5 tips to help you run Windows 8.1 as smoothly as possible

As a tech journalist, I have some advice for tech fans: Don't rely blindly on tech journalists – try things out for yourself! Most tech journalists are concerned with one thing: Getting lots of page views. And they know that one sure-fire technique to do so is to take a scathing and negative attitude. I even recently saw a tip-list article telling tech journalists how to up their page views, and one piece of advice was simply "Be negative." I would link the article, but its title doesn't meet our standards in terms of overly colourful language.

The number one whipping boy for this sort of click-bait negativity is Microsoft. Perhaps this is all payback for the company's nineties-era monopolistic shenanigans, or for some of its technology misfires – Vista, the Kin phone, the Zune... the list goes on, admittedly. But it's clear to me that the even slickest, best executed, most technologically brilliant, most cost effective product, software, or service, would still manage to find an army of detractors if it was associated with the name Microsoft.

Another factor is that the press exaggerates everything. New York wasn't as dangerous in the nineties as the mass media would have the world believe back then. I lived there for the entire decade, riding the subway at all times, and was the victim of just a single failed attempt at pickpocketing during that whole supposedly scary era. The press is an echo chamber that magnifies everything, especially when there's fear involved. And what could be scarier for computer users than an OS paradigm shift?

Which brings me on to Windows 8. With its latest operating system, Microsoft has tried to do something that hasn't been done before – create hybrid system software that's equally at home on a tablet as a desktop or laptop PC. And doesn't that make sense? If you could have just one device, a powerful tablet that could do absolutely everything that a desktop computer could, wouldn't you want that?

Again, despite everything you've heard, Windows 8 is not hard to use – once you've got a few new habits under your belt. This is my cheat sheet on how to run Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 like a boss, so that you'll never want to look back to Windows 7 or, gasp, the more-than-a-decade-old XP. All this is not to say that you will feel instantly at home with Windows 8, so don't expect to race around it the first time you try the OS. But after some exploration and familiarisation, you may just find that it offers a superior computing experience.

1. Think of the tiled Start page as a full-screen Start button

Because that's exactly what it is. Just as with the old Start button, you can simply start typing to show programs that begin with the letters you type, and launch them without having to scroll across tile screens. You can customise this page to your heart's content, grouping tiles and placing your most frequently used ones on the first page.

Finally, know that tiles are not just for new-style (Metro) full-screen mobile apps: Any standard Windows desktop application you've been using for years can also get a tile that you can place wherever you like on the Start page for easy access.

2. The Desktop is a Tile

If you worry that you want Windows to keep looking and working like Windows 7, just tap that tile on the Start screen labelled "Desktop." You'll feel at home right away. And there are always numerous ways to quickly get back to the Start screen from anything you're doing on a Windows 8.1 PC – the easiest methods are to just move the cursor to the lower left corner of the screen, where the new-style Start button will appear, or tap the Windows key.

If your comfort level demands it, Windows 8.1 lets you boot right to the desktop, through the Control Panel's Taskbar and Navigation Properties dialog (tick the box the arrow points to in the above image). There's also an option (which is new to Windows 8.1) to use the same background for Start as for the desktop.

3. Find its Charms

No matter what you're doing on a Windows 8.1 system, you can always get to the Charms – a menu rail of buttons along the right side of the screen used for major system actions like Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Just move the cursor to the top right corner and then down (or swipe in from the right on a touchscreen).

One of the "adjustments" in using Windows 8.1 is that new-style apps generally use these charms – and not their own menus – for settings, search, and sharing to email or social networks. The Settings Charm is also where you'll find the Power options, including those for shutting down and restarting.

4. Use the app bars

The app bar is a feature of just about every new-style Windows 8.1 app. To invoke it, you just right click on the app's screen in a mouse-and-keyboard situation, and swipe up from the bottom of the screen or down from the top on a touch tablet. Once you do this, you'll reveal the app's functions and options.

5. Keyboard shortcuts still work

Most of the trusty old Windows keyboard shortcuts work just as they always have: Alt-Tab switches you between open applications, F5 refreshes the active window, Alt-F4 closes the current app, and so on. But the Windows Key is the mother of many new and useful shortcuts. Make friends with the Windows key, and you will sprint through the OS. Just tapping it switches you between your current app and the Start screen, Windows key-D takes you to the desktop, Windows key-F opens Find, and – a very handy safety tip – Windows key-L returns the PC to the lock screen.

A full list of Windows 8.1 shortcuts is on this support page. One key combo most people may want to avoid, however, is Windows key-Enter, which starts the Narrator reading everything on screen endlessly; stopping this requires the not-very-intuitive Caps Lock-Escape key combo. The screenshot above shows just a small sampling of these Windows-key shortcuts.

For more on Windows 8.1, check out our guide to dual booting Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, and for more tips in general, see our 50 top tips for Windows 8.