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.
The same holds when you install third-party apps. Say you download Evernote, the popular note-taking app that stores notes and memos online, from a browser on the traditional desktop. You’ll also find that there’s a separate version available for the Metro part of Windows 8, which you must download separately through the Microsoft Marketplace app.
The programs connect to the same online service, yet function separately, which is a recipe for confusion.
On another note, the pickings are relatively slim at the moment on Microsoft’s Marketplace when it comes to Windows 8 apps. Despite the fanfare-filled launch, the Marketplace lacks apps for two big services, Facebook and Dropbox.
Windows 8 will not be a walk in the park if you’re happy with the older versions of Windows, but it’s not the end of the world if you’re willing to learn a few new tricks (See Windows 8 Basic Primer, below). The Metro layout, which again caters best to tablets and touchscreen devices, is clearly Microsoft’s new vision for Windows, like it or not. If you’re ready for something new, then Windows 8 offers a step toward that future.
And there are some nice features that naturally come with an OS upgrade. For example, if your computer is acting buggy, Windows 8 allows you to “refresh” it, essentially uninstalling programs without losing your files and resetting your computer back to a clean state. I also liked how it’s now easy to switch between languages, and had little problems switching the interface languages between Traditional Chinese and English.
Should you upgrade? If you have a computer with Windows 7, and you’re happy with it, there’s no urgent need. Microsoft offers “mainstream” support for Windows 7, which basically means major software updates and security patches, until 2015. But if you want to take the plunge, prices are cheaper than they’ve ever been for Windows: NT$1,299 for Windows 8 Pro downloaded online (NT$2,199 for a DVD copy) and NT$439 to upgrade from Windows 7.
WINDOWS 8 BASIC PRIMER
Here are some basic tips for getting around Windows 8 on a PC or laptop.
‧ Get to know the Windows key
If you never used the Windows key (the key with the Windows symbol), you’ll find it very useful on Windows 8. If you’re in an app, press the Start Key to go back. If you’re on the Start screen already, it will take you back to the previous app you had open.
‧ Switching to the traditional desktop
If the modern look of Windows 8’s Metro desktop is not for you, you can easily go back to the traditional desktop. Click on the “Desktop” tile, which should be visible on the Start Screen by default. Or press Start Key+D. You can also switch back and forth between the two desktops by pointing the mouse cursor at the bottom left of the screen and clicking on the miniature pop-up screen that appears.
‧ Get to know Window 8’s “Charms”
“Charms” are sort of the command center of Windows 8, and you can access them anywhere. There are five charms, and the ones you’ll probably use the most are “Start,” which simply takes you back to the Start page, and Settings, which allow you to find a WiFi signal and power down or restart your computer. To make Charms appear, point the mouse to the top or bottom right corner, then select what you want to do. Scrolling over the Charms bar will also make a clock appear.
‧ Right-click is your friend
Metro apps may look neat, but their fullscreen design, which caters best to tablets and mobile devices, can be disorienting for laptop and PC users. On laptops and PCs with Windows 8, the right-click button on your mouse or laptop usually pulls up hidden menus. This is particularly useful on the Metro version of Internet Explorer, which hides the address and bookmarks bar. If you find yourself using a Metro app and can’t find the function you need or want to change the settings, the right-click button will likely give you what you need. So when in doubt, right-click.
For more info, see Microsoft’s online guide for Windows 8