The desktop diehard's guide to making Windows 8 work like Windows 7

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If you find the Windows 8 environment so alien you can't even enjoy the platform's improvements, take heart. With five easy tweaks, you can turn it into a more comfortable Windows 7 style desktop.

Is this you?

You know your way around the Windows 7 desktop. You're thoroughly comfortable with the Windows 7 user interface. More important, the employees you train and support are accustomed to working with Windows 7 desktop programs.

And now you're looking at an office full of new Windows 8 PCs, whose initial user experience has wiped out those familiar navigational touchstones and unceremoniously dumped you (and your employees) into a strange new world:

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01-Start-screen-Before.png

You're so frustrated you don't even know where to start.

If that's you, you're a desktop diehard.

I feel your pain, and I can help.

My goal is to help you transform the strange Windows 8 environment into one that resembles your familiar Windows 7 desktop. Making that transformation allows you to continue using the tools, techniques, shortcuts, and workflow you're accustomed to, while taking advantage of the fundamental improvements in Windows 8.

That means going from that garish, cluttered display to a streamlined, well-organized Start screen like this:

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Step 1: Learn some survival skills

The Windows 8 interface isn't all bad. In fact, it contains some wonderful, delightful, productivity-enhancing new features, which you will be more likely to discover after we clear away the Windows 8 annoyances that are probably all you can concentrate on at the moment.

To get started, you need to accept a few things:

  • The default Windows 8 configuration wasn't designed for you. Don't be afraid to move things around or uninstall apps. It's your PC, after all.

  • The Windows 8 user interface is highly customizable. The levers and buttons have moved around, and it takes some effort to get rid of the default tiles, but the effort is worth it.

  • You might actually like the Start screen once you learn how to use it. If you can overcome the muscle memory and adapt, the new Start screen offers some improvement over the conventional Start menu, even if you use only desktop programs. After you give it a fair shake, what happens if you decide it's not for you? Take your pick from a growing assortment of third-party program launchers that fit in the space where the Start menu used to be.

  • Having a touchscreen or a touch-enabled mouse or trackpad really helps. On the Logitech T400 mouse, for example, you can define clicks and swipes that correspond to Windows 8 gestures:

03-logitech-setpoint-settings.png

  • On a desktop PC, keyboard shortcuts are incredibly useful. The most useful key of all, it turns out, is the Windows key – the one with the Windows logo on it. You'll find it on the bottom row, between Ctrl and Alt:

04-standard-keyboard.png

Here are a few ways to put this key to good use:

  • Tap the Windows key to toggle between the Start screen and the desktop.

  • Press Windows + I (that's a capital "eye") to open the Settings charm, where you'll find power and volume options, among others.

  • Press Windows + W to search for any option in the PC Settings pane or the desktop Control Panel.

  • Press Windows + E to open File Explorer, with Computer selected in the navigation pane.

  • Press Windows + R to open the Run box.

  • Press Windows + D to switch to the desktop. If you're already at the desktop, this shortcut will minimize all open windows so you can see the desktop background. Press the same combination again to restore all those minimized windows to their previous positions.

Step 2: Clear unwanted Windows 8 apps out of the way

A default installation of Windows 8 includes 19 or so Microsoft-authored apps, designed to work in the new Metro style environment.

If you intend to use mostly Windows desktop apps, you don't need most of them. You might even decide you want to remove all Metro style apps. Doing so makes it less likely that you'll be switched accidentally into the new Windows experience when you prefer to work in the familiar old one.

To begin clearing away the clutter, go to the Start screen and right-click the tiles for the apps you want to remove. In this example, I've selected every tile except the Desktop. Click Unpin from Start, in the Command bar along the bottom of the screen, to remove all those tiles immediately.

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If you think you might want to use a Metro style app later, you can unpin it from Start but leave it installed. (To find the app so you can run it, start typing its name at the Start screen.

If you have no intention of using a particular Metro app, right-click its tile to select it and then click Uninstall in the Command bar. (Note that in Windows 8, you can uninstall only one app at a time. If you select two or more tiles, the Uninstall option disappears from the Command bar. This behavior is changed in Windows 8.1 and you can uninstall multiple items.) If you change your mind later, you can visit the Windows Store to reinstall the app.

06-Start-screen-uninstall.png

With this step out of the way, it's time to begin adding things to the Start screen.

