Windows 8 is out, and if you’re about to buy a new PC or laptop, get ready for a big change. Microsoft has revamped its flagship operating system, which looks slick and feels futuristic. But Windows 8 also has a split personality: it’s a confusing mish-mash of the old and the new.
And either way, the new Windows requires that we adopt a different way of working. When you turn on a computer loaded with Windows 8, you’re greeted with a screen full of colorful, animated block tiles. Inspired by Microsoft’s new Windows Phone software, this new “Start screen” acts as a launchpad for your apps — not unlike the homepage on an iPad.
The new desktop, which Microsoft calls “Metro,” is smooth and full of eye-candy that seems perfectly suited for a touchscreen tablet, with flashing tiles and a canvas that you can slide across with a mouse or finger gesture.
I tested Windows 8 on a Toshiba U940 laptop (watch these pages for an upcoming review), and it should be noted that on a PC or laptop, the Metro desktop is not immediately intuitive. You’ll have to learn some new gestures with the mouse or trackpad.
To make things more confusing, Windows 8 has another face, one that looks just like the traditional desktop of Windows 7, Vista and XP. This will be comforting to those who want things to stay the same, but Microsoft has taken away one ever-familiar and essential component: the “Start” pop-up box on the bottom left of the screen, from which you shut down or restart the computer, open a new program or access the Control Panel.
This is because Microsoft wants us to use the Start screen on the Metro desktop, as well as another new feature called “Charms,” a hidden menu bar that appears from the right side of the screen. Charms is the new command central of Windows and you’ll need to use it for basic tasks such as checking the time or turning the computer on and off (See Windows 8 Basic Primer, below).
PAIN IN THE APP
You can switch back and forth between the Metro and traditional desktop, and you’ll find that it’s sometimes necessary to do so. Apps are another confusing aspect of Windows 8, because there are basically two kinds: one for the Metro half of Windows 8 and the other for the traditional desktop environment.
Many of the apps (or what we used to call “programs”) that we’re accustomed to using on Windows 7, Vista and XP have yet to be upgraded for Windows 8’s new app environment, which caters to touchscreen interaction. (One prime example is Microsoft Office; a new version that caters to Windows 8’s new app platform won’t be out until next year).
The new Windows 8 apps show a lot of promise, particularly the ones that are already installed. The e-mail app is beautiful, stylish and easy to use, as are the Weather and Finance apps.
But switching between two worlds — the Metro and traditional desktop environments — can feel jarring and confusing, especially when using common apps like Internet Explorer. There are two separate versions installed, one for the Metro part of Windows 8 and one for the traditional desktop. They work separately, which means there’s no continuity between the two. If you open IE in Metro mode and are looking at the Taipei Times Web site, there will be no sign of it if for some reason you happen to switch to traditional desktop mode and open IE from there.