10 Windows 8 tips, tricks and hacks

Take control of Windows 8 on the Desktop, the lock screen and more.

Whether you've installed Windows 8 yourself or bought a new PC with it, you're now faced with an unfamiliar operating system that at first glance seems more difficult to customize than earlier versions of Windows. What to do -- give up and simply use it as it came out of the box?

Editor's Note

Always check with your IT department before changing system settings or otherwise tweaking a company-owned machine.

Certainly not. There are plenty of ways to tweak, hack and make Windows 8 do things you wouldn't think were possible. In this article you'll see how to cobble together your own quick-and-dirty Start menu as well as customize the hidden Power User menu. I'll show you how to use so-called "God Mode," hack the lock screen and Start screen, master File Explorer and much more.

So fire up Windows 8 and get ready to hear it cry "Uncle."

Need help getting up to speed with Windows 8? See our Windows 8 cheat sheet, which shows you how to get around (including with keyboard shortcuts) and offers three quick tips for getting started with Windows 8.

1. Put "God Mode" in easy reach

You wouldn't know it by looking at the Desktop or Start screen, but Windows 8 practically bristles with settings you can customize. The problem is that they're scattered throughout Windows 8, and it can be time-consuming to track them down individually.

However, there is one way to find them all in one place: You can use what some people call "God Mode." While the term "God Mode" has a powerful ring to it, the truth is it's not a separate mode that you put Windows into. It's really a hidden folder that gives you fast access to many settings spread out across Windows 8. It's easy to put that folder right on the Desktop.

First, make sure that you can view hidden files in File Explorer, the system navigation app that in earlier versions of Windows was called Windows Explorer. Run File Explorer, click the View tab, and check the boxes next to "Hidden items" and "File name extensions" in the Ribbon at the top.

Then right-click the Desktop and select New --> Folder. That creates a folder on the Desktop named "New folder." Rename the folder:

GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

The GodMode folder on the Desktop.

The folder icon changes, and it has the name GodMode.

(Note that the "GodMode" text isn't what turns the folder into a special folder; instead, it's that long string of letters and numbers inside the curly brackets. You can use any text you want before the period just ahead of the opening bracket, and it still points to the same folder and everything works the same.)

Double-click the icon, and you'll launch a folder filled with dozens of actions, tools and tweaks, from "Change Automatic Maintenance settings" to "View update history." They're organized by category. Expand or shrink each category by clicking the small triangle next to it. Each category displays a number next to it, showing how many settings there are in it.

"God Mode" offers a plethora of settings and actions. Click to view larger image.

To start any action or tweak, double-click it in the list. In some cases you'll follow a wizard, in other cases you'll need to fill in dialog boxes, and in yet other cases you'll be sent to the Control Panel or another Windows location to do the work.

2. Put a quick-and-dirty Start menu on the taskbar

Particularly high on the list of things that annoy people about Windows 8 is the omission of the Desktop's Start menu. Microsoft did its best to stomp it to death -- but it didn't quite succeed. In the Windows 8 cheat sheet I showed you how to use free or paid add-on programs to get the Start button and menu back.

If don't want to use third-party software to get a Start menu, you can build your own quick-and-dirty one in no time. You won't get the full traditional Windows Start menu with Search button, recently run apps, the Control Panel, your network and so on. Instead you get a menu that lets you browse through applications and launch them.

First make sure that you can view hidden files in File Explorer, as outlined in the tip above.

Now right-click the Desktop's taskbar and select Toolbars --> New Toolbar. From the screen that appears, navigate to

C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu

where username is your account name, and click the Select Folder button. That will place a Start Menu toolbar on the far right of the taskbar. Click its double arrow to display a variety of folders (such as Programs and Computer) that you can browse through until you see the item you want; click it to launch it.

Here's your quick-and-dirty Start menu. Click to view larger image.

To make the Start Menu toolbar go away, right-click the taskbar and select Toolbars, then de-select the Start Menu listing.

