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Windows 8: an overview

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

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.

Underneath the Start screen interface, the Desktop has undergone some improvements, too. Windows Explorer is now called File Explorer and it features the Ribbon interface that was first introduced in Microsoft Office about five years ago. Like the Start screen, it's an interface that can take some time to get accustomed to, primarily because you'll once again have to face the reality of not having a menu interface, but a row of icons and labels that are always visible instead. The context of the icons changes depending on the types of files that you are working with, and it can be a good interface to work with once you get the hang of it.

File Explorer manages copy tasks differently, too. File transfer windows provide graphical information about the speed of your copy and move operations, rather than just a number, and there is a new interface that can help you more easily deal with duplicate files. You are given the ability to compare file information and show icon previews, which can help you decide whether you need to overwrite files or cease the transfer altogether on a file-by-file basis. It can be a nice little time saver.

Task Manager

You get a better Task Manager in Windows 8 than in Windows 7, too. It's a Task Manager that can now show more details about the resources a program is using, not just CPU and RAM, but also disk and network usage. It's a very helpful tool that can come in handy if you want to see which programs are slowing down your disks or hogging your Internet bandwidth. Additionally, there is an extra tab specifically for Windows 8-style apps.

The Windows 8-style apps that you download through the Microsoft store and run through the Start screen should not be a drain on your system. Windows 8 can assign and take away resources whenever it detects that the apps are being used or idle and, theoretically, you don't even have to make an effort to close them. Throughout our time testing Windows 8, we found this to be the case. We regularly opened multiple apps, be it Maps, Mail, SkyDrive, Photos and many others, without ever actively closing them and we never noticed a slow-down in system performance. There isn't a little 'X' in the corner to click on in order to close an app; you'll have to drag it down towards the bottom of the screen instead if you use a mouse, or drag your finger from the top of the screen to the bottom if you use a touchscreen.

We think it's worth taking the time to learn the new interface that Windows 8 brings to the table, and we think that Windows 8 is a very solid and quick operating system overall. We used it on the same hardware that we previously used to run a Windows 7 system with the same Desktop applications, and its responsiveness was quicker when loading applications and switching between them. We also think that the freshness of the Windows 8 interface is something that will grow on you over time, especially if you use it on a touchscreen device. Whether it's an interface that can be deployed in a business environment is up for debate, although the graphical Start screen might be of benefit to less tech savvy users.

New hardware

The way Windows 8 is designed, you'll get the most out of it if you run it on new hardware. In particular, new hardware that features a touchscreen. You can consider new laptops with a regular clamshell form factor that also feature a touchscreen, such as the Acer Aspire S7, or you can consider models that take the clamshell form factor and flip it, such as the Lenovo Yoga or the Dell XPS 12 Duo. New all-in-one PCs with capacitive touchscreens can also be considered, and, of course, there are the new tablets.

Microsoft's Surface tablet will be available in two versions: one running Windows 8 Pro and one running Windows RT. Windows RT is not the same as Windows 8 Pro, although it may look similar on the, um, surface, as it will not run your traditional Desktop applications. Go for the Windows 8 Pro version of the Surface if you want to be able to run all your regular Desktop applications on a tablet. That version will also ship with a built-in keyboard cover and a kickstand, making it a tablet that's primed for content creation, rather than consumption.

Traditional PC vendors will also be releasing new tablets, so there will be a lot of variety to choose from, even if you're in business, with Dell and HP in particular, making it known that they have enterprise-ready Windows 8 tablets to hand.

What if you've already recently bought a new computer with Windows 7 on it? The good news it you can upgrade to Windows 8 for the cool price of $14.99, but only if your computer was purchased after 22 June 2012. It's a promotion that will run until the end of January 2013 for any computers that are purchased with Windows 7 during that time.

The system requirements for Windows 8 aren't harsh, although the minimum requirements are slightly higher than those of Windows 7. Any 1GHz or faster computer from the last few years with at least 2GB of RAM, 20GB of storage and a Direct X 9.0-capable graphics card will be able to run Windows 8 for the most part. The other general requirement is that a screen resolution of 1366x768 be available if new features such as Snap (where you can run two Windows 8-style apps side by side) are to be used.