Step 3: Customize the Start screen

After you remove those unwanted tiles (leaving the Desktop tile behind), you can begin adding the things you actually want to see on the Start screen. Then you can arrange them into groups so that individual tiles are easy to find.

What can you pin to Start? The most common choices are shortcuts to desktop programs (including Windows accessories and utilities). But you can also pin shortcuts to disk drives, local folders, and shared network folders, all of which open on the desktop in File Explorer.

To pin a program shortcut, you can start on the All apps screen or by searching from Start. In either case, in Windows 8 you'll be able to work with only one desktop program at a time. Right-click the program name to see your options in the Command bar, as shown below. Then click Pin to Start or Pin to Taskbar. (If you want a shortcut pinned to both places, you have to right-click to select the shortcut again.)

07-All-apps-pin-to-start.png

Repeat this process for every desktop program you want to add to the Start screen. If you have a lot of things to add, this can be a tedious process, but you only have to do it once.

Now open File Explorer on the desktop and right-click the first item you want to add to the Start screen. This may include the Computer and Network shortcuts in the sidebar on the left, drive icons in the Computer folder, libraries, and local or shared network folders. Click Pin to Start on the shortcut menu to add a tile representing that location.

08-Explorer-pin-to-start.png

After you get everything pinned properly, you can drag individual tiles into place, arranging them in logical groups. (To create a new group, drag a tile to the right of an existing group until you see a thin dark band, then release the tile.)

Be sure to put the Desktop tile (or your preferred desktop app) at the top of the first column. That's a crucial placement, because the tile in that position runs automatically when you press Enter at the Start screen.

Finally, give each group on the Start screen its own descriptive label. Click the minus sign in the lower-right corner of the Start screen to zoom out so you can see all groups. In this view, you can drag groups left or right to reposition them. Right-click a group and then click Name Group to open the box shown below, where you can enter a label that will appear above the group on the Start screen. (The process of creating and naming/renaming groups gets easier in Windows 8.1.)

09-rename-start-screen-groups.png

Step 4: Change the default programs

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Windows 8 user interface is its tendency to suddenly throw you out of the desktop into one of the new Metro style apps, with no obvious indication of how to get back.

You can reduce the chances of this happening by making sure that specific file types, especially PDF files and digital media files, such as music, video, and photos, open using your preferred desktop programs. In Windows 8, there are four Metro style apps that are associated with specific file types and will open automatically when you double-click a file of that type.

  • Reader is the default choice for opening PDF files. Install a desktop PDF client such as Adobe Reader to set it as the default instead.
  • Photos opens any digital photo in a supported file format (including PNG, JPEG, and TIFF formats). A default installation of Windows 8 includes Windows Photo Viewer, a desktop program that is more appropriate for anyone who prefers a desktop environment.
  • The Music and Video apps open supported digital music and video files in a full screen, using the Windows 8 Metro style interface. Windows Media Player, which is included with Windows 8, is a better choice. You can also install a third-party desktop program such as the free VLC Player or iTunes to manage and play these file types.

To change the default program, press Windows + W. That opens the search box on the Start screen with the Settings option selected. Type default in the search box and then click Set Your Default Programs in the results list. That opens a dialog box like the one shown below. Select your preferred desktop program and click Set this Program as Default.

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To change the default program for a specific file type, right-click any file of that type, click Open With, and then click Choose Default Program.

Step 5: Make your browser behave

One of the biggest annoyances of Windows 8's dual personality is the confusion that occurs when you accidentally open your web browser in its full-screen, no-plugins-allowed mode. That happens with Internet Explorer 10, which is the default browser with Windows 8, if you pin a site to the Start screen or click a link in a Metro style app.

One way to prevent this from happening is to choose an alternate default browser. If you install Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, for example, you can set it as your preferred browser using the Default Programs option in Control Panel as described above. Released versions of Firefox currently don't support Metro mode at all, and Chrome switches into Metro mode only when you specifically request it.

If you use Internet Explorer as your default browser, you can set it to work only in desktop mode. To do this, open Internet Explorer on the desktop, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, and click Internet Options. In the Opening Internet Explorer section at the top of the Internet Options dialog box, change the setting from Let Internet Explorer Decide to Always in Internet Explorer on the Desktop. For good measure, select the check box beneath it as well. When you're finished, your settings should look like this:

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And with that, you're done.

You've transformed your Windows 8 PC configuration so that it's optimized for desktop use.

Now go and be productive.

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