By the way, you may have noticed that when you right-click the taskbar and select Toolbars, there are other pre-built toolbars you can put on the taskbar. Here are your choices and what each does:

Address: Adds a box on the Taskbar into which you type URLs. After you enter one, press Enter and you'll head to the site in Internet Explorer.

Links: Displays your Internet Explorer favorites on the Taskbar.

Touch Keyboard: Displays a keyboard icon on the Taskbar. Click it to display an onscreen keyboard.

Desktop: Displays a list of every icon on your Desktop. It even displays some items that aren't visible on the Desktop, such as Homegroup. For any item with a subfolder beneath it (such as Homegroup and Network), you'll see an arrow next to it. Move your cursor to the arrow to see all of the subfolders beneath it.

To turn off any toolbar, right-click the taskbar and choose Toolbars, then uncheck the toolbar.

3. Use and hack the Power User menu

Microsoft giveth and Microsoft taketh away. In Windows 8 it took away the Start menu, but it also provided a very useful new tool: the Power User menu. Right-click in the lower-left corner of the Desktop (or press the Windows key + X) and up pops a text-based menu that gives you access to 16 tools, including a Run box, a command prompt, an administrative command prompt, the Device Manager and plenty of other useful power tools.

Windows 8's new Power User menu.

Most choices are self-explanatory, but not all. For example, click "Programs and Features" and you get sent to a Control Panel applet that lets you uninstall Desktop programs, look at Windows updates you've installed and turn certain Windows features on or off.

The Mobility Center sends you to an applet that lets you do things such as change your display brightness, screen orientation, presentation settings and so on. And in case you didn't realize that the Control Panel still existed, there's a link to that as well.

Another nice thing about the Power User menu: It's hackable. You can delete items you don't want to appear there and add items you do want to appear there, such as programs you run frequently or even individual files.

To do it, you'll first have to make sure that you can view hidden files in File Explorer, as outlined previously. Then go to

C:\Users\username\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\WinX

where username is your account name. You'll see three folders there: Group1, Group2 and Group3. Each has shortcuts to the apps that appear on the Power Menu. Group1 contains the Desktop; Group2 contains the Control Panel, File Explorer, Run, Search and Task Manager; and Group3 contains two for the Command Prompt (one of which is an Admin command prompt), Computer Management, Device Manager, Disk Management, Event Viewer, Power Options, Programs and Features, System and Windows Mobility Center.

These shortcuts show up as menu items on the Power User menu.Click to view larger image.

Look back at the Power User menu. Notice that there are three groups separated by two faint lines? They correspond to the folders in the WinX folder. The app in Group1 (Desktop) is at the bottom, then there's a line, then there are the apps in Group2, then there's a line, and then there are the apps in Group3.

To edit the Power User menu, just make changes to the contents of the folders Group1, Group2 and Group3. Delete a shortcut and it vanishes from the menu; add a shortcut and it appears on the menu.

Delete a shortcut as you would any other shortcut: Select it and press your Delete key. (When you delete a shortcut, the file it points to isn't deleted; only the shortcut goes away.) To add a shortcut, open the folder into which you want to place it, right-click on an empty spot, select New --> Shortcut, and follow the wizard that appears.

After you've finished deleting shortcuts and adding new ones, sign out of Windows and then sign back in. Your new Power User menu will be waiting for you on your return.

4. Customize the lock screen

When you boot up your PC or wake it from sleep, it heads right to Windows 8's lock screen. Along with a large image, the screen displays the time and date as well as notifications and status updates from certain apps -- email, social networks, calendar and more. It provides a quick rundown on things you might be interested in seeing without having to sign into Windows 8. Just wake up your Windows 8 device and the info is there, waiting for you on the lock screen.

By default, the lock screen shows notifications from the Messaging, Mail, Calendar and Weather apps. But maybe you'd like to see Twitter updates or info from another app, or you'd like to change the image. You can easily customize all that.

The place to go to do it is the Lock screen settings screen. To get there, press the Windows key + C to display the Charms bar, and then select the Settings icon. Click "Change PC settings" at the bottom of the Settings pane. The "PC settings" screen appears. Under Personalize, choose "Lock screen."

