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Windows 8: the complete guide

Our in-depth guide to Microsoft's new OS

Windows 8's desktop

There's an icon on Windows 8's Start screen called Desktop, if you're using a laptop or PC. This launches the traditional Windows desktop and looks almost identical to Windows 7. There's one obvious difference though: no Start button.

This also means there's no Start menu, which can feel quite disorientating to begin with. There are various ways of launching applications. One is to use the Search tool on the Charms bar (you can swipe in from the right to display it). Another is to right-click the bottom-left corner of the screen to display a 'Start menu' of sorts. This lets you fire up a Run box, Command Prompt and various management programs.

Windows 8 Start menu

Alternatively, you can pin programs to the taskbar or create shortcuts on the desktop. The latter option is a little convoluted as you have to either browse to the program's location on your hard disk, or right-click on the desktop and choose New, then Shortcut from the menu that appears.

Windows 8 traditional desktop

Everything behaves as it did in Windows 7, so you can snap windows to the left- or right-hand side of the screen, for example. The notification area is also identical, as is the shortcut to the right of it which closes all windows and shows the desktop. Where the Start button used to be is a narrow shortcut which, when hovered over, shows a thumbnail of the Start screen which you can click to return there.

Open an Explorer window and you'll notice the other main change. At the top is Microsoft's 'Ribbon', which will be familiar to Office 2007 and 2010 users. The aim is to replace toolbars and menus and provide quick access to commands to quickly complete a task.

Windows 8 Explorer ribbon

Each tab holds related commands, but the new feature is that one or more tabs are highlighted. In folders containing pictures, for example, there's a highlighted Picture Tools tab which includes commands for rotating images, playing a slideshow and setting a picture as the desktop background.

The Share tab makes it far easier than before to email, print, compress and burn files to disc. There are also tools for sharing the folder with other users on the network.

When you start any app that doesn't have a Metro interface, it will launch on the desktop. The old-style Control Panel is still present, as is Network and Sharing Center. It's also still possible to add gadgets to the desktop and change the wallpaper, just as you did in Windows 7.

Another minor update is a real-time graph showing transfer speeds when you copy files. This appears when you click the More details button. You can also pause transfers as well as cancelling the process.

Windows 8 file transfer

The Task Manager has had a big overhaul. The main list is split into Apps and Background processes and their usage of memory, processor and network is now much easier to see. A new App History tab includes a Metered network column so you can see which apps are eating up your monthly data allowance.

Task Manager App History

NEXT PAGE: Touchscreen keyboards and verdict

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