For many years, rightly or wrongly, Microsoft have been accused of playing it safe with their operating system releases. Business customers in particular are often found to be moving at a snail’s pace when upgrading to the latest versions of Windows. This can be attributed to the time it takes to teach their staff the differences and the process of implementing any new technologies, which is a costly pursuit. With this in mind, it is quite easy to understand why a company such as Microsoft wouldn’t drastically change the basic interface we have all become accustomed to, whether in the business environment or even as a consumer at home.
Well now is the time to completely change this notion and instead prepare yourself for the biggest change in Microsoft’s user interface since the launch of Windows 95.
Windows 95 introduced the concept of a ‘Start Menu’, a button in the lower left corner of the screen acting as a centralised area to locate installed programs. This has ever so slowly evolved into a searchable and much more manageable section to launch applications. The Start Menu as we know it is completely removed within Windows 8, replaced by a dramatic revolution that focuses on tiles and fullscreen apps.
Before we explore this further, I should explain the basic thinking behind Windows 8 and how it is attempting to expand into a world of mobile platforms…
Today the world of computing has changed drastically and although devices including tablets have been around for a very long time, it was only when Apple released their first iPad that everyone took notice of the platform. In the past, although earlier Windows versions were often included on tablets and touted as optimised for the experience – the interface still struggled to cope with touch screen interaction. A mouse and keyboard are far more precise than a stub of a finger and any attempts to create a better experience for this touch-enabled world were more of an afterthought.
Windows 8 actually feels like it has been built primarily as a tablet operating system, while still managing to maintain much of the essential ingredients that we have all become accustomed to and indeed expect from a Windows operating system. What was until recently referred to as ‘Metro’ is a very robust interface that has received positive reviews from many of the critics (including myself) and has become an integral part to the Windows 8 experience. Anyone who has operated a Windows Phone device in the last year or so will have already played with this new tile environment, which has now found its way to the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system.
This is their attempt and actually a pretty successful one at not only creating an interface that is tablet friendly, but one that can also exist on more traditional computer variations including desktops, notebooks and even more recent netbooks. Sounds straightforward in principle maybe, however in practise creating this cross-platform tour-de-force that could possibly take away much of the Apple iPad dominance is certainly a challenge and one that Microsoft must succeed in.
There are two schools of thought. Apple’s has been to create a phone and tablet dedicated operating system (iOS) that is slowly expanding its features to match many of the computer desktop equivalents. Microsoft has taken the other approach and decided on an interface that is consistent and is as feature rich as traditional PCs, at least for the most part. Both have their advantages and disadvantages of course, but the Microsoft approach at least is attempting to bring something different to the market and not just following the Apple example.
Microsoft released what they referred to as a ‘Consumer Preview’, followed by a ‘Release Preview – which were essentially early versions for developers and technically minded enthusiasts who were eager to try out the latest operating system. This meant I experienced Windows 8 many months before the official ‘final’ release, giving me substantial insight into their latest operating system and a selection of bundled apps.
So here are a few of my thoughts…
Bye Bye Start Menu – Welcome the Start Screen
Once you log-in to Windows 8, the new ‘Start Screen’ splashes into view – filling every pixel of the display available. No longer subjected to a small button in the corner, it is now a fullscreen extravaganza. Instantly, you are catapulted into something new and quite delicious.
Gone are the little icons and descriptive line of text, now you can expect a selection of large and small tiles that can be explored by simply scrolling from side to side. The reason for taking up so much screen estate is that these tiles offer ‘live’ information, at least when the application supports this feature. The ‘Calendar’ app will display the current date and your next upcoming appointment all from the Start Screen – even before you launch the actual application. Other examples include the ‘Mail’ app that shows recently received unread emails and the ‘Pictures’ app will rotate images of photographs you have stored locally and online. Third party apps can also take advantage and display all kinds of data and imagery before you even access the software. This gives you an immediate overview of important information all from one screen.
All of the so called ‘apps’ that appear here are programs that fill the entire screen, no longer sitting in a traditional window. This is primed for tablet users in particular, yet actually functions pretty well for computers once you get the hang of it. You can still multitask (apps running side-by-side) if you wish by adjusting the width, limited to a couple of predetermined sizes. These pre-determined limits ensure that the information they offer are resized appropriately for the screen area they occupy or in other words, so it doesn’t look a mess as it is all optimised for that size.
