Windows 8 has been launched to the world this week. The new operating system includes a number of new features and upgrades, themed around a new touch friendly interface that used to be called Metro.
The new interface is based in a new start screen, which fills your display with a number of tiles similar to the interface of Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS when you start your computer. The tiles can be moved and manipulated, and some act as ‘live tiles’ to provide constantly updated information provided by the app that they link to. For example, a weather app will show the current temperatures on its live tile, and if you click on it you’ll open the app itself for the full gamut of information.
These new apps also make use of a new UI paradigm, where swipes along the corners and sides of the screen will unlock new functions. For example, you can swipe from the top left of the screen to swap between programs, swipe up to display a menu with additional functions, or swipe from the right to show the new Charms menu.
This includes five functions – search, share, start, devices and settings. Start, in the middle, just brings you back to the new Start menu (as does clicking in the lower left corner with a mouse), but the others provide new context-sensitive functions. Search performs a context-sensitive search in the Metro app that you’re in, share unlocks sharing options particular to your app, devices allows you to use the app with certain devices like second screens, and settings will open the settings menu for the app.
These also provide some global options, e.g. changing PC settings or shutting down the computer. When accessed from the traditional desktop, these tend to be either global or nonfunctional (‘Nothing can be shared from the desktop.’) It’s a bit of a fractured ecosystem, but it is an important transitional step.
Only a few apps make use of the new way of doing things, but they’re all helpfully clustered in the Microsoft store. For non-Metro apps, you’ll use these as normal – just click on the Desktop tile from the start screen, and you’ll get back to the desktop pretty much as it was in Windows 7. From here, there are only minor changes – Explorer has been updated to use the new ribbon UI from Microsoft Office 2007, while the Task Manager has been simplified in its initial tab and been made more comprehensive in subsequent tabs.
All in all, Windows 8 is harder to learn than previous upgrades, but makes a lot of sense given the touch-focused nature of most new Windows 8 devices. Ultrabooks with touch screens, tablets that connect to keyboard docks, and transforming hybrid devices are all somewhat common here, and for these Windows 8 is leagues ahead of what Windows 7 was capable of with touch.
For desktop users without touch screens, you can still make use of the new functionality with touch and gesture sensitive trackpads and mice, but even apart from this Windows 8 is a solid upgrade that speeds up boot times, provides better security and additional features, and plain just looks nicer.
While some sticklers will be tempted to stay with Windows 7 (or, scarier yet, Windows XP), for the vast majority an upgrade to Windows 8 makes sense. If you don’t choose to upgrade now, you’ll just have to learn it later on when the next computer you buy comes with Windows 8. Thankfully, once you do make the conceptual leap to the new way of doing things, it’s really not so bad as it appears. Indeed, I rather like Windows 8 after using it for a few weeks, even though my first impressions were quite mixed. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!