Some Tips for new Surface RT Users

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Photo by Leo Newball, Jr., and used under a CC license.

I wish the first tip on my list was how to install Firefox on your Surface RT. Unfortunately, Microsoft has denied browser vendors (except themselves, of course) a couple of critical APIs needed to build a high-performing browser on Windows RT so there's no Firefox yet. Firefox will run on the Surface Pro that Microsoft is expected to ship in the next few months.

If you nevertheless invested in a Surface RT, and you're new to the Metro experience, here's a few quick tips to help you make the most of it.

First, update everything.

Start by going to the Store and updating all your default Microsoft apps. They should update automatically when you open the Store, but if not, click or tap the Update notice in the top right corner of the Store.

Second, swipe in the Charms bar and tap the Settings Charm (or just hit the Settings button on the top row of your Touch keyboard) and then click or tap the Change PC settings item. Scroll to the bottom of that list, tap Windows Update and then click or press Check for updates now.

One might assume that is enough to get you all up to date, but not so. To update the built in Office suite over on the desktop, you need to go to the classic Windows Update. The easiest way to get there is to right click in the bottom left corner of the Start screen or hit Win+x and then select the Control Panel from that menu. Once in Control Panel, you can either click or tap System and Security and then click or tap Check for updates under the Windows Update heading, or you can type "Update" into the Search box and perform a Check for update there. There should be a big Office update waiting for you.

OK, so you're all up to date. What next? First, I recommend visiting the Store and grabbing a few of the better apps there. If you're a Netflix user, that should be your first install. If you're a Skype user, that's a good one too. If you've got an X-box, I recommend grabbing Xbox SmartGlass. And, if you're like me, you'll want a clock visible on your Start screen all the time and not just when you swipe in the Charms bar. I tried out four or five clocks and the cleanest tile seems to be Clock, from Jujuba Software. I'm not big into casual games, but I did also grabbed Cut the Rope and Angry Birds Space which are proving to be adequate time killers :) Finally, Fresh Paint is a very nice finger painting app, and if you need an IRC client, IRC Explorer is decent.

Once you're all up to date, and you've got a few new apps, you're going to want to get really comfortable with some of the new Windows 8 gestures.

Swiping in from the right edge shows the Charms bar and you're probably going to find yourself using this quite a bit to get at Search and the Windows charm that takes you back to the Start screen. You can accomplish the same thing with your Touch keyboard by using the Win+C shortcut ("c" is for "Charms") or mousing down to the bottom right corner and up to the charm you want.

Swiping in from the top or bottom of the screen brings up app bar(s). Right clicking or the Win+z shortcut does the same thing.

Swiping in from the left edge of the screen is how you cycle through your open apps. A very short swipe in from the left and back out again brings up a list of your running apps. Win+Tab also shows your running apps list. The venerable Alt+Tab moves through running apps like it has for ages on Windows.

To close an app, swipe down from the top of the screen like you were trying to bring in the app bar but keep dragging until you've reached the bottom of the screen. This is a really nice way to clean up your running apps list so moving between the ones you're actually using is faster and easier.

Finally, to show two apps at once, swipe an app in from the left edge but instead of releasing the swipe, like you would to switch to it, hold it just in view for a moment and you'll see your main app slide to the right. Releasing there will give you a "snap" view of the swiped in app and a "fill" view of the existing app. You can then move the splitter to determine which app is the snap and which is the fill or move the splitter all the way to onc side to return to a single app view.

The next thing you'll probably want to do to get the most out of this new experience is to clean up and customize your Start screen. Here are some basics for quickly organizing things:

Live tiles are pretty cool, but after installing a number of third party apps, your Start screen can start to feel pretty noisy and flickery. Try turning off the live tiles for apps that don't provide you with really useful live information. To modify a tile, select it by touching the tile and dragging down slightly. (To un-select the tile, repeat the same gesture.) The tile will get a selection outline and a check box in the top right corner. You'll also get a toolbar at the bottom of the screen where you can turn on or off the live tile, make the tile smaller or larger, uninstall the app, and unpin it from the Start screen.

