How to master the Windows 8 admin tools
11th Nov 2012 | 10:00
Keep your PC ship-shape with Windows 8's built-in tools
You have to admit, Microsoft has taken a sizable gamble with Windows 8.
Some commentators say that the company simply has to change the way it operates if it wants to gain any traction in the tablet and smartphone market, and with the new operating system's touch-oriented interface, it has certainly started down that path.
With the Windows 8 UI, otherwise known as Metro, Windows has undergone a radical rethink in terms of both operation and interactivity.
For us desktop users, it represents a massive change from what we've become accustomed to over the years. Gone is the desktop as we know it and, more jarringly, gone is the Start menu that we've come to love since the somewhat dysfunctional days of Windows 95.
Windows 7, but better
But there's no need to worry, since all we're looking at with Windows 8 is essentially a re-skinned version of Windows 7 with some fancy new GUI components dropped in on top of it. As Microsoft itself says in the reviewers' guides it sent out to the press: it's Windows 7, only better.
OK, Microsoft's developers have done more than just update the graphics, so that glib assessment is rather over-simplifying things, but the basic point is that you won't be losing out on any of the functionality you enjoyed with Windows 7, which has evolved into one of Microsoft's finest operating systems to date.
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Some things may seem like they have been hidden, but as soon as you get used to the new layout, it will all become second nature.
The first thing you need to be aware of is the powerful new user menu, in place of the old Start menu. It's a simple right-click away from any screen, whether you're using the desktop or the Metro interface, and contains quick links to all the most important administrative functions you could possibly need when setting up or keeping your PC running smoothly.
From here you can dive straight into the likes of the Device Manager or Disk Management dashboard, and start tweaking things immediately.
Microsoft has obviously spent time deciding which of the most important services it wants to put in this menu, and if an administrative feature has been left out of the one-click system, it will probably only be a second click away - in the Control Panel, for example.
If you prefer, you can drop all the serious admin tools into the Metro interface straight away (we explain how under 'How to bring out the admin tools'), so you can jump directly into whichever one floats your boat from the Metro start screen.
There are a few more tools in this group than there were in Windows 7, but for the most part these aren't new options - just ones that have been moved in from elsewhere.
The System Information option is a particularly useful page, giving detailed specs, locations and builds for the various kinds of software and hardware that make up your PC. Clicking on any of the categories will give you a full rundown of how things are running.
For example, the Disks section of the Components/Storage category shows exactly what make your hard disk is, what partitions are running on an individual storage drive, and how full they are. If you want to know exactly what's making your PC tick, this is the place to go for all the necessary info.
Clean and polish
Speaking of playing around with your machine's disks, Microsoft has also moved two of the most commonly used disk management utilities under the Administrative Tools umbrella: namely Disk Cleanup, and Defragment and Optimize Drives.
These will both be familiar to anyone who's used any of the last few generations of Windows operating systems, though the Defragment and Optimize Drives tools have now been reconfigured to cope with the increasing popularity of solid state drives, and will no longer try to persuade you to wear them down with unnecessary defrags.
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Disk Cleanup is the same old one-stop shop for quickly clearing up after the vagaries of the operating system, and removing the temporary files that make such a mess of your storage drives.
Another admin tool that remains unchanged in the new operating system is Windows Firewall with Advanced Security. Here you can amend any rules associated with your current firewall settings, and create, import and export different policies wholesale.
You can also jump straight into the Network and Internet Diagnostics page, which gives you immediate access to the Printer Troubleshooter.
System Configuration, which you may know as msconfig, has been moved into the Admin Tools area. For years, this utility has been our go-to option for altering boot options from within Windows, such as removing the boot GUI or starting in diagnostic mode. It was also where we decided what programs would load into the OS at startup.
No longer. The Startup tab in the Release Preview now displays a link labelled 'Open Task Manager'. That's right, it's had a promotion. You can use the Startup tab to see what impact each app has on startup, and disable or enable them with a couple of clicks.
That's not the only new addition to the Task Manager, though. The Performance tab has also received a serious overhaul, and now gives you full performance information about not just your CPU, but your RAM, storage and networks (LAN and Wi-Fi) too.
The App History tab also provides valuable details, but only delivers reports on Metro applications that have been running. This will be useful in terms of figuring out which of the always-polling apps is hitting your 3G dongle the hardest.
