In Windows 8, Microsoft introduces the concept of 'Charms', which are basically shortcuts to frequently used features. The Charms bar resides on the right side of the screen, and once summoned, you'll see an array of Charms, namely: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Now, this Charms bar isn't a Start screen-only feature. It's available system-wide, in your Modern-style apps, as well as in the desktop environment. Simply put, there's no escaping the Charms on Windows 8.
When you first land on the Start screen, you won't see the Charms bar. That's because it only appears when you invoke it. There are a few ways to do so: on a touchscreen, swipe in from the right edge of the screen; on the keyboard, press the Windows + C keys. If you prefer the mouse, place the cursor in the upper or lower-right corner of the screen, and move the cursor along the right edge.
Some of the Charms, such as Search and Settings, are context-sensitive, which means that what you can do with them depends on which part of the OS you’re in, or what you're doing. This is made possible because Modern-style apps in Windows 8 can take advantage of what Microsoft termed 'contracts'. In layman's parlance, apps can use 'contracts' to declare how they exchange data and interact with one another. For example, if you were to chance upon an interesting article in the Modern-style Internet Explorer 10, you can use the Share Charm to quickly share it on social networks like Facebook or Twitter, without leaving IE. This same set of sharing options can be availed in another app if it has registered the existing share contract stored in the OS. By virtue of using a common data exchange module via contracts, this also means individual applications need not factor designing these common modules within the program.
For those interested to know more about the contracts and extensions APIs (especially developers), you can check out this article at the Windows Dev Center.
Now, let's take a closer look at how each of the Charm options functions.
The Search Charm allows users to search for apps (be it a Modern-style or desktop app), system settings, and files; when you invoke this Charm at the Start screen, it'll search for apps by default. It can even be used for searching in individual apps. For example, in IE10, it'll default to use Bing to search for things on the Internet. Or, if you're in the Mail app, it'll search your email messages. You can even target the search at a specific app if the app supports a Search contract.
Here a tip: There’s actually no need to bring up the search tool to search for an app when you're at the Start screen. Just type the name, and the search tool will pop up automatically. There, you just saved two steps!
As the name suggests, the Share Charm lets you share information between apps. It only works in Modern-style apps, and even then, only those which support the Share contract.
In Windows 8, the default screen that greets you once you sign in, is the Start screen. Think of the Start Charm as a home button: it brings you back to this Start screen wherever you are. Pressing it again brings you back to where you came from, be it an Modern-style app or the classic desktop. If you're using a keyboard, simply hit the Windows key to activate this Charm.
Usually, a Windows machine would have multiple devices connected to it, like a printer or a second monitor. The Devices Charm gives you quick access to all supported devices, and lets you control what you want them to do. You’d have to add them via the settings menu, but once they're added, they should appear when you hit this Charm.
The Settings Charm is context-sensitive too: in a Modern-style app, it will display the settings for the app; on the desktop, it provides links to the Control Panel, the Personalization and System Info panes of the Control Panel, and the Windows Help and Support Center. But wherever you are, you'll always see six system settings at the bottom: Networks, Volume, Brightness, Notifications (duration), Power, and Keyboard. The Power setting isn't for checking battery level; it's where you go to shut down or restart the device, or put it to sleep. The PC settings link right at the bottom brings you to the Modern-style PC settings interface that we've talked about in our previous article. It provides a streamlined interface for adjusting many important PC's settings, and is great for those who find the traditional desktop Control Panel too intimidating.
Indeed, with no Start menu in Windows 8, Microsoft has to provide means to let users access frequently used features such as search and system settings. For the most part, Charms is a very good solution. And despite the minimalist design, if you delve deeper, you'd find that some of them are very powerful, especially when apps hook up with them through the use of the contract APIs.
So we say, forget about the Start menu; it's Charms' turn to shine.