You'll see your lock screen image at the top of the screen. Just beneath the image are other images you can use. Click one to make it the new lock screen image. To find other images you can use for the lock screen, click the Browse button and browse through your pictures. Select the one you want to use and click the "Choose picture" button to make it your new lock screen image.

Here's command central for changing your lock screen settings, starting with the image.Click to view larger image.

Just below the image on the Lock screen settings screen is the "Lock screen apps" section. Here you'll find icons for the apps that automatically display notifications and updates on your lock screen.

Click a plus sign and choose an app to display alerts and notifications on the lock screen.

Over to the right of them are several plus signs. Click a plus sign and you'll see a list of apps that can display notifications and updates. Pick one and it will display alerts and other information on the lock screen.

Note that when you click a plus sign, you'll see both the apps that are already displaying notifications and alerts on your lock screen as well as those that aren't currently doing so. If you choose one that already displays its notifications on the Start screen, nothing new happens -- the app still displays notifications, with no change. To stop an app from displaying notifications, click it and then click "Don't show quick status here."

Underneath that section is one that's a little more baffling: "Choose an app to display detailed status." The app in this section displays more information on the lock screen than other apps.

Here's the Lock screen showing detailed information from the Calendar app.

Only the Calendar app and the Weather app can show this kind of detailed information, and only one at a time. To change from one to the other, click the icon that's there and select the other icon. From then on, that app will show its detailed status.

If you want neither app to show detailed status, click the icon and select "Don't show detailed status on the lock screen." Neither app shows detailed information, and the icon changes to a plus sign. If you want to reinstate detailed weather or calendar information, click the plus sign and select either app.

5. Lock the lock screen image

If you share a Windows 8 PC with others and don't want them messing with the lock screen image, you can lock it so that it can't be changed. To do it, though, you're going to have to get down and dirty by editing the Registry.

Caution: Keep in mind before trying this that you can do damage to your system if you use the Registry incorrectly, so if you don't feel comfortable with Registry editing, stop right now. (See our story "The tweaker's guide to the Windows Registry" for more information about Registry editing. And be very sure to read the instructions for backing up the Registry before you attempt any Registry edits whatsoever.)

For those who do feel comfortable, when you're on the Start screen, type regedit, click Apps on the right-hand side of the screen, then click the regedit.exe icon that appears on the left side of the screen.

Launching the Registry Editor.

A security window appears asking if you want to allow the Registry Editor to make changes to your PC. Click Yes, and the Registry Editor launches.

Now navigate to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\

See if there's a key called Personalization there. If the key already exists, don't create another one. Instead, follow the instructions in the next paragraph. If the key doesn't exist, you'll have to create it. To do so, click Edit --> New --> Key. That creates a new key, but it will have a name like "New Key #1." You have to rename it. Right-click it, select Rename, and rename it Personalization.

Now that the Personalization key is there, create a new DWORD value under it called NoChangingLockScreen. To do that, right-click the Personalization key and select New --> DWORD (32-bit) Value. Rename the DWORD value NoChangingLockScreen. Double click-it and change its value from 0 to 1. Now exit the Registry Editor.

Setting the NoChangingLockScreen DWORD value to 1 prevents the lock screen image from being changed. Click to view larger image.

Log out of Windows or restart it, then log back in. The lock screen background shouldn't be changeable -- consider it locked. If you want to allow the background to be changed in the future, use the Registry Editor to change the value of NoChangingLockScreen from 1 to 0.

6. Kill the lock screen altogether

Not a fan of the lock screen? There are plenty of people who don't find it useful and would prefer to bypass it so they can just sign into Windows and get straight to work. You won't find a setting to do it. Instead, you'll have to use the Registry Editor.