Microsoft has made great strides in improving the support it gives power users, and has made the necessary information and applications easier to find than ever. It has provided a host of options to help you keep on top of your OS and tailor it to your specific needs, and Windows 8 gives you pretty much all the tools you could ever need.
Moving data around your hard drive or between PCs is one of the most common computing tasks, and while it's not particularly exciting, Microsoft has updated Windows 8 to make it faster and easier.
The most obvious change is the new interface that pops up when you start moving files and folders. Initially it looks like the standard bar filling up, but if you click for more details it reveals much more information.
You'll see a dynamic chart detailing how fast the transfer is going, and a history of its performance. You can pause and resume file transfers too - something not possible in Windows 7. Transfers will also pause if the device goes into sleep mode, enabling you to continue on restart.
Hidden enhancements mean that file copy interrupts are now saved until everything else has been completed. If there is a possibility of copying over an existing file, for example, it will be held over until the end, and wont hold up the queue waiting for the user to click 'Continue'.
How to bring out the admin tools
On the Windows 8 Metro Start screen, bring up the Charms bar from the right-hand side of the screen and click 'Settings'. Now select the Tiles menu and slide the bar that says 'Show administrative tools' to the right. Now just tap anywhere on the main screen to remove the Charms bar, and the administrative tools will be displayed.
When these tools appear, they may be mixed in with other shortcuts, but we'll show you how to tidy them up. You can group icons together on the Start screen with a few clicks.
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First minimise the icons by hovering the mouse over the bottom right corner and clicking the minus symbol. You can now see the individual groups by right-clicking on them.
When you right-click, a bar will appear at the base of the screen giving you the option to 'Name group'. Once you've entered a name, you can zoom back into the Start screen and move individual icons between groups.
Return to the minimised view and you can move entire groups around by dragging and dropping them into your preferred place.
How to back up files
Windows 8 makes it easier than ever to quickly back up important files. The new File History app enables you to select a device to use for automatic backups for your desktop and Libraries.
First, enter the Control Panel and start File History. Alternatively, with a fresh USB flash drive, Windows 8 will enable you to get started with File History straight away.
If you haven't plugged in a USB stick or other storage device, now is the time to do so. The drive will appear in the window, and File History will be switched off. Click 'Turn on' to begin syncing content to the drive.
You can exclude a folder by selecting it in the 'Exclude folders' option, and add Libraries by creating new ones and filling them with folders.
The advanced settings will detail how long to keep outdated versions, and how often to back the whole lot up. If you delete a file from your main drive that you then need to back up, you can use Restore Personal Files to select an appropriate restore point.
You can even drill down through the backups to see which files are in each option.
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Once hidden within the depths of msconfig, the Startup tab now lives in the new Task Manager. It still has the same level of functionality as before, enabling you to customise which programs load on boot, but it's now much easier to access. You also travel directly to the file location to see a rundown of the impact it has on your boot.
This is another example of the improvements Microsoft has made to the Task Manager. Previously you only got a graph of CPU usage, with a little extra detail about memory. Now there's information about everything from processor speed to the read and write speeds of your drives. This will give you a great idea of how your machine is performing.
3. System information
If you don't necessarily want to know how your machine is performing, but are looking for the details of your PC's components (from a software or hardware perspective), the System Information screen is perfect. It will give you the full lowdown on every facet of your machine, from the drivers for your mouse to the layout of your drive partitions.
4. Windows Firewall
Nothing has really changed with the latest iteration of Windows Firewall and Advanced Security. It's still the place to go to fully customise your firewall settings, whether you want to import new exception policies or diagnose any kind of network/security problems. It also enables you to monitor how your current network connection is configured.
5. Boot into Safe Mode
Boot times in Windows 8 have improved, but with an SSD installed as a boot drive it can be tricky to boot into Safe Mode. Luckily, you can access it via Advanced Boot Options, which is accessible through the extra settings on the Charms bar. If you hit 'Advanced Startup' under the General tab, the PC will restart into Windows 8's debug mode.
6. Reset Windows 8
Your PC now has a function similar to the factory reset option on your smartphone. Again it's under the PC settings screen on the Charms bar. It gives you two options - you can either refresh the PC without losing any of your personal files (like photos and music), or you can perform a total system reset, which will revert your PC back to its original state.