Your Start screen is not the only or even the best way to access all of your apps. For example, you can right click or swipe in from the bottom or top to get the toolbar on your Start screen. From there you can access All Apps, an excellent place to launch apps. You can also quickly locate apps by searching from the Search charm. Knowing that you can always get at all of your apps from these other locations, it makes sense to remove apps from your Start screen that aren't providing valuable live tile information or aren't launched regularly. To remove a tile from your Start screen, simply select the tile with the touch and drag down gesture and then tap or click the Unpin from Start item in the toolbar. To add an app back to the Start screen, select the app tile in the All Apps view or from your search results and Pin to Start from the app bar.

Having removed the noise of unnecessary live tiles, and cleaned out infrequently used apps, another useful step in organizing is to re-arrange your apps. Moving a tile to another group is as easy as dragging the tile down to select it and then dragging it where you want it to go. Dragging to the right or left edge of the screen will pan the view so you can drag to areas that were previously off-screen. If you're dragging any significant distance, it's usually easier to do it with Semantic Zoom. To organize in the zoomed view, simply drag the selected tile down to the bottom edge of the Start screen. You'll see the whole screen zoom out and then dragging around is much easier.

Dragging an app between the different existing groups is pretty easy. Not quite so obvious is creating new groups. To do this, select a tile and move it between two groups until you see a faint white vertical bar. When you see that, release the tile and you've created a new group. To give an app group a name, pinch to zoom out and then select a group just like you would select a tile. Once selected, tap or click the Name Group icon in the app bar. When selected you can also move the groups around just like you would a single tile.

Once you've got everything organized, you may want to start looking for efficiency in other ways. The first place you're going to find some speed is to get familiar with your Touch keyboard. I've started to replace the swipe and a tap with a single press of the specific Charm key on the top row of the keyboard and also started replacing a swipe and tap with a single press of the Windows key located left of the space bar. There are also a few very useful keyboard shortcuts that I didn't cover above, including Win+q for searching your apps, Win+f for searching your files, and Win+. for switching your snap and fill views.

There's lots more info online, but these are a few of the things I've learned over the last year or so of using the Windows 8 Metro environment. I hope you find them useful.

5 Comments

Thanks for an awesome quick start guide..

"To modify a tile, select it by touching the tile and dragging down slightly" was the key. I was using Windows-8 from preview stages with my laptop. SO I knew right click options. But with Surface, I had bad time figuring out how to mimic right clicks with touch. Swiping dows on icon wasn't that intutive.

Just to ask you've been using Windows RT or it is from general Windows 8 experience?

Because I must say I am confused with RT devices review. Generally speaking, before RT devices were available for review press was favorable for Windows 8 that it was more responsive than Android (as Apple and probably Jelly Bean is), and that IE is much better than Safari on iOS. However, after RT devices are out, reviews have changed so that Windows is sometimes sluggish and unresponsive, and that IE is very slow.

So, top of my mind is that Microsoft failed to do ARM optimization right. However, I am not sure, never held either of devices, and no one really explained this.

I was planning to take one tablet for mostly casual things, so I thought RT was better option, but as I see reviews, prices and all I am more and more inclined to stick to Acer Iconia w510... Though I might get more info until those devices come to my country.

Do you have some more info from first hand experience on this?

Personally, I don't need very fast javascript for my use cases. Chrome on iOS cannot use javascipt jitting (iOS restriction) but still it is very popular. Wouldn't it make sense to go this route?
Ignoring Windows RT might hurt Mozilla in the long term (what if Chrome makes a Windows RT app first?).

- Daniel

Just to note that I have predicted in some comment on your post that competing of live tiles for attention will bring mess to UI with custom applications :).

MS is not preventing the making of browsers. Just you wait for Chrome and Opera to prove you whiners wrong, and execute fast on top of it.
If you hoped for a 1:1 port to WOA, you're damn out of your minds.

Not that it bothers me much, I'd pick an Intel-based touch-enabled laptop anyday over surface. Still, you got IE10 to watch out for.

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