What will probably shock you the most though is the fact that the ‘Desktop’ environment is now an app itself. Selecting the ‘Desktop’ app sends you to the traditional Windows area we have all become accustomed to. The old Start Menu icon is now nowhere to be seen, although the rest of the Taskbar remains faithful to Windows 7. This is where you need to learn a few new tricks when using Windows 8.
Since Windows 95, we have been trained to move the mouse to the lower left of the screen to access the Start Menu and this continues even here. Instead of looking for a button, you must move the mouse to the extreme lower left corner of the display and a little box will appear labelled ‘Start’. At this point, you may follow your usual instincts and move the mouse over the centre of this box before selecting it with a left click – yet actually moving away from this corner of the screen will make the box disappear again if you stray too far. This is quite unexpected, until you figure out that as long as you keep the mouse pointer in the corner, wait for the box to appear and then click without moving the mouse too much – the Start Screen will reveal itself. Alternatively you could just use the Windows key on the keyboard of course, but this is just a prime example of how we have to adjust some of our old habits for Windows 8.
The upper left corner acts as a location to reveal the latest running apps. Just as before, you move the mouse pointer to the corner of the screen and this time a box appears with the previously running app. If you look carefully, you will also notice an outline hinting of other boxes below awaiting to be revealed and this is achieved by carefully lowering the mouse until all these additional recent apps are unveiled. Again, a keyboard shortcut – in this case [Alt] + [Windows] will mimic this function and [Alt] + [Tab] will present the information in a more traditional layout.
Finally, moving your mouse to the right hand side screen corners reveals a set of ‘Charms’. This area presents a consistent selection of functions to search, share, jump to the Start screen, configure devices and settings.
Finally, clicking the right mouse button in certain full screen apps will reveal additional features and options along the bottom and sometimes top of the screen.
When using a touch-screen, gestures take over from the mouse. Switching to previous applications is achieved by swiping your finger from the far left to the right, revealing the ‘Charms’ by swiping from the far right and presenting additional app functions & options by swiping from the bottom.
Although you could say there are at least three ways of controlling Windows 8 (mouse, keyboard or touch), you soon become familiar with each method if you are willing to give it a little time. It won’t happen overnight and I know the substantial changes may put some of you off from the start, yet the rewards are worth it for those willing to learn a few additional techniques.
Heading back to the Start Screen, you will also notice a ‘Store’ tile. Here you can browse, download and purchase apps designed exclusively for the Windows 8 fullscreen environment.
A lot of time and effort has been allocated to this new fullscreen app environment and as time progresses, this will become key to Windows 8 and future Microsoft operating systems. It is their attempt at bridging the gap between tablet devices and computers. It isn’t just a pretty layer added on top of the previous release of Windows, it is a full blown rethink that has reassessed every element from the ground up – adding new core features that have drastically evolved Windows 8.
One very notable addition that should appeal to gamers is the intergration of Xbox Live. Yes, it is finally here after promises of inclusion in Windows Vista that just never materialised. Within an Xbox Games app, you can view your Gamerscore, view & compare achievements and all the other delights associated with this gaming service. You can even unlock achievements in certain game apps as well, truly bringing Windows itself into the Xbox Live eco-system.
You can still install the more traditional applications you have collected over the years and anything that ran on Windows 7 should run perfectly fine on Windows 8.
Akin to Windows Phone, many of the included apps can take advantage of your social networking world. Your Windows 8 account can be attached to an online account, which in turn can save your details for Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Microsoft’s Skydrive (on-line storage) and many more besides. This is helpful as when you launch any compatible app, for example ‘Pictures’ – not only are the images on your computer’s hard drive visible, but ones that have been uploaded to Facebook and other services. All your photography in one place is certainly incredibly handy and removes the need to launch a particular branded app just to view a smaller selection.
With all this emphasis on fullscreen apps, you might assume that the typical Windows Desktop is an exact copy of Windows 7. Although they still share much in common, there are many enhancements in an attempt to improve this classic environment.
