Windows 8 overview

Windows 8 overview

Learning a new interface can be challenging, so should you give Windows 8 and its new Start screen a chance?

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With Windows 8, there is no denying the inevitable: you are going to have to learn some new tricks. The operating system comes furnished with a brand new Start screen interface, which replaces the Start Menu button as the go-to place for your program listing, and it's designed with touchscreens in mind. More than that though, the new Start screen is the native interface for Windows 8-style apps that can be downloaded from the Microsoft store.

What you get with Windows 8 is an operating system that essentially has two operating the environments: the new, native Windows 8 environment, in which new-style apps run in full-screen mode only, and the good old Desktop environment that you've been used to all these years, sans the Start button in the bottom-left corner of the screen. You can still use Windows 8 just like you used Windows 7; the majority of your Desktop programs will run just fine on it and you'll be able to perform most of your usual window-arranging tricks to keep yourself productive, as well as use most keyboard shortcuts that you're used to.


Where the real difference can be seen is when you first boot up a Windows 8 computer, or when you hit that Windows key on your keyboard while you're in the Desktop environment. The Start screen is what you see in these instances and you'll have to learn how to use it if you want to get the most out of Windows 8 (although some manufacturers, such as Toshiba, will be shipping a utility that can bypass it).

New bars

There are new "bars" that you'll need to get used to, including the Charms bar on the right-hand side of the screen, which is for bringing up system settings, and the Switcher bar on the left, which is for switching between apps and the Desktop (which is also treated like an app). These can be accessed with gestures on a touchscreen or through a laptop's touchpad (if the driver supports them), or they can be accessed by diving the mouse pointer into the corners of the screen.

Programs are arranged on the Start screen in the form of Live Tiles, which are big, dynamic icons that are perfect for tapping on if you happen to use a touchscreen device. The icons can be moved around or unpinned from the screen, and some can even be re-sized to half their width. Many tiles show you up-to-date information on the tile's surface, be it the day's weather, inbox or social media notifications and local news, while others are just static icons.

The default icons in the Start screen don't include all the programs you've been used to seeing listed in your Start menu throughout the years. Things such as Windows Accessories and any programs you install can be seen by right-clicking on the Start screen and selecting 'All apps'. It's this type of thing that can be frustrating when you first start using Windows 8, but as soon as you learn the whereabouts of these programs, how you can pin them to the Start screen and how you can create shortcuts to your Desktop, you'll realise that the Start screen can be turned into an efficient menu system that displays only the most important apps that you use on a daily basis.

Perhaps the best part about the Start screen is that it can be used so efficiently for searches. You don't have to bring up a search box first; just start typing your search string and the search starts automatically. It's a great way to find programs without even sifting through the Start screen or adding icons to it, and it's also the place where you can find your files and any system settings.

One more step

Of course, a lot of you may be saying that the Start screen just adds one more step when it comes to loading programs and searching for things. You could do the same things with a re-tooled Start menu and not have to leave the Desktop environment. Be that as it may, the new environment represents a shift in philosophy from Microsoft, one which says there should be a common interface between a typical computer, a tablet and a phone. That is where the Live Tile interface should have benefits. Furthermore, the ability to log in to Windows 8 with an online user account allows you to apply some of your settings (background images and user icons, as well as apps) to any computer or device that you use.

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