Shortcuts for working with Win8 (Win7, too)

Michael Lasky

As with all preceding versions of the OS, Windows 8.1 includes many useful keyboard shortcuts and utilities for quick navigation and file management.

You just have to know where to find them.

For the most part, you can’t rely on Microsoft documentation to find these tools. And searching the company’s online help will likely get you mired in layers of unorganized feature descriptions and instructions.

But we’re here to help. Here’s a collection of useful utilities and tricks built right into the OS. They’ll make the task of working within Windows 8 surprisingly easier and more efficient than you might have expected. Many of these tips will be useful reminders for Windows 7 users, too.

Keyboard shortcuts for quicker window resizing

Once, the only way to maximize or minimize a window was to click on the dash and box icons in a window’s top-right corner. Windows 7 gave us more options, and Windows 8 adds still more.

For example, on the Win8 Desktop, you can quickly make a window full-screen by simply dragging its title bar toward the top of the desktop screen. Dragging the title bar down slightly reverses the process.

Pressing the Windows key (WinKey) plus either the up arrow or down arrow achieves the same ends.

A holdover from Windows 7 is the Windows-snap maneuver (assuming it’s enabled [more info]) that lets you quickly display two windows, side by side, on the desktop. Drag the title bar of one window to the left side, and it will snap into place; drag a second window’s title bar to the right side to snap it into place.

To snap windows using keyboard shortcuts, use the WinKey plus either the left arrow or the right arrow. Got two monitors? Use Shift + WinKey + left/right arrow.

Windows Peek — clearing off the desktop

In Win7, the Peek tool lets you clean up the desktop instantly. It doesn’t close open windows; it just minimizes them all in one step. You do so by clicking the small Peek box in the desktop’s extreme lower-right corner. (Hovering over the box simply makes open windows temporarily transparent.)

This option is still around in Win8. Glide the cursor over to the lower-right corner of the Desktop and right-click. (The charms bar will pop up, but ignore it.) You’ll now get two options: Show desktop and Peek at desktop.

To check whether Peek is enabled, right-click an open space on the taskbar, select Properties, and see whether Use Peek to preview the desktop … is checked. (While you’re in Properties, you might also check Show Windows Stores apps on the taskbar. It will let you run native Win8 apps without switching to the Start screen.)

Keyboard shortcuts for Windows/File Explorer

Although Windows 8 supports both mouse and finger gestures, many users still prefer keyboard navigation. As with Windows Explorer, File Explorer includes keyboard shortcuts that can be faster to use than multiple mouse clicks. Here are the highlights:

  • F6 (or Tab) cycles through Favorites, the address bar, the main window, search, and so on.
  • F4 selects the address bar and shows a drop-down menu of recently visited locations. Pressing Alt + D also selects the address bar but doesn’t open the drop-down menu.
  • Press Backspace or Alt + left arrow to go back to the previously open folder.
  • Alt + up arrow navigates instantly to the parent window of the file you were looking at. Alas, Alt + down arrow does nothing.
  • F11 toggles Windows/File Explorer in and out of full-screen view (as it also does with Internet Explorer).
  • Shift + Ctrl + N makes a new folder.
  • Jump to a file: When viewing a folder populated with files, pressing the first letter of a file name will take you directly to that file. If there are several files whose names begin with the same letter, each press of that first letter key will move you to the succeeding file.

Managing metadata: Hide your file’s fingerprints

Every file includes metadata information that identifies the author, creation date and time, modified date and time, and more. Sometimes, you might want a file to be less revealing.

Right-click the file name, select Properties, and then click the Details tab. At the bottom of the Details box, click the Remove Properties or Personal Information link (see Figure 1). The Remove Properties dialog box lets you select which metadata you want removed, as shown in Figure 2. (Note: Some of a file’s properties infomation can’t be removed. You won’t see checkboxes for those properties.)

File properties

Figure 1. The Details tab lists a file's properties and includes a link to remove some personal information.

Remove property info

Figure 2. You can choose the metadata you wish to remove by checking the appropriate checkbox.

The Create a copy with all possible properties removed option is selected by default. That’s the better option if you want to keep the original file but share a copy that has less-personal information attached.

Reveal system files and extensions faster

For years, Windows has hidden critical system files so that users wouldn’t inadvertently delete them. To reveal them in Windows Explorer, you had to click Tools/Folder Options/View and pick the option under Hidden files and folders. With Win8′s File Explorer, you simply click the View tab in the ribbon, go to the Show/Hide section, and click the Hidden items checkbox.

