Millions of people will be trying Windows 8 for the first time this year and many will be confused by the new user experiences, which meld the classic Windows desktop with a new touch-centric mobile platform. No worries: I’ve collected several months of Windows 8 tips—over 50 in all—into a single place where can go to find what you need and master Microsoft’s latest operating system.
Note: With only a few exceptions, these tips also apply to Windows RT.
Note: I’ll be updating this article as new tips are added to the series.
Installing and upgrading
This one is a bit timelier than most of my previous Windows 8 tips, and it’s likewise very straightforward. If you’re planning to upgrade an existing PC to Windows 8, you need to do so soon in order to save a ton of money. And that’s true whether you wish to buy a retail upgrade or do so electronically.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is allowing owners of previous Windows versions to upgrade from a previous version of Windows in a variety of ways. In the old days, we thought of this process as a clean install, in-place upgrade, or migration, depending on the method used. But with Windows 8, things are a bit more nuanced. Here’s what’s changing.
Microsoft has always offered a variety of ways to buy and install new versions of Windows, with retail and electronic options, clean installs, upgrades, and migrations, and in-box ways of upgrading to higher-end Windows editions. In Windows 8, the ways in which we can acquire and install this OS have expanded yet again. And this time around, Microsoft offers the simplest way yet to do both.
I’ve advocated using the Windows 8 web installer because it’s the simplest and safest way to upgrade an existing PC to Windows 8. But if you didn’t create Setup media using the web installer, you may be concerned about what happens if you need to start over again from scratch in the future. No worries: You will be able to install Windows 8 later if need be.
When it comes to dual-booting between Windows 8 and Windows 7, the advice is the same as always: Install the older OS first, make room for the second OS, and then install the newer OS.
With Windows 8 arriving in public form on October 26, millions of users are still running the Release Preview version of the operating system are wondering what their options are: Can they upgrade? Or will they need to start over again from scratch?
Continuing a series of tips that examines upgrading from previous versions of Windows to Windows 8, I take a look at Windows Vista: Which upgrade types are supported, and what can you bring forward from this version of Windows to Windows 8?
In this tip, I examine upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 8: Which upgrade types are supported, and what can you bring forward from this version of Windows to Windows 8?
In my final article in this series of tips about upgrading from previous versions of Windows to Windows 8, I take a look at Windows 7, which offers the best-possible and most fully-supported upgrade experience.
When you upgrade from a previous Windows version to Windows 8, Setup automatically stores much of your previous Windows install in a special folder so you can recover information later if need be. But this folder takes up a ton of disk space, and if you don’t need its contents, you can safely remove it to recover that space. There’s just one trick you need to know about first.
Metro and the built-in Metro-styled apps
In writing about Windows 8, I’ve tried to stress that this new system is a mobile OS and not an evolution of Windows 7. That’s because the new Metro-style apps in Windows 8 are mobile apps, not traditional desktop applications. The difference may seem subtle, but it isn’t. And bridging this conceptual divide is key to your understanding and using Windows 8 effectively.
While it’s clear that the new Metro environment in Windows 8 and RT is a new mobile platform, many users still don’t understand the implications of this distinction. Key among the confusions is SkyDrive, which is available in both Metro app and desktop application forms on Windows 8. These two programs offer completely different but complementary capabilities.
Microsoft’s new Mail app is a Metro-style replacement for the email capabilities in Windows Live Mail, and while it’s an attractive enough experience, it’s also a bit strange for those of us used to more complex and feature-packed desktop applications. The most common question I’ve received about the new Mail involves adding new accounts, and while the app is usually pre-configured for your Microsoft account, it’s not clear how (or even whether) you can add other accounts. But you can. Here’s how.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is bringing its integrated, Metro-style experiences from Windows Phone to traditional PCs and new computing devices. Integration means many things, but one of the big benefits is that you no longer need special apps to perform individual tasks. So rather than interact with Facebook using a Facebook app, and access Twitter from a Twitter app, you can do both—and more—using a single, integrated Windows 8 experience.
While previous versions of Windows offered an incredibly useful Start Menu Search feature, Windows 8 takes it to 11 with a new full-screen Start Search experience and integrated searching of virtually every useful new Metro-style app. It’s one of Windows 8’s best features.
While the Windows 8 Start Search experience has some pluses and minuses compared to the similar Windows 7 feature, one of the nicer changes is the integration of search into Metro-style apps. And if you have favorite Metro apps, you can pin them to the top of Start Search so that those apps are easier to search.
