As usual, Microsoft received some flak for its latest operating system, Windows 8. Typically, the more radical the innovation, the more criticism it gets. It’s understandable, to some extent, but time moves on and so does an operating system (OS). I’m rarely a ‘fan’ of anything much (by today’s fanatic standards). However, the possibility of significant improvements means I’m still keen to give it a go.
Windows 8 (Win8) IS an improvement over the past OS version, but it can be a jarring experience for those who just want the same old thing but ‘better’. Essentially, there are improvements on the common ground with the previous OS. The alternate workflow can be a gradual transition or a dramatic change depending on your approach.
There are many reviews elsewhere, so I’m just going to touch on what makes it better for me and what could improve the experience and workflow for people feeling like “it’s not Windows 7”.
Upgrading from an older OS is a lot simpler and quicker now, but the process may run into problems on older machines. Before Win8 installs, it will look at your system and let you know what incompatibilities (if any) it may have found before installing, so it’s not such a leap into the dark.
One key thing is to check that you have the latest BIOS installed as Windows 8 takes advantage of newer BIOS features and this will greatly reduce possible upgrade hiccups.
Note: if you have bloatware on a computer from the original sellers (Sony, Dell, etc), the best way ’round this (if you don’t want a fresh install) is to take off that software first. Windows has replacement versions for most or, in most cases, the manufacturers will have updates for Windows 8.
Okay, so it’s installed and you see a big, colourful screen of swooshy tiles and now you wonder what is going on. The best way I could describe Win8 to get your head round it is to say it’s like 2 OS systems running on your PC, one complementing the other, with each having its own screen. Anyone who ever used an Amiga that had multiscreen/desktop options or far more recently AMD’s Hydravision should get the idea pretty quickly. Your desktop is still there, but now the OS has ‘screen layers’ so one desktop is under the other and you can flick between them. It’s similar to having a full-screen game running at one resolution and alt+tabbing to flick back to your desktop, only quicker, so bear that in mind when you get your new OS on.
Another way to get between screens besides the clunky alt+tab is to use the corners of your screen (hot corners). The left side corners will flick you between your desktop and the new ‘start screen’. The bottom left corner goes between the two, and top left is for if you have multiple screens open. To select from a number of open apps/screens, put your mouse to the top left corner, then move it down the edge; this brings up thumbnails of all open screens. It becomes a quick way to get around.
Probably the next issue you will have is ‘but how do I close them?’. Windows will close them for you if resources start running out anyway, but you can do it yourself. Right-click on any thumbnail in the top left hot corner and select close (there’s no “X” at top right anymore for the new apps), or if you want to close the screen you are on, move your mouse cursor to the top until you see a hand icon, then drag it down off the bottom of the screen.
Navigating in the new start screen is quick with a mouse wheel, scrolling that will shift through any screen left and right while right clicking on things will bring up options – simple. It’s even simpler with a touch screen.
For people like myself, with great visual memory but lousy at remembering names, the start screen really helps. You can arrange all of your apps in groups on that screen, so you can find them by their location rather than looking at a long list in the old start button menu (and you can still have their icon shortcuts on the desktop as before, too).
So, the left corners are for navigating. The right corners are for options. Microsoft calls this a ‘charms’ bar. (Twee name, in my opinion, downplaying its power.) This is a context sensitive bar that will change depending on what screen you have open at the time, along with some constants like power options, search, etc.
The settings options will change according to what you have open at the time. For example, if you open the charms bar when on the desktop you will have some different options than if you are on the start screen or in an app. This keeps it simple, as you’re only changing things for what you are in at the time. For global changes, you still can do it the conventional way through the Control Panel.
Searching is now also on the charms bar and again, it’s context sensitive and quick. Below the search option is a list of your installed apps, so you can select them to search without having to go into them. If you find yourself searching in the same app a lot, but it’s way down the list, you can right-click the app and ‘pin to top’. You can also hide apps you don’t use there, too.
Copying files has long been an issue with Windows (such a basic need!) but with Win8 there finally seems to be a bigger improvement – a cancel button that actually cancels, rather than waits forever – and it doesn’t grumble anymore when you move multiple large files across folders or drives. Networking over LANs has become a lot easier now, too, and it just generally seems to behave and do what you want it to do. Installing software, finding new devices – the basics – are all so much better.
The new start screen is great if you output to multiple screens or TVs, as it’s much easier to read and it’s easy to increase the size of everything without having to change screen resolution. The Windows button with the minus/plus keys changes that, along with going to ‘make everything on your screen bigger’ in Settings. (They should have a keyboard shortcut for this, but they don’t for some obscure reason.)
Snapshots of your screen aren’t treated like a text clipboard any more. Instead, they go into a Screenshots folder, so you no longer need to do the old routine: Print Screen, paste somewhere, screenshot paste, etc.
Syncing through the cloud is better, too. With multiple PCs, any changes you do on one PC (say, updating your contacts folder) will be reflected on your other machines.
Win8 has even breathed some new life into my older machines now, as they are a lot more perky.
Another reason I say running Windows 8 is like having a dual OS is that you can install two versions of the same software. For eg., you have the Chrome browser for the desktop, but you can also have it on the start screen. Windows sort of describes this as ‘backwards compatibility’ but you will find reasons for having both installed for some apps and only new ones or old ones for others.
A Few Last Tips
As to the old-style ‘start button’ you can get that back, as I did, but I soon found it redundant once I’d got my head round the new navigation, so installing something like this Start8 app from Stardock with the 30-day free trial should be enough; by the end of the trial period you won’t be using it.
Instead of Start8, what you can do is just right-click the bottom left corner of your screen (or use the Windows key + X) when on the desktop to bring up those common things that were in the old start menu. Any apps you want, you can access them from the new start screen instead of looking through a list of apps. To customize that new menu you can use this: Win+X Menu Editor for Windows 8 from Winaero (though why that isn’t a default in Windows, I don’t know).
Now, just a few more tips to get you moving along quicker:
- When Windows 8 starts (it’s a lot quicker starting up now) you get a ‘lock screen’ – this is also like a screensaver and it kicks in when you’re not using the PC. You can add what apps you want to this that it will monitor, like a count of unread emails, news, etc. This can be set by clicking the ‘Change PC Settings’ at the bottom of Settings in the Charms bar (or mouseover the right corners of screen).
- Gadgets went with Win7, but if you still want them on your desktop, try this: 8GadgetPack (it’s actually 12 gadgets in the pack).
- If you have new external storage it could be helpful to read this post about managing external storage in Windows 8, and if you want Windows to search in other drives besides the default C:, then select the indexing options in Control Panel.
- To speed up what is already a faster boot-up time, you can now look in Task Manager, which shows you a list of apps that run at start-up and what time impact they have, with options to disable them.
- As I’ve said earlier, there are plenty of other places to find more information about using Win8. Trying this first may be a good start: Getting Started with Windows 8.
- If you’ve installed any apps from the Windows Store (no, it’s not all paid items, there are plenty of good free apps), you may see a number at the top right corner or on the Store tile on the Start screen – this tells you the number of installed apps that have updates ready to install. The update process is a snap.
In a later post, I will list some of the more invaluable free apps I have found for Win8.