A guide to Windows 8

The Windows 8 operating system from Microsoft is a lively and intuitive approach to computing, bringing some of the fun and responsive features of smartphones and touchscreen tablets to Windows laptops and PCs. Swap your traditional Windows setup for a vibrant, modern Start screen and customise Windows 8 to your own preferences, personalising by arranging the live tiles to quickly access your favourite apps.
Available for both touchscreen and touchpad devices as well, Windows 8 boasts vivid displays, great built-in games and free upgrades to Windows 8.1. Read our guide to get an overview of this smart PC operating system (OS) and how to install it on your own device.

New features on Windows 8

Windows 8 is a completely new look for the Microsoft OS, but it also includes better parental controls and web-based features as well as the modern touch-optimized Windows shell. Here's a look at what's new for Windows 8 compared with previous version Windows 7.

Customise your screens

Instead of the classic Windows Start menu, you will be directed to a vibrant screen, which you can modify in lots of different ways. Apps are arranged in a series of live tiles that can be swapped, shrunk or enlarged based on your preferences.

Change the colour of your Start screen background, select one of the pre-installed wallpaper designs, or download a new background theme from the Microsoft website. The artwork forms a scrolling background as you browse your apps. In addition, you can customise your lock screen and your desktop, if you navigate to these on your PC for example.

Don't worry if you're used to the Windows 7 menu - you can access the Simple Start menu by right-clicking on the bottom left corner, which will give you direct access to your Control Panel, Power Options and other useful functions.

Touchscreen capabilities

Windows 8 allows you to operate your laptop or PC like a tablet, via a 10-point multi-touch screen. Scroll through Windows apps like Outlook for email, Maps, Internet Explorer and Weather on your Start screen, or swipe up from the bottom to find "All Apps".

A touch screen is not essential for using Windows 8 meaning you can still use your trackpad, mouse and keyboard as you normally would with a Windows 7 laptop or PC, but with the added bonus of incorporating gestures to navigate to the right and left, pinching and expanding as needed.

Navigation and tool bars

Windows 8 includes "hot corners" to let you access hidden toolbars and shortcuts - all you need to do is hover with your mouse. To experiment, place your cursor over the top-left corner to see all the apps currently in use, or hover over the right-hand side of the screen to see the "Charms" bar, where you can change computer settings, search for items or share files and pictures on social media channels like Twitter and Facebook.

To find media files or apps straight away on your device, use Bing Smart Search. Just start typing in the Start screen, or use the Charms bar Search option and this will bring up the item you're looking for.

One Windows across your devices

With OneDrive, you have access to your music, films, photos, documents, settings, Windows apps and even browsing history, across your devices, with 15 GB of free storage. That's enough for roughly 255 hours of music, 20,000 Word documents of 300,000 photos. In other words it's a lot.

You can use the same Microsoft Account on every device. This means you only need to remember one user ID and password, and your favourites and settings will automatically follow you from one device to the next.

Online updates and OneDrive

Windows 8 operates as an online system, with all your apps and settings synchronised via your Microsoft account and the OneDrive cloud service. Once logged into Microsoft, your apps can be updated in real time, so you receive notifications when that important email comes in, or instant updates on Facebook chat and the Skype app. Set favourite apps to receive notifications on the lock screen, if you want to know when you have a new message.

Signing into your account on other Windows 8 enabled devices means you'll always be able to retrieve your OneDrive files. You can access 7GB of OneDrive space free with Windows 8, or opt to buy an extra 50, 100 or 200GB, extras that usually come with an annual fee.

Xbox on Windows is your entertainment hub

Xbox is your complete entertainment centre in the cloud, giving you access to your games, music, films, iTunes libraries and more - both at home and on the go.

Parental controls in Windows 8: Family Safety

The new parental control function on Windows 8 is called Family Safety, a feature that aims to make your device even more secure, especially for younger users. When you create Microsoft user accounts for children, simply tick the box that turns on Family Safety, and you can choose the settings in the Control Panel such as web filtering, restricting their app usage, Windows Store access and time spent on the computer.

Using Microsoft Office 2013 on Windows 8

Microsoft Office 2013 is designed to run on Windows 8, and is styled in a similar way, with touchscreen capabilities and pared-down software. Some PC laptops and tablets will come with the MSOS pre-loaded; otherwise, you can purchase this separately for your device.

There are three packages available to suit a variety of users.

365 Personal - A yearly subscription, 1 license (1 PC/Mac + 1 Tablet/iPad) which automatically upgrades to newest version if subscription continues.

365 Home - As above but with 5 licenses - 1 product per family. It automatically upgrades to newest version if subscription continues.

2013 Home and Student - 1 license as a one-off purchase and the customer owns it. Future updates must be purchased.

Alternatively, you can explore Microsoft web apps - available on the new Windows 8 system - which provide most functions of Microsoft Office without any additional purchases.

The built-in cloud-based service OneDrive lets you access, edit and save documents online using standard Office apps including Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote, and you can also get into your own Outlook email account, contacts and calendar from other Windows-powered devices. It's perfect for sharing collaborative documents like spreadsheets, which can be edited by several people remotely, plus you can easily work on the go.

Windows 8.1 update

Windows 8.1 contains a few valuable additions that you may want to consider. You can upgrade to version 8.1 for free if you're already running Windows 8 on your device; just download the update via the Windows Store.

Your files will transfer automatically to the new version, along with built-in apps. So long as you have a Microsoft account, you'll be able to access all of your OneDrive files and keep your social media settings.

The update focuses on making things a little more intuitive for mouse users, including a Start button at the bottom left corner, an automatic boot-up to the desktop for non-touchscreen computers and app shortcuts on the taskbar, just like Windows 7 programmes. The apps still open with a modern UI, but now have a title bar that you can minimise and click out of.

All users will enjoy the improved multi-tasking split screens or Snap View, which now allows you to split your app screens to different ratios of 70/30, 60/40 and 50/50, and even split three ways if your display is 1080p. Windows 8.1 is now the default version available on most pre-loaded tablets and laptops, and it is likely to be the operating system you install if you're not already a Windows 8 user.

How to install Windows 8

If your device does not come with Windows 8, you can buy the OS in DVD form online from Tesco. Back up your files to an external hard drive or a cloud account like OneDrive or DropBox before you start.

Insert the DVD and shut down your device. Once it has powered off, wait a minute and then re-boot, following the on-screen instructions, making sure you select the 'boot from CD/disc drive' option - you may need to refer to manufacturer's instructions to find this.

If you want to upgrade from a previous Windows OS like Windows 7, you can download Windows 8 from the Microsoft website, to keep your old files and preferences. It's still advisable to back up everything as a precaution.

Use the Upgrade Assistant to check which programmes and files will be compatible with the new operating system. Once you decide to buy, the Upgrade Assistant will ask for your address and payment details to obtain a product key - this is your unique activation code. Write this down and go through the next steps via the Setup Wizard. When prompted, enter the product key, select your installation type and review the license agreement. You're then ready to start downloading.

Whether you use it for work or play, Windows 8 has some excellent features that ensure you can play games, watch movies, create presentations, or carry out other office tasks with ease.