Windows 8 represents a strategic shift for Microsoft in favour of mobility. But for those of us who rely on Windows to sit down at a keyboard to do real work, the early returns on Windows 8 are cause for concern.

"Windows Frankenstein," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde OS" - much has been made of the inconsistencies of Microsoft's two-faced UI. If there's one consistent element to all the talk about Windows 8, it's about what's missing: the Start menu, the Aero transparencies, the many details people take for granted that make Windows, well, Windows. It's little wonder then that many folks are seriously considering skipping Windows 8 altogether.

But what if you can't? Or what if you've decided to take the Windows 8 plunge and want to know not just how to get by but to thrive in this brave new Windows world? Here we discuss how to do just that: how a legacy Windows user, with existing hardware, can make the best of Windows 8, focusing on the most immediate and pressing changes that will impact your moment-to-moment Windows use.

Coping with Windows 8 Start

The biggest change in Windows 8 is the one you almost certainly already know about: The legacy Start menu is gone for keeps. In its place is the full-page Metro-powered Start screen.

Because the new Start menu takes up the whole screen, it's bound to be jarring. One way to get around this is to move the Start screen to a secondary monitor, if you have one; another way is to use the taskbar that much more.

Apps can be pinned to the taskbar and accessed with a single click, just as in Windows 7. To pin an app, right-click on it on the new Start screen and click Pin to Taskbar in the App bar that appears. (On a touchscreen, drag it to the bottom and then release.) Your average taskbar has space for quite a few apps, with Explorer and IE (which you can replace with the browser of your choice) pinned by default. You probably already do this with Windows 7 for commonly used apps, so there's all the more reason to continue this practice now that Microsoft has scuttled legacy Start.

Right-click on legacy Windows items on the Metro Start screen to pin them to the taskbar, as a way to avoid having to traverse the Start screen to launch them. The taskbar should have enough space on most systems for several commonly used applications. (Click for larger version.)

It may look like it has vanished, but type-to-search remains another useful way to avoid getting hung up on the Start screen. Type-to-search behaves roughly the same way as it does in Windows Vista and Windows 7: Begin typing, and you see results. (You do need a physical keyboard, so this technique won't work on a tablet with just an onscreen keyboard. Instead, open the Search charm by swiping from the right edge of the screen.)

Simply begin typing from the Start screen to start a systemwide search. Note that the context of the search is determined by the highlighted item directly below the search box. (Click for larger version.)

A major difference with Windows 8 is that results are visible only one category at a time, instead of showing the first three choices from each category, as is the case with Vista and Windows 7. In Windows 8, categories are listed beneath the search box. Just use the arrow keys or mouse to navigate between categories to reveal relevant results.

Triggering a search from within a Metro app by pressing Win-Q will automatically have the current app used as the context for the search. (Click for larger version.)

You can always go with the likes of PortableApps to access popular apps from a menu on the legacy desktop. PortableApps offers a curated collection of free and open source apps that run in a self-contained way, without touching the Registry or other system settings. It might prove a useful way to organize and update many apps you might already work with, such as Skype, Chrome, Firefox, and so on.

Use the PortableApps system to launch and organize many common open source and freeware applications, without accessing the Metro Start screen.

Navigating Windows 8 without touch

If your system lacks touch input, true for the majority of PCs, you will need to use your mouse to emulate Windows 8 touch commands. Problem is, the mouse isn't really a one-for-one substitute for touch: Flicking, for example, is impossible to execute with a mouse.

Mouse movements are also used to expose functionality like the application switcher or the charms bar, by flicking the cursor into a corner of the screen - a task made all the more difficult by having multiple monitors (see below) because you can overshoot the edges too easily.

If you hate fishing around for features using the mouse, Windows 8 offers a slew of new keyboard shortcuts that give direct access to Windows 8 features and settings, such as charms, search, and app options:

  • Win-C: Open charms bar
  • Win-Q: Open Search charm
  • Win-H: Open Share charm
  • Win-K: Open Devices charm
  • Win-I: Open Settings charm
  • Win-W: Search Windows settings
  • Win-F: Search files
  • Win-Z: Open Metro app options
  • Win-Tab: Cycle to next open app
  • Win-.: Snap Metro app to left
  • Win-Shift-.: Snap Metro app to the right
  • Win-PgUp and Win-PgDn: Move Metro desktop between displays
  • Alt-F4: Close Metro app (exactly like a real desktop app)
  • Win-D: Open the Windows Desktop (if you're already at the desktop, this toggles between minimizing and restoring all windows on the desktop)
  • Win-B: Switch back to to the Windows Desktop
  • Win-X: Open fast-access menu with links to common system tools, such as the power options, Mobility Center, and Command Prompt (regular and admin-level)

Be warned that utility software with hooks into Win-key combinations will likely override these shortcuts or make them behave strangely.

Press Win-C (for "charms") to open the charms bar no matter what system context you're in. The resulting menu can be browsed by using the arrow keys and Enter. (Click for larger version.)