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Maximize your first 30 minutes with Windows 8

Keyboard shortcuts

All of this mousing around may seem tiring, so you may want to consider using basic keyboard shortcuts for easier navigation. I won't list all the shortcuts, but here are some popular ones that ease navigation chores. Most involve pressing the Windows key plus some other key.

Windows-D: Go to the bare desktop. If you're in the Start screen, you just switch to the desktop. If you're in the desktop, it behaves like the Windows 7 hotkey, toggling between running applications and the bare desktop.

Windows Key: Switches between the Start screen and the last application used.

Windows-C: Shows the Charms bar.

Windows-R: Goes to the desktop and shows the Run dialog box.

Windows-E: Opens the computer, which enables you to use the file manager.

Windows-I: Pops up settings, where you can easily get to the Windows settings screen or shut down the PC.

Windows-X: Brings up the Simple Start menu, allowing easy access to key system-management apps, like the control panel.

Check out our comprehensive list of hotkeys, in case you're looking for more.

Basic networking

When you initially set up Windows 8, network drivers were installed and started. (If not, you'll need to install a network driver.) But that's just the first step. Assuming you have other PCs, you'll need to connect your Windows 8 PC to your existing network.

Assuming you have a workgroup created, you'll set up Windows 8 networking just like you did with Windows 7. The quickest way is to press Windows-D to get to the desktop, then press Windows-C. The Charms bar in the desktop is slightly different than in the Start screen in one important way: Clicking on Settings will present you with a pop-out that looks like the one you see in the Start menu but happens to list the Control Panel, Personalization and other desktop-centric settings. At this point, you can run the Control Panel, and then manage network settings there.

Loyd Case
Windows 8 desktop settings.

Windows 8 supports HomeGroups, so you can also connect your PC to the Windows Homegroup, provided you know the password. Homegroup settings, including entering or changing the HomeGroup password, reside in PC Settings. Press Windows-C and select Settings, and then select Change PC Settings and navigate to the HomeGroup menu entry.

Loyd Case
Windows 8 supports Homegroups, so you can easily add your new Windows 8 system to your existing network.

Note that you may have been asked to connect to the HomeGroup during the Windows setup. If you've taken care of that chore already, then you're good to go. But this screen is also handy for changing sharing settings.

Managing users

User management in Windows 8 works similarly to the way it did in Windows 7. However, you now have two ways to manage users. The old way, through the user Control Panel, still exists. Remember, getting to the Control Panel is easy: Press Windows-X to bring up the Simple Start menu and click on the Control Panel menu entry. There's one new entry in the legacy Control Panel user-account-management screen, however.

Loyd Case
The User control panel is still available.

The top clickable item under "Make changes to your account" is "Make changes to my account in PC settings." Clicking this item takes you to the Windows 8 version of user management. You can also access the Windows 8-centric user-management screen directly. Bring up the Charms bar, select Change PC Settings, and click on the Users menu entry.

Loyd Case
The Windows 8 User control panel offers more control than the one in Windows 7.

Note that the system illustrated in this example is currently set up as a local account. One of the options in this screen (that's not present in the legacy User control panel) is "Switch to a Microsoft account." If you're a home PC user, you may not want to choose this, since you'll always be prompted for your Microsoft account login when you first start up your PC. But there are benefits to having a Microsoft account.

If you add Microsoft account sign-on after installing Windows 8, you'll be asked to supply your Microsoft login information.

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Logging in with a Microsoft account gives you single sign-in privileges.

Note that if you don't have a Microsoft account, you can click on the Sign up for a new email address link at the bottom, which will launch a browser where you can create both an account and a Hotmail address. However, you don't need to use the Hotmail address as your account ID. I use my personal (non-Hotmail) email account as my Microsoft account login.

You'll also be asked to verify whether the PC you're connecting to your account is trusted. You'll get either an email or an SMS text message (depending on how you configure your Microsoft account) asking you to verify this system. You only need to do this step once.

