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Where's the Desktop?

Okay, so you start Windows 8 and have to deal with this new Start screen thing. Fine. But how do you get back to the traditional desktop you're used to using?

In Windows 8, the desktop is just another app. So you access the desktop by launching the Desktop app, which you do by clicking the Desktop tile on the Start screen. Pretty simple.

The problem is, you have to do this every time you enter the desktop environment. There's no way to automatically bypass the Start screen and go directly to the desktop. You have to go to the Start screen first, then click the Desktop tile. No way around it. Thanks, Microsoft — way to take care of those half-billion existing users.

Enough griping. You now have the desktop open, and it looks pretty much like the old Windows 7 desktop. There's the customizable background image, there's the  Recycle Bin, there's the taskbar, there's the Start button… Wait a minute, there's no Start button! What did Microsoft do with the Start button — and the Start menu?

Figure 2 The new Windows 8 desktop — or, more properly, the Desktop app — with File Explorer displayed.

Ah, there's the rub. The Start button and the Start menu are no more. If you want to launch an application, you either have to pin it to the taskbar, create a desktop shortcut, or return to the Start screen. That's right, you can't browse for and launch your apps from the desktop anymore. Microsoft forces you out to the new Start screen to click the appropriate tile to launch the application. Even if all the apps you use are traditional desktop apps, you still have to move out to the Start screen to launch them.

That's annoying. It's also annoying that Microsoft has done away with the translucent Aero interface that's been around since Windows Vista. Now all the desktop apps have the boring, flat, gray design of pre-Aero Windows. Lovely.

When you launch a desktop app from the Start screen, you're taken to the desktop, where your app is now open. You can use it as you're used to using it; in this regard, Windows 8 isn't much different from previous versions of Windows. All the apps you ran in Windows 7 will still run in Windows 8, just in the Desktop app.

There are two apps pinned to the desktop taskbar by default. The first is Internet Explorer 10, which works pretty much like previous versions of the web browser. The second is File Explorer, which is the new name for what used to be called Windows Explorer or just My Documents. The new File Explorer has a ribbon interface instead of the old pull-down menus, but other than that does what it needs to do in terms of file management.

There Are Two Versions of Internet Explorer?

About the version of Internet Explorer on the Windows 8 desktop. It's actually one of two versions of IE available in Windows 8 — and not the featured one, either. Nope, there's another IE available from the Start screen, and it's a new full screen Windows 8-style app.

The fullscreen version of IE works a bit different from the desktop version of IE. First off, only one tab is displayed at a time. To display other open tabs, you have to right-click on the screen; the tabs are then displayed across the top of the screen. In addition, the address bar isn't at the top of the screen, it's at the bottom. And there's no Favorites list; instead, you can pin individual web pages to the Start screen and launch them from there. (Again with the Start screen, Microsoft!)

Figure 3 Displaying tabs in the fullscreen version of Internet Explorer.

By the way, the desktop version of IE still has the old familiar Favorites list, and you can display all the tabs in a row just like you're used to. So you may want to use that version of IE instead.

About Those Windows 8 Apps…

The fullscreen version of Internet Explorer is what Microsoft is calling variously a Windows 8 app, a Windows Store app, or a Modern-style app. During the entire development process Microsoft called them Metro apps, but the company ran into some legal issues and had to drop the Metro moniker at the last moment. (So if you hear them described as Metro apps, you know why.)

Whatever you call them, these new fullscreen Windows 8-specific apps are quite different from the traditional desktop software you're used to using. First off, they're all designed to run exclusively on Windows 8; you can't run them on older versions of Windows. Second, they all run fullscreen and take advantage of Windows 8's touchscreen features. And third, you can't buy them at a traditional retail store.

If you want to buy a new Windows 8 app, you have to buy it from Microsoft's new online Windows Store. You access the Windows Store by clicking its tile on the Start screen; you can then choose from a variety of free and paid apps, which then get downloaded to your system.

Figure 4 Browsing apps in the Windows Store.

Windows 8 ships with a handful of these new apps built in. For example, there's a nifty little Weather app, along with News, Sports, and Finance apps. They work pretty well within the new Windows 8 environment.

Figure 5 The fullscreen Windows 8 Weather app in action.

Since these Windows 8 apps all run in full screen mode, how do you switch between them? Again, there are a number of ways to do this, but I like the traditional approach of pressing Alt+Tab on the keyboard, which brings up a box full of open apps in the center of your screen. Keep pressing Alt+Tab until you get to the app you want, then let go and you're there.

You can also press Windows+Tab to display a new Switcher panel on the left side of the screen. Keep pressing those keys till you get to the app you want.

Figure 6 Press Windows+Tab to switch between open apps with the new Switcher panel.

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