While befuddled new Windows 8 users certainly have a lot on their plate when it comes to using this operating system version, I have a few tips about getting up to speed quickly. Key among these is learning the new user interfaces that are available system-wide, from the Start screen, the desktop, and in all Metro-style apps. And the most important of these interfaces, by far, is the Charms.

The Charms, or the Charms bar as its often called, refers to an opaque overlay that appears on the right side of the screen (or, on a multi-screen PC, the primary screen) when summoned. Its purpose is to provide quick access to several commonly-needed features, including search, sharing, the Start screen, hardware devices, and settings.

charms

Secret: Charms is so named because its various icons resemble charms one would see on a charm bracelet. On that type of jewelry, charms are seen as signifying important things in one’s life. Not coincidentally, the Charms in Windows 8 signify important things in the operating system.

When you invoke the Charms, a separate overlay appears near the bottom left of the screen. This non-interactive interface provides the time, date, and notification icons for the network and, on a portable device, the battery state (plugged in/charging or draining).

timedate

Invoking the Charms

The Charms are hidden until the user needs them. There are methods for invoking the Charms using each of the three top-level supported input types, two of three, at least, are easy to remember and use:

Touch: Swipe in from the right edge of the screen.

Keyboard: Type WINKEY + C (where “C” = “Charms”).

Mouse: The mouse-based approach is the most complex of the three invocation methods because it relies on “hot corners” whose use could obscure underlying user interfaces, such as the Peek button on the desktop or the scrollbars of a full screen application. To do so, move the mouse cursor into the upper right or lower right corner of the screen. When you do, a transparent version of the Charms appear, giving you a chance to complete the Charms invocation action as described below or do something else.

transparent

Once the transparent version of the Charms appear, move the mouse cursor down (or up) the right edge of the screen towards the center right of the screen. As you do, the Charms will fully materialize in their normal, opaque version. You can now access any of the individual charms normally.

Understanding the Charms

Some of the Charms are related to a new system capability called contracts and are thus context-sensitive. (That is, these Charms will trigger different functionality depending on what you’re currently doing in Windows 8.) Contracts are essentially a way for the isolated, or sandboxed, Metro-style apps in Windows 8 to interact with each other, using software-based transactions in which the source app (the originator of the contract) and the target app (the app that completes the contract) know nothing about one another. I’ll be writing more about contracts, and the individual charms, in future Feature Focus articles.

The following Charms are available in Windows 8.

Search. This Charm provides a front-end for the system-wide Search functionality and the underlying Search contract. As a context-sensitive Charm, Search can be used to trigger a search for desktop applications and Metro-style apps, PC settings and control panels, or files. Or, it can be used to search within individual apps. If you invoke the Search charm from within the Mail app, for example, Search will automatically search your email by default (though the resulting Search pane will allow you to re-target the same search to apps and applications, PC settings and control panels, files, or any other installed app that supports the Search contract. This is, of course, the key benefit of making Search a centralized, system-level function.

search

Share. The Share charm likewise provides a front-end to the new system-wide Share contract, which lets two Metro-style apps share information. You might think of it as a “copy and paste on steroids,” since it is a logical successor to that type of functionality. Note that Share does not function from the Windows desktop or Start screen: This Charm is specific to Metro-style apps, and then only those that support the Share contract. In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, there are not to many end-to-end examples of this functionality, but the obvious one is sharing a web page from Internet Explorer 10 via email: IE 10 can act as a Share source and Mail is configured to work as a Share target.

share

Start. The Start charm works like the Windows key on your keyboard or the Windows Key button on your ARM-based Windows RT device: It toggles the display between the Start screen and the previously-viewed experience (which could be the Windows desktop, a Metro-style app, or PC Settings).

Devices. The Devices charm provides an always-available interface for interacting with the devices connected to your Windows 8 PC or Windows RT device. This is the place to go when you need to print (from a Metro-style app only), configure the displays attached to your PC (particularly in dual-display mode), use Play To for displaying PC- or device-based media on a compatible television or other device (from a Metro-style app only), and send files to portable devices using technologies such as NFC (from a Metro-style app only).

devices

Settings. This important charm provides both context-sensitive settings—for the current Metro-style app, the desktop, or Start screen as well as a grid of system-level settings, and a link to the Metro-style PC Settings interface, that is available from anywhere in Windows 8.

settings

Key among the system-level settings, of course, is the Power icon, which lets you restart or shut down the PC.

Final thoughts

The Charms may be curiously named, but they provide a very important interface between the otherwise separate Metro and desktop experiences in Windows 8. Available from any interface—the Start screen, PC Settings, any Metro-style app, and even the desktop—the Charms consolidate many important system-level capabilities and often-needed features into an easily remembered and accessed user interface that otherwise isn’t taking up any valuable onscreen real estate. As such, it’s a great Metro user interface, and the embodiment of what this design style is trying to achieve.

I’ll be writing up the individual charms and contracts in future Feature Focus articles.