All the caveats about using the Registry Editor outlined in the previous tip apply here, so keep in mind it could be dangerous to use it. However, if you're comfortable using the Registry Editor, follow the instructions in "Lock the lock screen image" above to launch the Registry Editor, and, if you haven't already done so, to create a Registry key called Personalization in

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\

Create a new DWORD value under the Personalization key by right-clicking it and selecting New --> DWORD (32-bit) Value. Rename the DWORD value NoScreenLock. Double click-it and change its value from 0 to 1. Now exit the Registry Editor.

The new setting should take effect immediately. The next time you reboot or wake your PC, you won't see the lock screen. Instead, you'll go straight to the Windows sign-in screen.

7. Bend File Explorer to your will

Windows 8's File Explorer file manager is different from the old Windows Explorer in more than just name. It's gotten a complete makeover, notably by the addition of a Ribbon interface that puts many tasks, features and views in easy reach. Following are my favorite ways to get more out of it.

But first you need to make sure that File Explorer displays the Ribbon, because it might not be turned on. To turn it on, press Ctrl-F1 or click the downward-facing arrow on the upper right of its screen. The Ribbon displays, and the downward-facing arrow turns into an upward-facing arrow. To turn it back off, press Ctrl-F1 again or click the upward-facing arrow.

Turn panes on and off

File Explorer has several useful panes you can turn on and off. Click the View tab to find them. You'll find ways to turn them on and off on the far left-hand side of the Ribbon. Just click the pane you want turned on, and if there are options, select options from the menu that appears when you click the arrow next to the pane's icon.

The first basic choice is whether to use the Navigation pane. That's the pane on the left-hand side of File Explorer, and it's what you use to navigate through your hard disk. Click its icon on the View tab and uncheck "Navigation pane" to turn it off, or check it to turn it on. There are also several other options available, such as whether to show favorite folders such as Desktop, Downloads and Recent Places.

The Navigation pane on the left helps you get around your hard drive. The Preview pane on the right displays a large thumbnail of a file you click. Click to view larger image.

There's another choice there: whether to use the Preview pane or the Details pane, or neither. (You can't use both at once.) Either pane lives all the way over on the right-hand side of File Explorer. If you select the Preview pane and then click a file, you'll see a large thumbnail of the file in the pane, or else the actual contents of the file, as long as you have an app that runs or reads the file. (For example, Office for displaying .doc files.)

The Details pane shows detailed file information and a small thumbnail.

If you instead choose the Details pane, you'll see details about the file, such as its size, when it was created, its file name and more depending on the file type. (For example, for pictures it displays the dimensions.)

Click the Preview pane or Details pane icon in the Ribbon to turn it on, and click it again to turn it off.

Display hidden files and folders

Microsoft assumes that most people don't want to see the plumbing of Windows, and so hides many system files and folders, as well as file name extensions. But if you want to tweak how Windows 8 works, you'll need to see that plumbing.

It's easy to display it. On the View tab, check the box next to "Hidden items" to display hidden system files and folders, and check the box next to "File name extensions" to display those.

Hide files and folders

To hide those files and folders again, simply uncheck the "Hidden items" checkbox again.

Want to hide more files and folders? Simply select them, then click "Hide selected items" near the right edge of the Ribbon's View tab. Then, when the "Hidden items" checkbox is unchecked, you won't be able to see those items.

Change icon sizes

While you're on the View tab, you can change the size of the icons that represent files and folders. You'll find these options just to the right of the icons for turning panes on and off.

Here's what you see when you choose extra large icons (left) or small icons (right).

Add columns

By default, when you open a folder, File Explorer shows three columns of information about each file in the folder: date modified, type and size. But you can add columns that show other information, such as the date it was created, its author, tags and more. Just go to the View tab's "Current view" group and click the down arrow next to "Add columns" to add them.

These are your options for adding columns of information about each file in File Explorer.Click to view larger image.

Near the "Add columns" choice, you get several options to change how those columns display, including how you sort them, group them and make them all fit on a single screen.

Use the invert selection feature

On the far-right side of the Home tab, there is a group of commands called Select. The "Select all" option selects all files in a folder, and "Select none" deselects them. The third option, "Invert selection," is confusingly named but surprisingly useful.