Like the mobile platforms that inspired it, Windows 8 and RT offer integrated and centralized support for notifications, ways in which apps and the OS itself can alert the user to important events without interrupting what they’re doing. And while Windows 8 falls short of offering a true notification hub, like many mobile systems, it does offer a variety of features that help you manage these notifications.
In some ways, this tip is kind of a bonbon, a lightweight trifle in the sense that it’s fairly obvious. But if you’re bemoaning the lack of a native Metro-style app for Facebook, your best alternative may be to skip the Facebook support in the People app and just use Facebook’s web experience.
While many complain that the design of the new Metro user experience in Windows 8/RT is too touch-centric, we should give Microsoft some credit for fully support traditional PC interfaces like keyboard and mouse as well. So it is with shutting down Metro-style apps: Yes, there are new ways to do this, but Windows 8 supports traditional methods as well.
If you know an update has occurred—perhaps because you read about it on this site or saw one of my tweets—but don’t see it in Windows Store, you can still download it manually.
Thanks to a recent update to the Bing News app, Windows 8 now includes a native RSS client. And while the News app isn’t currently a perfect replacement for Google Reader, which is being retired this summer, it is suddenly a viable option, one that syncs your feeds across multiple PCs.
Desktop environment and applications
Critics of Windows 8 have a point when they argue that Microsoft’s new OS is shipping in a semi-incomplete state. But this isn’t unprecedented: Even Windows 7 lacked core applications for email, photo editing, and the like, and the advice then was that you could complete the Windows 7 experience by adding Windows Live Essentials. For Windows 8, the advice still rings true, especially for desktop users: You will want to install the new Essentials to fill some gaps in Windows 8’s core functionality.
In a previous tip, I discussed how you can complete the Windows 8 user experience by installing Windows Essentials 2012, a suite of useful desktop applications that provides far more functionality than the built-in Metro apps and desktop applications that come standard with the OS. One of those applications, SkyDrive, is particularly useful. And if configured correctly, you can use this application to sync all of your important documents and photos—and other files—between all of your PCs and the cloud.
While Windows Vista included a useful interface for managing which applications could run at startup, Microsoft removed it from Windows 7, forcing users to rely on more old-fashioned utilities. But Windows 8 includes an even better solution for this problem. And if you are using a lot of desktop applications, you’ll want to visit it from time to time to ensure that unnecessary applications aren’t slowing boot time and stealing system resources.
In this tip, I look at a common source of confusion in Windows 8: How you shut down, restart, or sleep the PC.
Previous to Windows 8, most users knew to use the Volume icon in the system tray to control the system volume and access more advance controls such as the mixer, which could be used to individually control the volume of individual applications and playback devices. These interfaces still exist in Windows 8, of course, but with the addition of the Metro environment, a more consistent method for controlling system volume is provided.
Windows 8 was clearly designed for multi-touch interfaces first, but it also has full featured keyboard and mouse interfaces. So while users of traditional PCs are understandably miffed that their favorite device type is being deemphasized going forward, Windows 8 will not leave you in the lurch. And one of the best ways to get efficient in this new system on traditional PC hardware is to learn the new keyboard shortcuts that Microsoft added to Windows 8.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is finally adding what’s now called “user experience virtualization” features to its desktop operating system, providing ways to sync various things between different PCs, providing a consistent and familiar environment on each. The core OS provides a wide range of settings synchronization capabilities, and with a simple and free add-on application, you can sync files between all of your PCs as well.
With Windows 8, its preferable to sign into your PC with a Microsoft account—or what we still call a Windows Live ID—to take advantage of SkyDrive-based settings sync and deep integration with several new Metro-style apps and other capabilities. But if you signed in with a local account for whatever reason, you can still take advantage of Windows 8’s Microsoft account integration. You just need to convert the local account.
With Windows 8, its preferable to sign into your PC with a Microsoft account—or what we still call a Windows Live ID—to take advantage of SkyDrive-based settings sync and deep integration with several new Metro-style apps and other capabilities. But what about those people who sign in to their PC with a corporate domain account? In this tip, I’ll explain how can still utilize this integration.
Windows 8 works like other mobile app platforms, where an online account, in this case your Microsoft account, is used to make app and game purchases. But what if you have a shared PC or device and would like to use the same paid apps and games between multiple accounts? Can you do this, or do you need to buy the app multiple times, one for each account?
