5 principles to make learning Windows 8.1 easier

A show and tell with a friend and his new Windows 8.1 hybrid exposed 5 things newbies can do to make the transition from Windows 7 easier.

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

New Year's day turned out to be a fun day, as a friend brought his new Asus Transformer Book T100 to the coffee shop. I was sitting there with my own T100 and it was pretty cool to see two of them side-by-side on the table. My friend bought the T100 to get familiar with Windows 8.1. He is very familiar with Windows 7 but a total newbie with 8.1.

Our fun session quickly turned into one of my showing him the ins and outs of full Windows 8.1, especially the touch-centric Metro interface. He wanted to know how to easily do the things he wants, so I set out to show him. He was quickly frustrated, for like many new Windows 8.1 users he tended to make things more complicated than they need to be. The T100 he was using has the full desktop environment, and that was the source of much of his difficulty.

Based on working with him, I realized there are five principles for getting familiar with Windows 8.1, especially hybrids that are both laptops and tablets. You may know these and perhaps find them to be basic knowledge, but newbies may find them useful. This is not a Windows 8.1 tutorial by any means, rather a general guide on how to get started with the latest OS from Microsoft.

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Stay away from the desktop

This sounds counter-intuitive since the desktop and the ability to load apps from outside the Microsoft Store is an advantage of Windows 8.1 over Windows RT.

What I observed working with my friend was his natural impulse to go to the familiar desktop instead of the brand new Metro interface. This impeded learning how to operate the Metro interface by touch, and quickly frustrated him since the desktop didn't handle touch operation as well. He was constantly trying to tap tiny Windows controls on the desktop, which didn't work well even after I showed him how to make things bigger in settings.

It was hard for him to do at first but after I repeatedly told him to stay away from the desktop, which he started calling the dark side, he began to see how much easier (and better) the Metro side was for everything we were doing. Metro is nicely optimized for touch and once he was forced to only use it he quickly grasped the concept behind it and realized it's pretty good.

Keep Metro Internet Explorer the default browser

Once of the first things my friend did after taking his Transformer Book T100 out of the box was to install the Chrome (or other) browser. I can relate to this as I did the same thing with my first Windows tablet. Many folks use Chrome on other devices/platforms and it's nice to have that familiar interface, along with all of your bookmarks and settings, on your new Windows hybrid.

Unfortunately, Chrome and other third-party browsers run on the desktop side of Windows. These are not very touch optimized and it's difficult to use them on the desktop. 

Making a third-party browser the default prevents you from using the Metro version of Internet Explorer, which is a very good browser that is integrated into the Metro side of things. If you make another browser the default instead of Metro IE, every time you click a link in another app it jarringly takes you to the dark side, er, the desktop side of Windows 8. This was really frustrating my friend, and making Metro IE the default relieved that frustration by letting him stay on the Metro side of things.

Note that my friend had somehow made the desktop version of IE (not Metro) the default browser on his T100. He had Chrome installed and it wasn't the default, but having desktop IE as the default had the same effect on his usage. It was even worse as it wasn't obvious to him that he'd done that, and he hated how it regularly jerked him from Metro onto the desktop that didn't work as well by touch.

Once he started using Metro IE for his browsing, he agreed with me how good it is to use by touch. He liked it a lot better than trying to use the Chrome browser.

Find a snap view setup that works for you

Windows 8 users know how useful the snap view can be for just about all users. The ability to put two (or more) apps side-by-side not only extends what you can do at once but can provide additional functionality. It comes down to finding a couple of apps to put onscreen at once that work together.

My friend likes to have his email app on the screen most of the time to see client emails as they come in. I showed him how to do that and have IE open on a pane to the right. Once I showed him that with this snap view setup when he clicked a link in an email it opened up in the browser pane on the right, he was hooked. 

He could go back to the email whenever he wanted, and also surf the web on the right. This added value for him that other mobile platforms couldn't duplicate as well. The value add was even greater when I showed him how to drag the center border between the panes to any size he wanted, and also make one app full screen when necessary.

This excited him as much as anything we covered and kindled his enthusiasm to learn "this Windows 8 thing".

Next: Universal search is your friend; The reading list is oh, so nice; Keep it simple

Universal search is your friend

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Windows 8 can be overwhelming for new users, and my friend was no exception. Finding apps he'd installed was easy once he'd pinned them to the start screen, but others were hidden from view.

When I showed him how to swipe from the right edge of the screen and select Search things changed. Once he saw how he could start typing the name of an app, with either the physical or onscreen keyboard, and the search results list that appeared, the lights went on in his eyes. This provided instant access to the desired app in a flash.

After he tried this a few times, including getting to the control panel, he was downright excited. When I told him it wasn't restricted to finding apps, that it could search for documents or web content, he saw how powerful the universal search could be. The ability to get his hands on virtually anything on his system was easy and made Windows 8.1 less intimidating.

The reading list is oh, so nice

I know my friend pretty well and how he likes to save things he finds on the web for reading later. Most modern browsers have a way to do this for later access in the browser, but Windows 8.1 has the Reading List app that works beautifully with Metro IE.

I showed him how to save web articles by swiping from the right edge of the screen and selecting Share in the charms menu. Tapping Reading List sends the article to the app which is optimized superbly for accessing content later. He tried saving a few and was impressed with the touch-optimized Reading List app for retrieving and reading the content.

He instantly saw how this fits the way he uses the web, and no doubt already has a nice library of reading material.

Keep it simple

The lessons I learned working with my friend that led to these five principles for newbies are geared toward making the approach to learning Windows 8.1 as easy as possible. Keeping away from the desktop at first allows concentrating on learning the Metro interface, important for tablets and touch systems, and getting familar with apps.

Windows 8.1 is easier to use than most newbies realize, and using the approach covered here can make that clear. Once familiar with the Metro side of Windows 8.1, moving to the desktop to learn that side of things is less jarring and easier to do given its Windows 7 roots.