Let's say that you've hand-selected certain files in a folder by holding down the Ctrl key while clicking them. Once you've selected them, you can perform a task on them all -- delete them or copy them or move them somewhere else, for example.

Now imagine that you've got 30 files in a folder, and you want to delete 26 of them. The obvious way to do it would be to tediously hand-select 26 of them one by one and then delete them. Here's where "Invert selection" comes to your rescue.

Select the four that you don't want to delete, and then click "Invert selection." Now all the files that you selected are no longer selected, and the other 26 are selected. You've inverted the selection, and you can now mass-delete the 26 files.

8. Use (and tweak) the All Apps screen

One of the most disconcerting things about Windows 8's dual interface is that it's difficult to see in one place all the apps you can run -- both Windows 8 Store apps and Desktop applications. You can find the Windows 8 Store apps on the Start screen, but all of your Desktop apps don't necessarily appear there. And because there's no longer a Start button on the Desktop, you can't find all of your Desktop apps there, either.

However, there's a way to see all of them in one place: Go to the All Apps screen. To get there, on the Start screen either right-click an empty space or press the Windows key + Z. That opens the App bar across the bottom of the screen. There's only one thing you can do on the bar: click the "All apps" button at the right.

That displays the All Apps screen, which, as the name implies, shows you all the apps on your system. On the left you'll find all the Windows 8 Store apps, and to the right, the Desktop apps. Click any to run it.

The Windows 8 All Apps screen. Click to view larger image.

The Desktop apps on the right-hand side are organized into groups -- Windows Accessories, Windows Ease of Access, Windows System, and so on. If you've installed software, those apps might be in their own groups as well. But you can rearrange the apps in these groups if you like. Here's what you need to know.

The organization of the Desktop apps on the All Apps screen mimics the structure of two hidden Windows folders:

C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs

and

C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs

where username is your Windows 8 account name. The first folder has all the apps that all users of the system will see, while the second has those that show up for an individual user.

Any subfolder in those folders shows up as a group -- such as Windows Accessories -- on the All Apps screen. And all the shortcuts in those folders show up as apps inside the groups on this screen -- for example, Calculator and Character Map. To change the organization of Desktop groups and apps on the All Apps screen, you only need to change the folder and shortcut structure in those two folders.

First, make sure you can view hidden files in File Explorer, as outlined earlier in the story. Then go into those folders, and add any folders that you want to show up as groups on the All Apps screen. In those folders, add shortcuts to any apps you want to show up as part of those groups. Delete any folders and shortcuts that you don't want to appear. That's all it takes. The changes will be reflected on the All Apps screen.

(Note: You can also rearrange and regroup the apps on your Start screen. To find out how, see "Customize the Start screen" in the Windows 8 cheat sheet.)

9. Build an Applications folder for quick program launching from the Start screen or Desktop

There's an even quicker way to access all your apps, whether you're on the Desktop or the Start screen: Create an Applications folder to house them all.

First, run File Explorer. Navigate to the Desktop and create a new folder. After you create it, rename it:

Applications.{4234d49b-0245-4df3-b780-3893943456e1}

On the Desktop and in File Explorer, the folder will be called Applications. Double-click it to see a list of all your applications, including Windows 8 Store apps, traditional Desktop applications and many system apps such as Control Panel. To run an app, double-click it.

The Applications folder includes both Windows 8 apps and Desktop apps. Click to view larger image.

There's still one problem, though: The folder doesn't show up on the Start screen. It's simple to put it there, though. Right-click it on the Desktop or in File Explorer and select "Pin to Start." It's now pinned to the Start screen, though it might not be immediately visible there.

To find it, scroll all the way over to the right, and it'll be there. Click it, and the folder opens with all your apps. If you like, you can move it to a more prominent location on the Start screen by dragging it to the left.

10. Fool the Mail app into using POP mail

The Windows 8 Mail app has a surprising shortcoming -- it won't work with email accounts that use the POP3 mail protocol. Instead, Windows 8 Mail works with Web-based mail accounts such as Gmail and Outlook.com and accounts that use IMAP.