Note: You do not need to be connected to the Internet to log in to your PC when you turn it on—assuming you use the Microsoft account login feature. You can even disable the requirement to enter a password (you do so in the PC Settings Users screen), but you'll get a warning if you do this.

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If you use a Microsoft login, enable password login on startup unless you're really sure no one else will use your system.

Only enable this if you're confident no one else will be using your system. If other people do, they'll have full access to your Microsoft Store account, your SkyDrive, and other shared features.

Benefits of a Microsoft account

Being connected to the Internet and logging in with a Microsoft account gives you several benefits. First, as mentioned earlier, you have access to your SkyDrive cloud storage. If you have other PCs, smartphones, or tablets, you can access SkyDrive from any of your Internet-connected devices. This feature saved my bacon during the course of my work at PCWorld, allowing me to send my editor a critical file using SkyDrive on my iPhone.

Every Windows 8 user gets 7GB of free SkyDrive storage. If you exceed that amount, you have to pay an additional, ongoing fee. However, 7GB is fairly substantial, provided you're not storing tons of high-resolution images and video.

You also have what's known as "single sign on." You no longer need to enter your account info when you go to the Microsoft Store, the Music store, or other features. You'll be able to sync your main PC's settings with other Windows 8 PCs you may use, provided you can log in to those PCs with your Microsoft account. So it's easy to keep your Windows 8 laptop and Windows 8 desktop in sync.

Drawbacks of a Microsoft account

As useful as a Microsoft account can be, there are pitfalls to using one, too. SkyDrive itself has some odd limitations compared with similar services such as Dropbox. SkyDrive imposes a 2GB file size limit, which makes uploading large, high-definition video files problematic. Also, Microsoft has reserved the right to monitor what you upload, and if it thinks what you've uploaded is illegal, you'll find those files deleted. If that Big Brother aspect of SkyDrive troubles you, you may want to consider other services instead.

SkyDrive on the Desktop

A Windows 8-style SkyDrive app is included with your Windows 8 installation, but how do you get to your SkyDrive folder from desktop software, like Microsoft Office? If you use the Office 2013 preview, you're asked for your Microsoft login, so you'll automagically have SkyDrive access. But other apps might not be so smart. In addition, you may simply want to copy files between local folders and SkyDrive. While you can do this with a Web browser, that's a cumbersome process at best.

The answer is to download and install the SkyDrive app. The SkyDrive desktop application adds a SkyDrive folder to your system and conveniently adds it to the Favorites list in the Windows file manager.

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If you use SkyDrive, you should get the desktop app.

Microsoft supplies SkyDrive apps for Windows (Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8—but not Windows XP), Windows Phone, iOS, Android, and MacOS. So if you're using SkyDrive, you'll want to get the necessary apps.

App confusion

Before we look at the preinstalled apps, it's discussing for a moment what an app actually is.

Windows 8 now has the concept of two types of apps. One type is called Windows 8 apps. These are the apps you buy or download for free from the Microsoft Store—and only from the Microsoft Store. Most will have some cross-platform capability, so they'll also be available on Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT, Microsoft's tablet-only OS that runs on ARM processors.

The other type of app is what we normally think of when we think of software running on Windows—what Microsoft calls "desktop apps," though individual Microsoft folk have occasionally slipped up and called them "legacy apps." Desktop apps will be sold and serviced as they always have. You can get to them from the Microsoft Store, but you'll typically be taken to the publisher's website. You can buy them from retail outlets and install them that way. Other ways to buy them include various digital-downloads purveyers—from Amazon.com to Steam to direct from the developer.

So while the new Windows 8-style apps are curated and approved by Microsoft, similar to the way Apple handles iOS apps for the iPad and iPhone, traditional desktop software will still be available the way it has always been, and Microsoft doesn't approve or otherwise edit desktop applications.

Now let's take a quick look at preinstalled Windows 8 apps.

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