Special Reports

Getting in touch with Windows 8

Nicholas Boerma

Microsoft Windows 8 marks the most significant change to the world's most popular operating system since its conception in the early Eighties.

Windows Chimes alert you to activities as they happen

Microsoft Windows 8 marks the most significant change to the world's most popular operating system since its conception in the early Eighties.

Found on more than 90% of personal computers, the Windows operating system is defined by a Start button and the floating content boxes that give the system its name — neither of which are part of Microsoft's new gamble.

Windows 8 runs an entirely new interface called Metro. The Metro layer has been designed from scratch to support touch interaction and is a sliding landscape of active tiles — one-click buttons that launch apps and provide live content and information.

The old Windows desktop and Explorer can be found buried beneath the new Windows home screen, and are intended for legacy computing or likely as a backup just in case Metro does not take off.

What makes Windows 8 so different is the removal of depth. Although that may smack of a step backwards, it is the heart of Apple's iDevice design — an interface in which one button leads to one app that takes up the entire display.

With Windows 8, that same app will manage its own files, settings and behaviour and will be suspended the minute you switch to something else.

Combined with the overhaul to the bits under the hood, the performance gains are significant, especially because Windows has historically prided itself on conversely running multiple programs simultaneously.

It is a lot more than a change to the way programs are launched; it is a whole new take on interface that extends from the PC to the Xbox 360 console, tablets and cellphones, including some of Nokia's most dazzling new devices.

Microsoft is taking aim at the future of computing and staking a large claim on tomorrow's user experience — a move that many experts are calling a gamble.

Click start. Or don't

Windows 8 opens with a new lock screen. It is clean, elegant and presents stacks of information and links to important places such as email. There are a host of different login methods, including a new picture password that allows for gestures on a photograph to unlock the machine.

Once Joe User has circled his favourite twin, rubbed his house or drawn a moustache on a loved one, he is greeted by the start screen and a plethora of giant, multicoloured blocks of different sizes and shapes called active tiles.

It is best to think of the start screen as the new start menu, in full screen and live.

Right-clicking anywhere in the empty space around the tiles will let users shrink everything to fit on one screen and a multitude of gestures will shuffle everything around.

It is worth noting that the active tiles are far more than shortcuts and can be anything from widgets to users' online avatars, combining all their social feeds.

Clicking a tile will launch a Metro app in full screen and dragging your monochrome program will snap it to an edge as a smaller bar, neatly resizing its content without compromising functionality.

Apps also have no bounding boxes and the Windows staple command buttons for minimise, maximise and close have been replaced with intuitive gestures.

To close an app, for example, requires that you drag your finger or cursor down from the top of the screen like some digital Roman emperor. For those using Windows 8 on a non-touch device, driving the operating system is all about screen corners and edges.

The bottom left is what remains of the Start button; left-click there and it will either minimise or open the start screen, switching to and from the classic desktop, whereas a right click will pop up the power users' shortcut menu.

The top left corner is for desktop peek and switching between apps; moving the cursor to the apex pops out a thumbnail of the most recent running app, and a single click will switch to it. More clicks cycle through the running apps and sli-ding your cursor down the side will pop up a menu to select which app to go to.

By now it should be apparent that the emphasis is on touch to the extent that the classic keyboard and mouse can no longer survive on intuition alone. To successfully navigate Windows 8 without a touchscreen, it is essential to know the hot spots and have a few keyboard shortcuts tucked away.

The "charms" bar is a nefarious example. It requires the mouse cursor at either the top or bottom right-side corners, both of which are contextually aware spaces and used for a host of other program-specific activities. Use multiple monitors or move the cursor with too much or too little intent and this essential bar will likely elude, which is a problem because the shutdown-reboot commands are hidden in there.

Hitting the Windows key+C will force the bar to open, marking the first of many useful shortcuts needed to tame Windows 8. Once you come to terms with hot spots and edges, the next survival tactic is to begin typing while in the start screen.

This will filter the current view based on the search term, in real time, as well as present more in-depth search options.

The Windows key+F is another essential shortcut because it immediately pops open a find files box, a function far more useful than trimming the app fat in the start screen.

It is no surprise that the entire experience transforms on a touch surface from an awkward shuffle with a precise mouse cursor to a gentle caress with a greasy finger.

Everything flows from the fingertips and the computer you once knew becomes unshackled from a past life in which things were complicated. Until you need to do something more important, that is.

