Windows 8: Taking the Good with the Bad
Every time Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, it’s met with mixed emotions. Windows XP had some initial growing pains due to its largely re-written core, but changes to its interface were primarily only skin deep, allowing users to adapt quickly. Vista, while not entirely different from its predecessor, did change quite a bit on the UI front; however, its perceived failure was brought on by the marketing nightmare of being caught in Apple’s crosshairs. The quick adoption of Windows 7 – which is essentially Vista minus the stigma – is proof that the minor interface tweaks were still perfectly adaptable.
Windows 8 could very well be taking things too far. Microsoft has replaced the traditional desktop with what it has named its Metro UI. Popularized on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform, Metro UI is a touch-centric interface which will have a lot of trouble making itself comfortable in the PC marketplace, where the mouse, keyboard, and large non-touch displays still reign supreme.
The new Metro UI does stand some chance of gaining ground with general consumers, but power users will be appalled. Take, for example, shutting down your computer. In Windows 7, this could be achieved in two clicks of the mouse. In Windows 8, you have to hold your mouse to the side of the screen for a moment to pull up the “Charms Bar,” click the Settings option, click the Power icon, and then click Shutdown. It’s a complete mess from the power user’s perspective.
Of course, that’s not to say Windows 8 doesn’t have any features that would appeal to the power user. Features like native USB 3.0 support and lightning fast boot times top the list. An (arguably) improved task manager and enhanced software RAID support sweeten the waters a bit as well.
The big question is whether or not the benefits of Windows 8 can make up for the loss of the traditional desktop workspace. Just about any Windows power user would answer that question with a big, fat “No;” however, it’s possible to tweak Windows 8 to get the best of both worlds, and we’ll show you how.
Bringing Back the Desktop and Giving Metro the Boot
The biggest fear with Windows 8 is that Microsoft is doing away with the desktop in favor of its new Metro UI, and while the desktop isn’t entirely gone, these fears certainly aren’t without merit. Throughout Windows 8’s release cycle – particularly the Developer and Consumer Previews – users have been finding tweaks to disable the Metro UI, Microsoft went well out of its way with each major revision to patch those tweaks and prevent them from working. Considering that we’re only working with the Release Preview today, there’s no guarantee our current tweaks will work in the final version, though we’re hopeful that they will.
Fortunately, the desktop isn’t entirely gone – just less prevalent. Without any tweaking at all, it’s possible to pull up the desktop simply by clicking on the Desktop Tile. Windows 8’s desktop may seem a bit foreign, considering the lack of a Start button (more on that later), but at least it’s not gone completely; however, having to manually pull it up every time you turn on your computer might be a bit bothersome.
It’s also possible to skip this step entirely and configure Windows 8 to log in directly to the desktop. This is especially useful once you’ve restored the Start Button (explained later).
Start by opening Notepad. You can find it by typing “Notepad” while on the Metro Start screen. Input the following into the new Notepad file:
Click File and Save As, saving it with a “.scf” extension. For example, “ShowDesktop.scf”
Next, you’ll need to open the Task Scheduler. This can be done by typing “Scheduler” while on the Metro Start screen, though you may need to enable “Show administrative tools” first (found by pulling up the Charm Bar, clicking Settings, then Tiles).
In the Task Scheduler, click “Task Scheduler Library” and then right click on the center pane and select “Create New Task.”
Under the General tab, give the new task a name, “Show Desktop” for example. Under the Triggers tab, click New button, set the task to begin “At log on” and click OK.
Under the Actions tab, create a new action and instruct it to “Start a program” and use the Browse button to find the .scf file you created. Click OK.
Under the Conditions tab, uncheck the “Start the task only if the computer is on AC power” and click OK. You’ll now be greeted with your desktop instead of the Metro Start screen every time you log in. Next step: bringing back the Start button.
Bring Back the Start Button without Third Party Programs
Booting directly to the desktop is only a small victory. Without the return of the Start button, Windows 8’s desktop offers very little of the functionality found in its predecessors. Unfortunately, Microsoft seems hell-bent on doing away with the Start button permanently, regardless of how iconic it is to the Windows platform. Without the use of third party applications, the best we can do for now is offer a few workarounds that let you avoid the Metro Start screen as much as possible.
One option is to pin all of your most used programs to the taskbar. Interestingly, this was a very common practice in Windows 7, and, according to Microsoft, the reason it chose to get rid of the Start button in favor of Metro in the first place.