Here’s a great new Windows 8 tip, courtesy of a reader: Microsoft provides a handy web site that lets you quickly and easily remove all of the personal settings you’re syncing through your Microsoft account to Windows 8 and RT.
Personalizing Windows 8
While most of the Windows 8 tips I’ve written have focused on specific new features and functionality, this one is a bit more general. If you do upgrade to Windows 8, my advice is to embrace the changes that Microsoft has made to this new OS and not try to circumvent them with utilities that emulate the old-fashioned user interfaces of previous Windows versions.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is bringing a number of technologies and user experiences from the mobile world into its desktop OS for the first time, a blending of the old and then new that will confuse some users. But while some of the new mobile-based experiences in Windows 8 will make sense on traditional desktop and portable computers, some will not. And the Windows Phone-like Lock screen can rightfully be seen as an unnecessary extra step at boot time. Let’s get rid of it.
Microsoft has replaced the program launching capabilities of the Start menu and taskbar with a new Start screen in Windows 8, and while this new interface is controversial in certain circles, it offers new ways for you to customize your daily computing experience.
In the previous tip, I discussed a number of ways in which you can customize the Windows 8 Start screen. But the final piece to this puzzle is a related set of customizations you can make to individual live tiles on the Start screen.
Anyone who has used Windows over the past decade or so understands how to customize the desktop, and most of the same tools and techniques carry over, often unchanged, to Windows 8. But there are a few interesting new customization capabilities in the Windows 8 desktop.
Those trying to replace the new Metro-style experiences in Windows 8 are missing the point: These interfaces are the future of the PC, and I feel it’s better to dive right in, learn and master them, and stop pining for obsolete UIs like the Start button and the Start menu. That said, most Windows 8 users today are still using traditional PCs and are working almost exclusively with desktop applications. So it does make sense to jump directly to the desktop when you sign-in on such machines. And a free new utility is arguably the best way to make that happen.
The methods you use to change file associations—that, which apps or applications are used to open specific file types—in Windows 8 are similar to how things work in Windows 7. But there a few major changes: Some of the interfaces you use now are Metro experiences. And in Windows 8, you get to choose between Metro style apps and desktop applications.
Windows utility maker Stardock has released an amazing application that lets you run Windows 8 “Metro” apps in a window alongside traditional Windows applications. It’s not free, but if you use Windows 8 on a desktop PC as I do, this might be the best $5 you ever spend.
Interacting with hardware
With both Windows and Windows Phone changing fairly dramatically with this year’s major updates, some users are concerned or confused about how they’ll accomplish common tasks. Key among these is PC-to-device sync: Microsoft has delivered new sync clients and new PC-free functionality with Windows Phone 8, but many are wondering how they can sync their existing Windows Phone 7.x and Zune devices.
In Metro, printers are managed, as you’d expect, through PC Settings, the new Metro-style partial replacement for Control Panel. You can view and remove connected printers and other devices, and add new printers and other devices, through PC Settings, Devices. And if a printer is already configured through the desktop environment, it will appear here as well.
Most people understand that Windows 8 includes integrated support for mouse, keyboard, and touch screen interfaces. But few realize that Windows 8 also supports multi-touch gestures in the trackpads that are commonly found on laptops and Ultrabooks.
Digital Music and Video
When Microsoft revealed that it would remove DVD movie playback functionality from Windows 8, enthusiasts howled in protest. Truth be told, DVD playback is a legacy feature in an age of pervasive connectivity and new Windows device types like Ultrabooks, tablets, and hybrid PCs that lack optical drives in the first place. But it’s easy to add DVD playback to Windows 8 if you really need it. In fact, it can be free.
When Microsoft announced that it was removing Windows Media Center from Windows 8 and making it available as a paid add-on, enthusiasts howled. But in a rare if temporary mea culpa, Microsoft is now making Media Center available for free to anyone with Windows 8 Pro. But you need to act fast: This special offer is available only for a limited time.
When I started this collection of Windows 8 tips some months ago, I began by focusing on answering the most common questions I received about Microsoft’s new OS. But today’s tip, oddly, was one I had planned to write from the very beginning, one that I actually held off on because I didn’t think it would impact that many people. That was a mistake.
The Metro-style digital media apps in Windows 8—Photos, Xbox Music, and Xbox Video—work differently when it comes to how or whether they can access content from different locations. So this time around, I’d like to step back and examine just the Photos app explicitly, and perhaps a clearer picture will emerge.