The Desktop – ‘Classic Windows’
For those individuals who might be a little worried that the new ‘fullscreen’ interface has completely taken over and that all of Microsoft’s time has been focused in this area alone can be assured that this isn’t the case at all. The desktop has actually seen plenty of new features and tweaks that have improved the overall experience and here I will highlight a few of them.
One of the most obvious is the speed improvements. Booting up, putting to sleep and waking up Windows 8 even on older computers feels far faster than ever before. The loading of applications and general usage is a pretty zippy experience compared to Windows 7.
Aero, the glass-like effect introduced in Windows Vista has been removed and replaced with a far simpler and actually more modern looking interface. Not only does it look better, but actually gives back resources to your computer – extending battery life and improving overall performance.
File Explorer (previously known as Windows Explorer) now features a ribbon along the top, with assorted shortcuts for popular commands such as cut, copy, paste and many more besides. The ‘ribbon’ first featured in Microsoft Office 2007, providing a far simpler categorised location to find the more frequently used functions. If this feature doesn’t appeal to you, it can be hidden – although having simple shortcuts to areas that previously involved multiple mouse clicks can surely only be seen as a positive move?
File transfer displays have also been given an overhaul, as they now reveal not only the transfer speeds – but are represented by a live chart detailing the progress far better than ever before. Multiple file transfers are now all contained within the one window, allowing for a far more convenient way of tracking mass file movements.
If you love statistics, the improved Task Manager will certainly impress you. At first, it appears to be a very basic and even dumbed down interface – that is until you click the ‘More details’ option. This expands the view immensely and now a whole selection of data is accessible from system performance to active applications – all presented in a very pleasing manner.
Windows 8 also comes preloaded with its own virus protection software and although Microsoft have offered ‘Microsoft Security Essentials’ for free for quite some time now – it is reassuring to know it is now a part of the operating system by the name of Windows Defender.
The main issue that disrupts many of the positives of Windows 8 is the switching from desktop applications to the fullscreen apps. Let’s say I want to open a photograph, which I have located in File Explorer under the ‘Desktop’ environment. You might expect at this point for a desktop application to open the image as this is the area you are currently working in, however the shock of a fullscreen app taking over is an incredibly jarring effect. You can of course re-assign file formats so that they are opened with the application of your choice, however before any customisation you will flip back to fullscreen apps frequently.
Windows on ARM Tablets
Although Intel technology based tablets will feature all of the functions above I have mentioned, another update to Windows known as ‘Windows RT’ runs exclusively on ARM powered tablets.
There are advantages to this, such as better battery life, potentially cheaper hardware plus it is bundled with a few Microsoft Office applications as well – yet there are distinct disadvantages to consider.
Windows RT will not feature the same ‘Desktop’ experience and is based almost exclusively around the new tablet-inspired fullscreen interface. Although Microsoft Office is included with applications that open a desktop-like experience, this is one of the few times you will see a glimpse of it on Windows RT. There are exceptions of course, however if you wish to add additional software, you will need to purchase it through the ‘Store’ app, as none of your existing applications can be loaded. As Microsoft’s app store grows and expands over time, this will become less of a problem, but certainly as an early adopter it is something to consider.
If you wish to enjoy the ‘full’ desktop experience within a tablet, an Intel powered version is the way to go.
Please note that Windows RT can’t be purchased separately, it is pre-installed within new ARM powered hardware.
Windows 8 is indeed a bold leap for Microsoft, with its new tiled Start Screen interface, fullscreen apps and the desktop becoming an almost secondary experience. Although the interface switching can be a little jarring at times as you are jumping from fullscreen apps to the desktop and back again, the features included are actually very appealing. It’s faster than Windows 7, includes additional abilities and enhanced desktop functionality while still managing to work beautifully on tablet devices.
The removal of the Start Menu may be a controversial decision for many, however the Start Screen is actually a welcome introduction that allows you to view snippets of important information as soon as you start up your computer. It’s pretty, sleek, animated, easy to organise and easy to search.
Whether this is enough to tackle Apple’s tablet dominance and gain user respect remains to be seen and the risk of it alienating existing Windows users could also be a serious issue that could cause untold damage. Yet at the very least, Windows 8 takes Microsoft a gigantic leap forward into new and exciting territories and if successful, could totally change the way in which we use multiple types of devices of all shapes and sizes.