However, there's a workaround that solves the problem. You can tell either a Gmail or an Outlook.com account to get POP3-based mail from a POP3 account, and then tell Windows 8 Mail to get mail from that account.

Of course, you'll also have to consider whether your POP email account might contain sensitive correspondence that you don't wish to share with an additional cloud-based service. If you're willing to route your mail through Outlook.com or Gmail, keep reading for how to do it. (Skip to Gmail instructions.)

Configure Outlook.com to get POP3 mail

Got an Outlook.com account? You might have one without knowing it. The service was formerly called both Hotmail and Windows Live Mail at various times in its history, and those accounts have been converted to Outlook.com automatically. So if you've got an old Hotmail account, for instance, just go to Hotmail.com and log in; you'll be redirected to Outlook.com.

If for some reason your account hasn't been upgraded, just log into your Hotmail or Windows Live Mail account, click Options, select Upgrade to Outlook.com and follow the instructions. Your messages, rules and so on will be brought over.

If you don't have an Outlook.com account, sign up.

Once you're logged into Outlook.com:

1. Click the Settings icon in the upper-right of the screen, and then select "More mail settings."

2. Under "Managing your account," click "Your email accounts" and then select "Add a send-and-receive account."

3. From the screen that appears, click "Advanced options." Here's where you enter the information you normally need to access your POP account, including the server address, port number and so on. If you don't have it, check with your email provider.

You can also check whatever mail client you normally use for the information. If you're using Outlook 2010, for instance, select File --> Info --> Account settings --> Account setting and click the E-mail tab. Double-click the account, and you'll find the necessary information.

Configuring Outlook.com to work with a POP3 account. Click to view larger image.

4. Make sure to pay attention to a setting that's easy to overlook: whether or not to leave copies of your mail messages on the server. If you're planning to have Windows Mail be your only mail client for accessing your POP-based mail, consider having the messages deleted from the server. However, if you're going to have multiple devices access the mail, make sure to leave the messages on the server. Click Next.

5. On the next screen, you'll be asked whether you want to create a new folder for the mail or keep it in your Outlook.com Inbox. Make your choice and select Next.

6. A verification email will be send to your POP account. Click that link. You'll be sent to a page on Outlook.com telling you that you're set up. You're now ready to tell Windows 8 Mail to get mail from Outlook.com (see below).

Configure Gmail to get POP3 mail

To configure Gmail to grab POP3 mail from an existing POP3 account:

1. In Gmail, click the gear icon on the upper-right corner of the screen and select Settings --> Accounts and Import --> Add a POP3 mail account you own.

2. On the screen that appears, enter your email address.

3. On the next screen, enter the information you normally need to access your POP account, including the server address, port number and so on. If you don't have it, check with your mail provider.

You can also check whatever mail client you normally use for the information. If you're using Outlook 2010, for instance, select File --> Info --> Account settings --> Account setting and click the E-mail tab. Double-click the account, and you'll find the necessary information.

Configuring Gmail to get POP3 mail.

4. After you're done, click Add Account. From the screen that appears, tell Gmail that you want to send messages from the account, not just receive them. You'll have to enter your outgoing email settings and have Gmail send the account an email to verify that it's yours.

5. When you receive the verification email at your POP3 account, click the link and follow the instructions for verifying the address. That's it; Gmail will start retrieving your POP3 mail. You're now ready to tell Windows 8 Mail to get mail from Gmail.

Configure Windows 8 Mail to get mail from Outlook.com or Gmail

Run the Windows 8 Mail app, press the Windows key + C to display the Charms bar, and select Settings --> Accounts --> Add an account.

To get mail from Outlook.com, select Outlook on this screen. Enter your Outlook.com email address and password, click Connect, and you'll start getting the POP mail via Outlook.com.

To get mail from Gmail, select Google on the Add an account screen. Enter your email address and password and click Connect. You'll start getting POP mail via Gmail.

Get more Windows 8 help: 6 tips to make Windows 8 less annoying

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 40 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012).

Read more about windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

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