Launch and machine availability Windows 8 launched globally on October 26. The operating system was waiting in line for months before its release with suppliers and will come standard on all new Windows-based machines.

The minimum requirements are slightly higher than those of Windows 7 (1GHz processor, 1GB RAM), which should extend compatibility several years into the past because the new operating system also supports Windows 7 drivers.

For PCs there is Windows 8, cellphones have Windows Phone 8 and tablets will use a little of both. Tablet PCs will run the same version as desktops and notebooks, with the exception of those using ARM processors, a ubiquitous standard in mobile devices such as cellphones.

These devices will receive a special version of Windows 8 called RT and are not compatible with any programs found on the garden variety operating system.

Although ARM devices will likely be cheaper, the lack of compatibility and limited support for the special version of Microsoft Office are no small crosses in the naughty column.

At present, the best tablets for Windows 8 are coming from Acer, but other manufacturers are following close behind.

The good

Windows 8 has better resource management than ever before It is now possible to track application and program resources in explicit detail both in real time and historically.

The task manager will also show which apps are slowing down boot times, using up bandwidth or updating your tiles too often.

Windows 8 is prettier Microsoft has paid careful attention to the competition and the result is surprisingly original. The tiles force simplicity, the themes aesthetic harmony and the geometrical function, such as snapping apps to the side, allows customisation.

Windows 8 is ubiquitous The experience of Windows 8 translates very well to cellphones and tablets. Windows Phone feels the same on a Lumia 920 as it will on your Ultrabook and, thanks to some significant investment in cloud-based technology, everything can be shared.

Windows 8 is fast Although the engine is largely based on Windows 7, the new mechanic is polished and efficient, creating a sublime experience both in and outside the new Metro environment.

Hardware has come a long way in the past few years, especially low-power graphical acceleration.

Windows 8 is flexible Whether upgrading, migrating, running old apps and hardware, or pushing a machine to its performance limits, Windows 8 takes everything in its stride. It is the best of the old Windows, but with unprecedented stability and a host of dramatic new features.

The bad

Windows 8 relies on touch A typical Windows user sits in front of a monitor with a keyboard and mouse.

Ergonomically, is reaching over to prod and stroke a screen realistic? Is it practical or worth the extra outlay for the hardware? Has Microsoft alienated its existing customer base by chasing after a new sector?

Windows 8 is premature Despite the bold move to capture market space from Apple and Android, Microsoft is fishing in crowded waters: people who want to use the same interface on their PC, tablet and smartphone are already using Apple.

Windows 8 is very different A steep learning curve is rarely something you want to be associated with product updates. Lifting the barrier to entry simultaneously lowers the barrier to lateral migration. This just might be the prod many customers need to make the switch to something else. Windows 8 is two-faced Building it as Windows 7 "lite" with an added layer of touch functionality has meant compromise. Drill too deep into the Metro interface and it is Windows 7, making the new layer seem more like an experiment or gimmick.

It is as if Microsoft could not quite commit and the moment it comes down to business beyond Facebook and photo-browsing everything falls back on the old Windows 7 back-end.

The ugly

The move towards touch at the expense of a 25-year-old standard shows Microsoft tightening the restrictions on hardware — but what about software?

Beyond the significant changes to the mechanics of its latest operating system, Microsoft is beginning to show an all too familiar intent with Windows 8: global domination. Not in an eye-patch, flying-fortress kind of way, but in that familiar, monopolistic approach with sprinkles of anti-competitive goodness.

It starts with a subtle requirement to have a Live account to access deeply entrenched cloud functionality in Windows 8, and with the manner in which the operating system aggregates your social network feeds and throws away the brands delivering them.

Everything leads to the Microsoft Store. Downloading apps through the store means that they have been tested, approved and digitally signed by Microsoft and are supposedly stable and safe.

Implementing this setup is no​thing new, but when it is done alongside a free and open Windows environment it makes little sense, unless the ultimate goal is to have all software come through the store at some stage under the guise of security and stability.

Although Microsoft has assured the world on many occasions that this is not its intention with Windows 8, a future version of Windows with store-only applications would entitle Microsoft to a 30% cut of everything sold through its store.

Suddenly it will not just be Angry Birds for a few cents, but corporate software such as Adobe Creative Suite or SAP, not to mention PC gaming, a multibillion dollar industry, that would all contribute to Microsoft stock.

Nicholas Boerma is the editor of PCFormat Magazine

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