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Two Keyboards: One Virtual, One Physical

The Definitive Windows 8 Review And User Guide

The On-Screen Keyboard

While my Toshiba Satellite P845t-S4310 test unit is equipped with a touchscreen, it's still a laptop with a physical keyboard and mousing surface. Many people looking to purchase Windows 8-based tablets and slates won't have a built-in keyboard to fall back on, though. This is where the operating system's on-screen keyboard comes in.

The Windows 8 on-screen keyboard is dark grey with white letters, and it defaults to a standard QWERTY layout, adding apostrophe, comma, period, and question mark punctuation keys. Backspace, enter, caps lock, space bar, and left and right cursor keys are also available. The remaining four keys change the keyboard's layout.

The &123 key changes a little over half the left side of the keyboard to general typography and punctuation keys, such as the explanation point, ampersand, and parenthesis. You also get a tab key, plus another set of keys that change the symbols yet again. The right side of the keyboard becomes a number pad. Backspace, enter, and the layout keys remain on-screen in this layout.

In the image above, the key with a right-facing arrow inside a circle switches to a view with less-often-used symbols like brackets, braces, and the tilde. Pressing the key above it, represented by a left-facing arrow inside of a circle, switches back to the original set of symbols. Flipping back and forth does not affect the number pad on the right side of the keyboard.

The Ctrl key also affects the keyboard. Pressing it changes the “a” key to Select all, the “z” key to Undo, the “x” key to Cut, the “c” key to Copy, and the “v” key to Paste. In other words, the Ctrl key brings up the very same options as the holding Ctrl and striking those same letters on a physical keyboard. Slick.

On to the smiley face. Pressing this key changes the entire keyboard to different emoticons. This time, the right- and left-facing arrows inside of the circles flip between pages of different faces (amazingly, there are four pages of emoticons).

Back to the standard keyboard layout. The last key able to alter the others is represented by a keyboard icon. Pressing this button on the bottom-right corner changes the on-screen keyboard's configuration. The options include a standard keyboard, a split-screen keyboard, and a handwriting strip. Sorry, Dvorak fans, you're out of luck on this one.

Picking the split-screen option breaks the keyboard in half, with everything left of “t”, “g”, and “b” crammed onto the left side of the screen. Everything from “y”, “h”, and “u” is shoved over to the right. Smartly, a number pad takes up the center, and the space bar is right where we expect to find it, on both sides of the keyboard.

Although our primary test platform is a laptop, we can tell this is going to be a killer feature for thumb typists (Windows 8 tablet/slate users) just by gripping both sides of the screen and using the on-screen keyboard. Because the keys are actually smaller in this configuration, a larger reverse-color (white, with black letters) pop-up appears directly over the keys you press. This lets you look at the keyboard and see what you're typing without your fingers getting in the way. Did you mean to press “d” instead of “c”? In split-screen mode, you'll know that you mis-typed right when it happens.

Another really cool aspect of the Windows 8 on-screen keyboard is the sound it makes. While other mobile operating systems implement a simple click or clack to indicate keystrokes, Windows 8's keyboard sound is pressure-sensitive. The harder you tap the keys, the louder the report you get back. So, you can quietly tap, making no sound at all, or you can bang away with vigor, generating a very satisfying cacophony of typing noises.

The final keyboard option is handwriting mode, which isn't a keyboard style at all. Instead, you get two large lines for hand-written input. To the right of the screen, you find backspace, tab, enter, left and right cursor keys, a space bar, and the &123 key.

In handwriting mode, the &123 key replaces the handwriting strips with a full set of symbols and the number pad.

Entering text is as easy as writing with you finger, and I found the engine's letter recognition to be pretty good (surprisingly so, given my heinous cursive). Beyond dragging your finger around the screen, there are also a few tricks you can use to edit text in handwriting mode.

Removing a word is as simple as crossing it out with a horizontal line. You can also edit words by tapping them, bringing up a typeface script with dots between each latter. Tap a letter to select it, and draw another letting to replace it or remove it altogether with a horizontal line. Words can also be split, and two words can be joined. Splitting a word is as simple as drawing a vertical line where the split should occur. Merging two words is a matter of drawing a large “U” from the last letter of the first word to the first letter of the second word, or vice versa.

The on-screen keyboard remains in whatever mode you used last, which we consider a great behavior. If you prefer the split-screen keyboard, choose it once and it'll always appear like that.

But the goodness doesn't stop with Microsoft's on-screen keyboard. A number of new shortcuts for physical keyboards were added to make controlling Windows 8 easier as well.

Keyboard Shortcuts

If you're using a keyboard and mouse, plan to make heavy use of the Windows key in Windows 8, since nearly every keyboard shortcut involves it. Even if you typically rely on your mouse for navigation, you'll want to at least get comfortable with the Windows key (especially if you're using a laptop, where the keyboard and trackpad are in the same vicinity anyway).

When used by itself, the Windows key still performs the same function as in Window 7, except that in Windows 8 it opens the Start screen since there is no more Start menu. If you press the Windows key while already on the Start screen, it takes you back the last open app you used.

Although the Windows key gets most of the attention in Windows 8, the relatively unused Application (or Menu) key can also help you get around the Windows 8 UI more efficiently.

What the heck is the Application key?

It's located next to the right-side Windows key, between Alt and Ctrl, and it is represented by a drop-down menu, sometimes with a mouse cursor highlighting the top item. We bet you can't even remember the last time you used it, though.

Of course, the Application key performs the same command as a mouse's right-click button in the Windows 8 UI. So, you can use it to bring up the App and Navigation bars of any Windows 8 app.

The table below lists all of the official Windows 8 UI keyboard shortcuts:

Keyboard Shortcut
Switches between Start screen and most recent app
Windows + C
Activates the Charms Bar
Windows + F
Open Search Charm
Windows + H
Opens Share Charm
Windows + K
Opens Devices Charm
Windows + I
Opens Setting Charm
Windows + Z
Activates the App and Navigation Bars
Windows + O
Locks current screen orientation
Windows + Period
Snaps current app to the right
Windows + Shift + Period
Snaps current app to the left
Windows + Page Up
Move Start screen and app to monitor on right
Windows + Page Down
Move Start screen and app to monitor on left

All of the regular Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts are still valid in the Windows 8 Desktop, too.

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