Chapter 1: The Windows 8 Start screen

The most daunting aspect of Windows 8 is its radically changed interface. There is no Windows Start Menu button on the Desktop and when you boot to the new operating system, the first screen you see is not the Desktop, but the new Start screen instead. This is the screen that has been designed with touch interfaces in mind and it is the screen where all your new Windows 8-style apps will live, as well as many of your regular Desktop app shortcuts. Windows 8-style apps were formerly called Metro apps by Microsoft, but for this beginners guide, we will just call them 'new-style' apps.

The Windows 8 Start screen replaces the traditional, and constrained Start Menu.
The Windows 8 Start screen replaces the traditional, and constrained Start Menu.

You can think of the Start screen as being your new full-screen Windows Start Menu. It's a screen that can be initiated by the Windows key on your keyboard and it contains a sparse collection of apps to begin with — as you start to install more Windows 8-style apps, the screen will fill with more shortcuts, and you can start pinning shortcuts of your favourite Desktop apps to this screen, too.

The Start screen is comprised of square icons that are known as Live Tiles. They are given this name because they are dynamic icons that can display updated information pertaining to the program that they represent. For example, a tile dedicated to news might show new headlines; your People tile might show images of your contacts; a game you are currently playing might display your current progress. The live aspect of these tiles can be disabled if you don't want them to be constantly updated — to do this you can right-click the tile and click 'Turn live tile off' from the menu bar that appears at the bottom of the screen.

Live tiles can display fresh information about a particular app, but you can also make the tiles static by switching off the 'live' component.
Live tiles can display fresh information about a particular app, but you can also make the tiles static by switching off the 'live' component.

The size of many of the tiles can be changed, too, so you don't have to have large tiles representing apps that don't require lots of prominence on the screen — save space by making the tiles of seldom-used apps smaller and leaving only regularly-used apps large. Furthermore, the tiles on the screen are not in a fixed layout. You can move them around (by clicking and dragging) and you can place your most regularly used apps on the first screen so you don't have to scroll to find them — this comes in handy if you place many application shortcuts on the Start screen.

Tiles are not set in fixed positions. You can easily move them around.
Tiles are not set in fixed positions. You can easily move them around.

Likewise, tiles that are large by default can also be made smaller.
Likewise, tiles that are large by default can also be made smaller.

All of the regular Windows accessories and utilities that you may be used to seeing in your Windows 7 or XP Start menu are not present on the Windows 8 Start screen by default; to see them, you will need to right-click on the Start screen and select 'All apps'. This will give you a huge list of all the Windows accessories and utilities, as well as any other programs that you've installed. To get quick access to these programs in future, you can right-click on them and select 'Pin to Start', which means they will now be more easily accessible from the initial Start screen.

Not all apps show up on the Start screen by default. If you click 'All apps' you can display the icons for Windows' Accessories and other applications that you have installed yourself (top), and you can elect to pin these to the Start screen so they are more easily accessible (bottom).
Not all apps show up on the Start screen by default. If you click 'All apps' you can display the icons for Windows' Accessories and other applications that you have installed yourself (top), and you can elect to pin these to the Start screen so they are more easily accessible (bottom).

Most Desktop applications that are installed will place a shortcut on the Start screen instead of on the Desktop itself, but you can still create Desktop shortcuts manually, and you can also right-click on their tiles and elect to pin them to the Taskbar for quicker access if you use them regularly. Conversely, you can also manually pin Desktop apps and even folders to the Start screen by right-clicking them and selecting 'Pin to Start'. New-style Windows 8 apps that are downloaded from the Microsoft store will only be accessible from the Start screen — you will not be able to add a shortcut to these to the Desktop or Taskbar.

The reason for having live tiles instead of an old-fashioned Windows menu is primarily because Windows 8 has been designed with touchscreens in mind -- and also to be a common interface across desktop, notebook, tablet and phone devices. The tiles make it a lot easier to navigate and launch programs with your finger. Likewise, native Windows 8-style apps, which run in full-screen mode rather than in windows, can be controlled with the use of finger gestures.

A full-screen new-style app in action. Note that you can not run these apps in windowed mode and you can not see the Taskbar.
A full-screen new-style app in action. Note that you can not run these apps in windowed mode and you can not see the Taskbar.

You'll need to know how to make the most of the Start screen in order to love Windows 8, and you'll need to be prepared for the fact that you can't avoid it. It's the holding place for all of your new-style apps as well as your conventional Windows applications. It's also the place from which you can search for anything on your computer. Most importantly, you don't need to have a touchscreen in order to get the most out of it: you can easily use the Start screen with a notebook's touchpad, or a keyboard and a mouse. This is what we'll focus on in the next chapter.

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Next chapter: Using the mouse and keyboard to navigate Windows 8

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