Revealing file extensions in File Explorer is equally quick. Simply check the File name extensions checkbox directly above Hidden items. The third option in the Show/Hide section — Item check boxes — enables file selection by clicking checkboxes. It makes it a bit easier to cherry-pick files from a list instead of using the usual Ctrl + [click] method.

Know the number: Keyboard-based app selection

If you have numerous programs open, there’s a hidden number associated with their places on the taskbar, from left to right, starting with 1 and ending with 0 (for 10).

The option is limited to the first 10 apps on the taskbar. To open any one of them, press the WinKey plus its number. The assigned number isn’t fixed: dragging and dropping any of the taskbar options to another location automatically reassigns its number — handy if it will help you remember the number. (Recall that right-clicking a taskbar icon opens its jump list.)

By default, the Win8 taskbar shows icons only. As with Win7, you can have the taskbar display both icons and labels. Right-click in a free area of the taskbar, select Properties, and select Combine when taskbar is full from the Taskbar buttons drop-down menu. Click OK. Of course, icons take up less of the taskbar’s precious real estate. But the choice is yours.

While you’re in Win8′s Taskbar properties, check out the new Jump Lists tab. It lets you select whether the Taskbar stores recently open programs, recently opened items in the jump lists, or both.

Create toolbar shortcuts for your taskbar

If you typically open folders to access frequently needed files, you can create a quick-access toolbar within your taskbar. For example, I often need to open various files for my Windows Secrets articles. Instead of creating a desktop shortcut for each one, I created a toolbar with shortcuts to the folders in which they reside (Figure 3).

Custom Taskbar Toolbar

Figure 3. Creating a custom toolbar on the taskbar gives quick access to frequently used files.

Right-click on a blank area of the taskbar. Select the Toolbars menu and then New toolbar (Figure 4). An Explorer-like window opens to let you choose a folder. Press OK, and the new toolbar appears on the taskbar immediately left of the notification area next to the System Tray on the Desktop. Click the double arrows, and a list of the folders’ contents opens.

Create toolbar

Figure 4. The taskbar's Toolbars feature includes a few predefined toolbars plus the option to create custom toolbars.

By default, Win7 and Win8 offer a handful of pre-made toolbars such as Address, Links, and Desktop. (None is active until you place a check next to it.) But, again, you’ll want to add them sparingly — they do soak up the taskbar’s limited space. For example, the Address bar, which merely duplicates the address bar found in your browser, isn’t really worth the space it commands.

More fine-tuning of the Windows taskbar

By default, Win8 consolidates multiple instances of running apps under one icon. If, say, you have multiple Word windows open, just one icon would appear. To see individual windows, hover your cursor over the icon.

But as with Win7, you can make each instance of an open app appear separately on the taskbar. Open the taskbar properties; in the Taskbar tab, click the drop-down list next to Taskbar buttons. Next, select either Never combine or Combine when taskbar is full (Figure 5). Note that unopened apps pinned to the taskbar won’t have labels. As Figure 6 shows, this can be a bit awkward-looking.

Taskbar button display options

Figure 5. The Taskbar's buttons control lets you select how taskbar items are displayed.

Mixed icons on taskbar

Figure 6. Selecting the 'Combine when taskbar is full' option can create an awkward mix of labeled and unlabeled icons.

Open sesame: Select your default programs

Although it might still seem that Microsoft determines which programs open particular file formats, the user actually has the power to decide. But the Default Programs utility that lets you do so is easy to miss; there’s no obvious link in the Control Panel. From the Control Panel’s Category view, click Programs/Default Programs. (In Win8, you can also type “default” into the charms bar Search box.)

Click the Set your default programs link to see a list of installed applications (including native apps in Windows 8). Highlighting a program brings up two links. Set this program as default is automatically selected for opening associated file formats.

You can also customize which file formats are associated with the default program by clicking the Choose defaults for this program link. A list of supported file formats will appear (Figure 7); check or uncheck those you want to be automatically associated with the app.

File-type associations

Figure 7. In this example, the associations dialog box displays all file types that will automatically open in Microsoft Paint.

One of the joys of Windows has been, and still is, the many ways you can manage computing tasks. The preceding shortcuts can help speed you through some of those tasks. If you have trouble remembering them all, this article might make a good cheat sheet. For more Win8 keyboard shortcuts, see the Nov. 1, 2012, Best Practices story, “Navigate Win8 quickly with keyboard shortcuts” (paid content).

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-06-05:

Michael Lasky

About Michael Lasky

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.