Getting Around in Windows 8.1

By Faithe Wempen

Windows 8.1 has two main interfaces: the desktop and the Start screen. Depending on how your computer is set up, one or the other of these appears automatically when you start your computer.

The Windows 8.1 Start screen

The Start screen is like a bulletin board that contains pinned shortcuts to applications. A shortcut is a graphical object (usually a picture or a rectangular block) that opens a particular file, folder, or application when you click it.

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The Start screen starts out with a default set of shortcuts pinned to it, but you can pin shortcuts to your own favorite applications to it, and unpin shortcuts that you don’t use. The Start screen replaces the Start menu in earlier Windows versions.

Each pinned item on the Start screen appears as a rectangular tile.

The Start screen might appear automatically at startup; if it doesn’t, you can access it by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard. Or, if the desktop appears, you can click the Start button in the lower-left corner of the desktop to access the Start screen.

If there are a lot of shortcuts pinned to the Start screen, you might not be able to see them all at once. Use the scroll bar at the bottom of the screen to scroll to the right to see the rest, or if you are using a touchscreen, swipe (drag your finger) from right to left to scroll the display.

The Windows 8.1 desktop

The desktop, along with the Start screen, forms the main interface of Windows 8.1. By default, the desktop is rather bare. It consists of a graphical background with a single icon on it. (An icon is a picture that represents an object, such as a file, folder, or application.)

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The desktop also includes a taskbar. The taskbar is the thin horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen. It serves multiple purposes:

  • The taskbar contains the Start button, which opens the Start screen. You can also right-click the Start button to open a shortcut menu of common commands and locations.

  • You can pin shortcuts to the taskbar. By default, there are two there: Internet Explorer and File Explorer. Pinned shortcuts appear at the left end of the taskbar.

  • When applications are running, icons for them appear immediately to the right of the pinned shortcuts. For example, the figure shows two applications running: Calculator and Notepad. Notice that the icons for these two appear with a lighter background than the background of the taskbar itself; this indicates that those icons are for running programs, not just pinned shortcuts.

  • At the far-right end, the current date and time appear.

  • To the left of the date and time are icons for utilities or features that are running in the background, such as the volume control, the battery monitor (on a portable PC), and the network connection indicator. This area is called the notification area, or system tray.

The Charms bar in Windows 8.1

The Charms bar is a pop-up vertical bar along the right side of the screen that displays five special icons, called charms. You can display the Charms bar, move the mouse pointer to the bottom right corner of the screen, or if you have a touchscreen, swipe in from the right.

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Each of the charms performs some special function that Windows 8.1 users frequently need. From top to bottom, they are

  • Search: Opens a Search screen, from which you can search for any applications, settings, or files on your computer or online.

  • Share: Enables you to share links, photos, and more with your friends and social networks without leaving the app you’re in.

  • Start: Takes you to the Start screen, or if you’re already on the Start screen, back to the last app you were working with.

  • Devices: Enables you do things like sending files and streaming movies to printers and TVs.

  • Settings: Provides access to many common system settings, such as brightness, volume control, and notifications, as well as access to the Control Panel. You also can shut down your PC from here.

The exact options that appear when you click a certain charm depend on the context — that is, they depend on what’s on the screen at the moment. For example, when you choose the Settings charm with the desktop displayed, you get different choices than when you choose it with the Start screen displayed.