyboard. Logitech has also released its own range of Windows 8 accessories, and more manufacturers will certainly follow as the OS gains traction. The new Start screen is really designed for touch and gestures, so don’t underestimate how much more intuitive the Windows 8 experience can be when you look beyond a traditional mouse and keyboard – even on a desktop PC.

 

15. Bring back the Start menu

 

This one was glued to the top of a lot of wishlists as each beta version of Windows 8 came and went, but there’s a good reason why this is the final option we mention. Yes, you can bring back the Start menu easily enough and carry on working as you were in Windows 7, but we strongly urge you to give Windows 8 a fair crack before taking that step. That’s because few of the drastic changes are as nonsensical as they seem on first boot, and you simply can’t appreciate this without fully immersing yourself in the OS. You might even find you like a new way of doing things.

Done that? Still not happy? Then we recommend an open source application by the name of Classic Shell. It not only brings back the Start button, but also the nested, fully customisable menus, complete with the old Shutdown controls within easy reach. It doesn’t actually dispose of the modern Start screen, so you can still try the Windows 8 way if the desire takes you, but let’s not kid ourselves: this is about keeping things usable for desktop PC owners, and it works.

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