Windows 8, coming on October 26, 2012, is completely new, but comfortably familiar. It unifies touch-based tablets and traditional PCs without forcing you to adopt either paradigm. If you wanted something completely new, you’ve got it. If you are uncomfortable with change, you don’t really have to.
Let me explain.
The Windows 8 user interface
The UI-formerly-known-as-Metro, an evolution of the Windows Phone 7 UI, is now the default interface for Windows 8. It’s where you will do most of your basic tasks, like checking your email or calendar — the stuff you probably already do on your phone or tablet. The new apps are gorgeous, and you will want to use them. In fact, they may make you want a Windows phone so you can use them all the time. So where does that leave the Windows desktop UI we’ve all come to know?
The “old” Windows interface is now an app called Desktop that looks and feels pretty much like Windows 7, but without the Start menu. That’s been replaced by the new Start screen — the beautiful, tiled interface you see in all the press shots. Here’s what mine looks like, at the moment:
From the Start screen, you can start either apps or traditional desktop software. In the screenshot above, you can see that I’ve got the Desktop and my traditional software (just Chrome and Evernote, at the time) over in the right-hand cluster. This OS-within-an-OS is a bit confusing, to be sure. And its hard for me to understand why Windows 8 doesn’t treat traditional software like apps, instead of running them inside a completely different UI. Perhaps that’s what we can expect in Windows 9. In any case, this two-faced UI is actually pretty easy to live with, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Getting started with Windows 8
First, if you want to try Windows 8, you can get the preview now. Just know that you can’t easily roll back to Windows 7. The 90-day preview is primarily for developers and people who are highly likely to buy Windows 8 once it is released.
Getting your bearings
The first few minutes you spend in Windows 8 will be disorienting, and probably confusing. That’s because the Windows 8 UI designers designers placed a low value on making it intuitive or familiar. Stick with it, though, and you will get the hang of it.
When you first boot up, you will wind up in an attractive screen that gives you no indication how to log in. No worries, just press any key or click your mouse button, and it will slide up to reveal a login screen. If you log in using a Microsoft account (live.com, hotmail.com, etc.), your settings will be synced up across your Windows 8 devices. But you can use a local username and password, if you prefer.
To get your bearings once you have logged in, click on the Desktop tile in the snazzy new Start screen, and you will end up right back in the familiar Windows 7 desktop. It is missing the good old Start menu ball thingy, but you can get back to the Start screen at any time by moving your mouse cursor to either left-hand corner of the screen.
When you install desktop software, the icons will show up on the Start screen, where you can launch the program in the desktop. The other tiles in the Start screen are apps — the same ones you would run on your Windows phone or tablet.
You can also use the left hot corners to see your recently-used apps. After the Start screen shortcut pops up, just slide your mouse cursor up from the bottom (or down from the top), and the app history panel will show up. This only shows apps, which means it shows the Desktop as a single app, instead of breaking out the different applications I have open in the desktop. (You do get that detail in the Alt+Tab switcher, so I don’t understand the inconsistency.)
I am used to clicking the right mouse button to get contextual actions, like copy and paste. In Windows 8 apps, right-clicking does bring up a menu, but it’s at the bottom of the screen, and it often includes global options (select F or C in the Weather app, for example) as well as options relevant to what you are doing (copy and paste if you have highlighted text). It’s more like what you would expect from a menu screen on your phone than Windows.
Moving your mouse cursor to either right-hand corner of the screen brings up “charms” — shortcuts: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Search, Share, Start, and Settings are fairly self-explanatory. I’m not sure what the Devices charm is for, but I think it is for sending stuff to printers, other screens, and stuff like that. The Settings charm gives you access to global settings as well as settings for the app you are using at the moment.
Things like the Control Panel have been buried, but the easiest way to find it (and anything else you are missing) is by using the Search charm.
That should get you up and running. If there is anything else you can’t do, try the Search charm, try searching Google, or post a question in the Windows 8 thread in the LAB.
There are lots of other features new in Windows 8, but the UI and the app layer are the big news. If you want the minutiae, Wikipedia has you covered.