I’ve received a lot of questions about the Xbox Music app in Windows 8, especially around some of the more advanced functionality that users currently expect from solutions like Windows Media Player, Zune, or iTunes. And while this app, like other Metro apps, can only improve over time, it’s important to remember that for now at least it offers only very basic functionality.
The Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps both offer gorgeous, full-screen interfaces for displaying music, TV shows, and movies. But both apps default to an online store view that some people may not like. Fortunately, you can configure both apps to display your own content, rather than Microsoft’s, by default.
One of the more useful but confusing new features in Windows Phone 8 is its integration with Xbox Cloud Collection, Microsoft’s music storage locker service. But this service works with related services such as Xbox Music Pass and Xbox Music Store to make Windows Phone 8 the most complete and integrated portable music player available.
In a previous tip, I discussed how you could access Xbox Music’s cloud-based music locker service, Cloud Collection, to stream or download the music you previously purchased from Microsoft. But Cloud Collection also includes a music match component, by which you can make your other music available through the service to all of your PCs and devices. And while it’s a bit hard to use, it is available now.
While I’m currently using Windows Server 2012 Essentials as the foundation of my home office network, a lot of readers are curious about how they might use the simpler and less expensive Windows 8 in a similar way. As it turns out, this is both easy and effective, whether you want a general purpose server or a media server through which you share music, photos, and videos between PCs and devices.
Backup and restore
Before Windows 8, resetting a PC was a complex and time-consuming affair. But thanks to Push Button Reset, you can now “nuke it from space,” as I think of it, and return the PC to its factory-fresh state in just minutes. Too good to be true? Not at all. In fact, this is one of Windows 8’s best new features.
With Windows 8, users have a much wider range of choices when it comes to file and system backups than they did with Windows 7. Which solution you choose depends on your needs, but understanding why Microsoft so dramatically changed backup in Windows 8 also requires an understanding of how this version of the OS has evolved.
Windows 8 includes a feature called File History that caches, or backs up, different versions of your documents and other data files, so you can “go back in time” and recover previous or deleted versions of those files. It’s a great feature that builds on technology that’s been in Windows since 2003—long before Apple copied it with Time Machine—and it works very well. The trouble is, File History is disabled by default in new installs of Windows 8. So you’ll need to enable first.
As the foundation for your mobile computing future, Windows 8 provides next generation recovery tools, Push Button Reset for OS reinstalls, and File History for document versioning. But these utilities make many PC users and enthusiasts nervous. If only there was a way to use the system image backup capabilities from Windows 7 in Windows 8.
When you install or upgrade to Windows 8, or receive a new Windows 8-based PC, one of the first things you should do is create recovery media, providing you with an alternate way to boot the PC and run recovery tools should something go wrong. This process has changed a bit since Windows 7, and now works with both USB-based recovery media as well as disc-based media.
In a previous tip, I described how you can (and should) create Windows 8 recovery media so that you can use Push Button Reset and other tools to help troubleshoot and fix your PC or device when things go wrong. But a bootable disk or USB device is only one way to access these tools, which Microsoft also includes right in your Windows 8 install. There is a faster way.
Power user features
In Windows 8, Microsoft has replaced its previous virtualization solution, Windows Virtual PC, with a more powerful, scalable, and capable solution called Hyper-V. Based on its server-based virtualization technologies, Hyper-V is a better solution for developers, IT pros, and the help desk. But it does lack one crucial capability that made Virtual PC special.
Microsoft has been evolving its BitLocker-based full disk encryption technologies since its debut in Windows Vista. In Windows 8, Microsoft offers it’s best ever version of BitLocker to both consumers and businesses, and you can use a related feature, called BitLocker To Go, to protect portable storage devices like USB flash drives and hard drives.
While Windows networking has certainly got more sophisticated about offline conditions over time, Windows 8 introduces a handy switch called Airplane Mode that works like the same feature on various smart phone platforms. It allows you to turn off all of the PC’s radios in one fell swoop when you know you’re going to be offline for a while—as on airplane ride—and then re-enable them when you arrive at your destination.
With Microsoft announcing plans to shutter its Live Mesh service in February, some users are freaking out because its replacement, the SkyDrive desktop application, lacks some useful features, including remote desktop. But remote desktop functionality is already built into Windows 8. Here’s how to make it work.
Do you have a tip you’d like to see added? Please send me a note or add a comment below. Thanks! --Paul