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How to use Windows 8's expert tools

Windows 8's new interface has grabbed most people's attention, but for smarter laptop and tablet users there are more interesting changes to the OS under the hood

It’s no secret that Windows 8 has been one of the biggest departures from the traditional look and feel of the operating system since it was originally released.

Though there have been many versions of Windows mostly they’ve looked and worked much the same, Windows 8 changed all that.

The headline change is, obviously, the new start screen, which has polarised opinions, however, there’s a lot more going on under the hood.

For the more advanced users changing the start menu to a start screen isn’t likely to cause much confusion or take much getting used to. Even if the change from Windows 7 is a bit much for you it’s likely that getting used to Windows 8 will only take a short amount of time. There are a host of features in Windows 8 that a high-end user will really benefit from.

Perhaps most contentious is the way settings for Windows have been split up between the traditional control panel method and the settings you reach from the start screen.

Long time users of Windows will find that most of their favourite control panels are still in the same place they always were and are accessible from the Start screen with a simple search.

However, the other way of changing the setup of your PC is through the dedicated Settings charm. The Settings app doesn’t cover everything, but gives you quick access to the things you’re likely to change most often.

The most noticeable improvement to Windows for more advanced users is probably the Task Manager. There are some new features that make it more useful and it’s been redesigned to be easier to use too.

Windows 8 Task Manager

The new layout makes it much clearer which applications are hogging your CPU and memory or are thrashing the hard disk. The App History tab is also a welcome new addition, it tracks the CPU time and network activity, however it’s currently restricted to the modern UI applications and not desktop so, unless you spend all your time in the new UI interface there’s a lot of data missing here. Overall though, the refreshed Task Manager is a more useful and easy to use application.

The File Explorer is one area that’s also seen an overhaul with the ribbon interface, which users of Microsoft Office will instantly be at home with. The new features allow for much more flexibility when managing your files and folders and allow a host of features to be available without over complicating the toolbar. You’ll find that, as in Office applications the File Explorer ribbon changes to suit your needs as you use it. Click on an image, for example and a Picture Tools tab pops up with some simple controls that allow you to make quick changes to the orientation or to use the image as a desktop background. The new tools in the ribbon should make the task of moving, editing and generally sorting the files and folders on your PC that bit easier, this being Windows however does mean that you can hide the ribbon easily should you not be a fan, just click on the arrow at the top right of the window.

Moving on to physical hard disk space the new Storage Spaces feature should appeal to the data intensive users out there. The Storage Spaces tool allows you to quickly make a single storage space from multiple disks. You make storage pools and then add capacity over time. For example if you create a storage space from two hard disks and want to make it larger all you have to do is buy another hard disk and add it to your pool.

Device Drivers now need to be digitally signed to work correctly so this will make problems and glitches less of a problem. With each driver guaranteed to work on Windows there’ll be a lower chance of there being insecurities and vulnerabilities in the system introduced by software not written by Microsoft. You can, should you wish install a non-signed driver. Go to the Settings Charm and select Change PC settings > general > Advanced start-up > Restart now > Troubleshoot > Advanced Options > Start-up Settings and click on Restart. You’ll now be able to install a non-signed driver. This process also gives you access to the new advanced startup options.

One of the more useful advanced features in Windows 8 is the ability to quickly and completely refresh the system on your computer. You can refresh the install of Windows so that all the system files are updated or reinstalled as necessary while leaving your personal files in tact. The other option is to wipe and reinstall Windows completely, this will destroy all the data on your hard disk and return your computer to the state it was in when you first opened it up after purchase. Both these settings can be found in the Advanced Start-up options.

Many users will find the improved way Windows Update works a much better solution. Instead of installing when you shutdown and therefore taking much more time when you most want to just close your PC Windows 8 will give you much more warning for the impending update. Warnings start a few days in advance leaving you to choose when the most convenient time to update is before a restart is forced.

As more and more computer networks are evolving Windows 8 has some added features that let it intelligently manage the type of connection you’re using. For instance, it’s not unusual for 3G data networks to offer broadband like speeds, but as they are often metered or very expensive per MB downloaded its not best practice to use these for things like system updates and other maintenance software. In Windows 8 you can turn getting software over metered connections off and other applications have 3G aware options.

There’s more granular control over things like sharing, searching and privacy in Windows 8 too. You can exclude or include applications that show up in results when using the search charm. You can also manage which applications are included in the share charm in the same way.

If you have access to Windows 8 Enterprise then Windows To Go is something that you’ll certainly be interested in. Essentially you can put an entire copy of Windows onto a USB stick this enables you to travel with a copy of Windows in your pocket. As Windows To Go is enterprise level software you can expect the highest level of security just plug the USB stick in to any PC and you can use it safely on your corporate network.

Windows 8 might seem to be all about the new interface and touch capabilities, but for those with more technical experience there are still plenty of new features. Whatever your level of experience and expectations of Windows this new version has all the flexibility, speed and quality you’d expect from a high quality operating system.

This article is part of the Dell Tech Zone series. Click here for more

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