Windows 8: Tips on how to cope with the Desktop/Metro minefield

Whatever you think about Windows 8 for desktops and laptops, like most of us you’ll eventually need to suck it up and learn to live with it. I’ve been running it for several months now, and have come up with a selection of tips and tricks to help you make the most of Windows 8 when you take the plunge. Let’s start with how you go about installing the new OS on your system.

Biting the bullet: Upgrade or clean install?

There is a lot to be said for clean installs of Windows. They are a great way to get rid of the accumulated cruft that builds up in your file system. However, when moving to Windows 8, I found that machines I upgraded did a better job of retaining my customisations than those where I did a new install and used the Windows Easy Transfer wizard to move my settings and documents across. This isn’t a huge deal, but I felt a lot more at home more quickly on the upgraded machines than on the cleanly installed machines where I had to redo more of my environment.

Whichever way you choose, your first decision after you’ve successfully fired up Windows 8 is to decide if you want to fight it whole-hog by putting back as much of Windows 7 as you can. I’ve gone back and forth on how much of Windows 7 I really want to drag with me onto Windows 8, but for now I’ve decided not to live without gadgets and the Start menu.

Resurrecting gadgets and the sidebar

I think Windows desktop gadgets are cool. I love my cute clock, and retro CPU and memory meters. Aside from sheer vindictiveness, or an overbearing desire to make me use square tiles, I can’t imagine why Microsoft got rid of them – but it did. Fortunately, you can put those or other gadgets back fairly easily.

The trick is a simple, free utility called 8GadgetPack. After installing it you can pick Gadgets from the gallery and drag them anywhere on your screen. If you want a specific sidebar, 8GadgetPack includes a gadget called 7 Sidebar that creates a mini docking area along one side of your screen, onto which you can add gadgets in exactly the same way you did with Windows 7 and Vista. It even launches the Windows Gadget Gallery to help you browse for more.

8GadgetPack comes with a handy selection of nice gadgets to get you started, which included most of my favourite gadgets. While the 7 Sidebar can be made partially transparent, in an Aero sort of way, it does shadow the entire area it covers. If you only want the free-floating gadgets simply add them directly to the desktop after you’ve got 8GadgetPack running.

The only issue I had after installing it was that the gadget gallery didn’t initially want to launch from its Metro tile – ironically. I needed to right-click on the desktop and launch it from the menu item it provided. Obviously you won’t see the gadgets when you’re in the Metro Start screen, so getting your system to revolve around the Desktop is the next port of call.

Fear Metro: The Windows 8 minefield

Living in the Desktop on Windows 8 is a little like walking in a minefield. The minute you stumble across a Modern/Metro application, your organised world disappears to be replaced by a full-screen, hard-cornered, no-compromise application. Most of the time the Windows key is your method of getting back to the Desktop if you find yourself blown up by a mine and landing in tile country. Tapping the Windows key will bounce you back and forth between the Start screen and Desktop. Sometimes, however, if you are already in a Metro application, the Windows key only switches between it and the Start screen. In that case you’ll need to click on the Desktop tile or use Alt-Tab to get back to your desktop applications.

Defusing multimedia landmines

You’ll probably want to change the default file handlers for images and other media to either the old-style Windows Photo Viewer and Windows Media viewer, or one of your choice. Otherwise clicking on a media file will set off a Metro landmine and you’ll be in the touch-friendly-mouse-hostile tiled interface.

You can set most file handling defaults from the Control Panel’s Default Programs item, but you’ll also want to change the viewer for PDFs, which might not be as easy. For some reason, at least on my machines, Adobe Reader doesn’t turn up as an option under Default Programs. Fortunately, the fix is as simple as finding a PDF file in the File Explorer, right clicking on it to select Open With > Choose Default Program…, and picking the Acrobat Reader (or some other reader of your choice). You can do the same thing with other media types instead of setting them in the Control Panel if you prefer.

Re-starting the Start menu

An alternative for bringing back the Start menu is Pokki – a cute, free utility that recreates its own alternative version of a Start button and menus. The developers clearly think their design is better than the original Windows 7 version. It certainly has more areas to stash icons, including the recently launched list of apps that the original has.

It’s free to download and use from Pokki, at the cost of mostly subtle attempts to get you to visit their app store. Personally I could also live without the acorn icon it uses to replace the Start button, but if the functionality works for you that’s probably a small price to pay. Blissfully, Pokki’s Start menu also includes a full-featured Power menu for restarting or powering off your machine.

So far I’ve found Pokki a pretty nice replacement for, and step up from, the Windows 7 Start button. The biggest issue I’ve found with it is that pressing the Windows key once you’re in touch mode doesn’t bring it up. You need to be in the Desktop for it to work. It also means that you can’t bring up the Metro screen from Desktop simply by clicking the Windows key – which is sort of the point. If you do need to get to Metro, you can still move your mouse to the lower left corner of the screen and click on the thumbnail of the Metro home screen that pops up.

Another option is Classic Shell – a donation-ware skinnable retro-shell that restores your Windows 7 Start menu as well as providing some other features Microsoft has removed over the years.

The Taskbar lives on

I love the taskbar (Superbar) in Windows 7. In fact, most of the commands I use are on it. Fortunately, once you get Windows 8 into Desktop mode, the taskbar is there in its full glory. With an upgrade install, it may even be pre-populated with all the applications you had on it in Windows 7. So, for me, the combination of getting to the Desktop, staying there, and using the Superbar plus the Pokki-provided Start menu, makes Windows 8 a completely usable solution for my everyday needs. I’ve got my laptop set up to dual-boot Windows 8 and my old Windows 7 install, but only about once a month, when I have an application with drivers that just don’t work under Windows 8 do I find myself rebooting back into Windows 7 to perform a specific task.

Common misconceptions about Windows 8

Microsoft deserves a huge amount of flak for making life with Windows 8 unnecessarily difficult for desktop users, and we’ve given it our share at ITProPortal, but some of the pot-shots targeting Windows 8 are just plain wrong. First off, there’s the claim that getting past the lock screen requires an obscure upward swipe. Sure, that’ll work, and might be convenient on touchscreens, but you can also simply click the mouse almost anywhere on the screen to achieve the same thing.

Second, while the Start menu has disappeared, making it harder to find commands, it isn’t impossible. Simply clicking the Windows key and typing the first few letters of the command – now is a good time to learn what they are for your favourite commands – will quickly bring it up ready for launching. If you need to find an item buried in Settings you do need to take the extra step to cursor/tab down to Settings so that you search there instead of your applications.

You may be asking whether all this heavy lifting is worth it. That depends on whether you need to use Windows 8 on a non-touch-enabled desktop. If you do, you’ll almost certainly find yourself wanting to bring back some of the features of Windows 7 that you relied on to get your work done – and investing a few minutes in getting them running will save you plenty of hours in the long run. Going forward, my only concern is that as Windows-8-style applications begin to catch hold, they may add more explosives to the Windows 8 desktop minefield.

If you’re hungry for more on Windows 8, see our full, in-depth review here.

Image Credit: Minefield