You can pin any open application to the taskbar by right clicking its taskbar icon and selecting “Pin this program to taskbar.” Alternatively, you can right click on items in the Metro Start menu to pin them as well.
While pinning a bunch of programs to your taskbar may be convenient, it’s not particularly elegant. Instead, you can create a custom toolbar to act as a no-frills Start button, similar in function to Windows 98’s Start button.
A browser dialogue will pop up. Use it to navigate to your Start Menu folder, generally located at C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu. That’s the folder you want to select.
You can add shortcuts to common applications, such as Calculator, Run, and Command Prompt to the Start Menu folder for quick access. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as you can get without the help of third party software.
The Start Button Returns via Third Party Software
If you’re not adverse to installing some third party software, it’s possibly to restore the look and even function of the Windows Start button almost completely. There are two popular programs for this very purpose: Stardock’s Start8 and Lee-Soft’s ViStart. Surprisingly, they provide two very different solutions.
Start8 (available for free here) brings the Start button back, but merges it with the features of the Metro Start screen. Clicking the Start button brings up a miniaturized version of the Metro UI in a sort of windowed mode. The end result is actually very agreeable, allowing you to quickly search for applications and utilities, just as you would in Windows 7, but it also allows you to adjust to the Metro UI.
Installing Start8 is very straightforward. Simply run the executable and follow the prompts. As an added bonus, it will even give you the option to skip to the desktop when you log on. That, as well as other settings, can be changed by right clicking on the new Start button.
In contrast to Start8, ViStart (available here) is much more true to the Start button found on Windows 7. It emulates the look and function of the Windows 7 Start Menu as accurately as possible.
ViStart is unfortunately a little deceptive when installing. Even though ViStart is free, the developer has to make a living somehow and has bundled some shareware with it. Pay careful attention to the license agreements. You only have to agree to the Lee-Soft license to get it to install. The rest, you can decline if you so desire.
ViStart doesn’t get everything perfect (you might notice that the color can sometimes be off, especially if you have active backgrounds), but it does get pretty damn close to the original Windows 7 experience. It’s definitely the go to option if you want the Windows 7 Start Menu back.
Even with these programs installed, the Metro UI is not disabled, so sliding the mouse to the bottom corner, for example, can still bring up the Metro Start Menu. Still, when booting directly to the desktop, and with ViStart or Start8 enabled, it’s hard to tell you’re not using Windows 7.
Tricks to Make You Feel More at Home With Windows 8
We’re not quite done yet. We’ve shown you how to get Windows 8 to look and act a lot more like Windows 7, but we have a few more tricks to help you customize your experience a bit further and bring back other features of Windows versions past.
Bringing Back Quick Launch
When Windows 7 brought the ability to pin items to the taskbar, the Quick Launch Toolbar lost a lot of its usefulness; however, those who like to open multiple instances of applications know that pinning isn’t always ideal. To enable the Quick Launch Toolbar, right click the taskbar, go to Toolbars, select New Toolbar, and enter the following:
%userprofile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch
Bringing Back Taskbar Button Names
With Windows Vista came a space saving feature that displayed taskbar items as icons only. It was wildly inconvenient when dealing with multiple windows of the same applications (web browsing for example). The Aero Peek feature did alleviate some of the frustration, but it still wasn’t quite as quick as reading a bit of text. If you want the text back on your taskbar buttons, simply right click on the taskbar, select Properties, and set the Taskbar buttons to “Combine when taskbar is full.”
Activating the “Power User” Menu
While this feature does not exist in previous versions of Windows, it does give you quick access to some of the tools you likely used on a daily basis that are now a bit more hidden on Windows 8. Simply move the cursor to the bottom left corner and right click to bring up a list of shortcuts to things like Run, Command Prompt, Device manager, and Control Panel.
Windows 8 Keyboard Shortcuts
Not all of the Windows actions you may be used to are readily clickable in Windows 8, so it can be helpful to memorize some of the more useful keyboard shortcuts.
· Windows-C: Displays the charms bar.
· Windows-D: Launches the Windows 7 Desktop.
· Windows-E: Launches the Windows 7 Explorer.
· Windows-F: Opens the File Search pane.
· Windows-H: Opens the Share pane.
· Windows-I: Opens the Settings pane.
· Windows-K: Opens the Devices pane.
· Windows-L: Locks the PC.
· Windows-Q: Opens the global search utility.
· Windows-1, Windows-2, and Windows-3: Open the first, second, and third open apps on the Windows 7 taskbar, respectively