For a long time I thought that, yet again, I would be stuck with a horrible amalgam of old and new elements in the UI but I recently discovered that it is possible to customise the krap out of the way Windows 8 looks. I’m still tweaking this but I am really happy with it already. It is how I have wanted my computer to look for years and finally I can do it in Windows. Once I have it exactly right, I’ll post a few more screenshots.
In this post I want to concentrate on the desktop, which is the part of Windows 8 that gets the least exposure. I find that a little strange because that’s where I spend probably 95% of my time. If you have used Vista or Windows 7, you will find it very familiar. To get to the Desktop from the Start Screen you can either click on the double-width Desktop tile or press WIN+D on your keyboard.
As you can see from this screen shot, you can still have desktop shortcuts and pinned icons on the Taskbar, although in my day-to-day work I use Rainmeter for that kind of thing, and Control Panel is pretty much the same as it has been for a while. Without the Start Menu, you may be worried that it is going to be hard to find things like Control Panel but in Windows 8 it is actually easier than ever.
All you have to do is right-click in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, where the Start button used to be, and you get this menu. It gives you quick access to a lot of handy things, like the Programs and Features window, where you can install/uninstall software, and Device Manager.
When you move your mouse down into the lower left-hand corner, it pops up a tiny version of your Start Screen. If you left-click on that it will take you to the Start Screen.
The Charms Bar is a new feature that gives quick access to a number of other new features, all of which work the same way on the Desktop and in the new UI. When you move your cursor into the top or lower right-hand corner, the Charms pop out.
If you then move your mouse up from the bottom (or down from the top), the bar will solidify beneath them and the time and date will appear lower-left.
Clicking on the Settings charm will bring up this menu where you can do quite a few things. Most seem redundant on the Desktop – you can access a lot of those things from the System Tray – but in the new UI it is the standard way of accessing these features and it is probably smart to standardise it across both UIs. You will notice that as well as access to Control Panel, Settings has an item labelled Change PC settings.
This is where you can do a lot of Control Panel type things in both UIs (Control Panel is a Desktop-only feature). Some features here, e.g. Users, also exist in their Desktop form (Windows 7 style) in Control Panel. Changing settings in one will always update settings in the other. Other features that seem similar, e.g. Personalize/Personalization, are in fact specific to each UI.
The Devices Charm performs a different function from the Devices section in Settings. In this image you can see how it provides a clear graphical method of configuring my monitors. On my set-up that is the only thing I can do from this charm. I’ve not used the Share charm and the Search charm takes you to the search screen, just as pressing WIN+Q does.
This is how things look when you use the Split-screen feature. I have my new Music Player app (which I don’t like at all) on the right side of my screen with my Desktop taking up the rest.
When I want to select some new music, although it will be a while before I am sick of listening to the brand new Ultravox album, I just slide the border to the left. Once I’m done I can click on whichever Desktop application I was using and go back to it. Notice that the app has a distinctly different UI in this mode, as do many other apps.
Just for the hell of it, here is an image showing the three different on-screen keyboard layouts. Actually, that’s not terribly accurate, as the last one is handwriting recognition. Don’t be distracted by the wallpaper you can glimpse here, I did these screen-shots before I decided to switch to a solid colour background, to keep the image files smaller.
This is my Start Screen. I have customised it exactly to my needs, creating groups of tiles with headings and organising the tiles to my liking. The whole process takes a minute or two, no more. I have also opted for a plain colour background here to keep it slick and simple, in keeping with the Metro philosophy.
Semantic Zoom is where you can set up and name groups. You access Semantic Zoom via a small icon in the bottom-right corner of the Start Screen (not visible until you mouse near it).
Right-clicking anywhere gives you the option to view “All Apps”. This shows you everything you can access from the Start Screen and is much the same as the “All Programs” link in the Windows 7 Start Menu, except that it doesn’t hide things inside multiple layers of folders.
So that is the Start Screen. It is the most different thing you will need to deal with but, as you can hopefully see, it is dead easy to use and is a big step up from the Start Menu in Win7. Of course, all the familiar keyboard tricks work here, just as they do in Win7. e.g. You can press the WIN key, which brings up the Start Screen, start typing and Windows 8 will start searching.
In this example I was on the Desktop, I pressed the WIN key, then typed “z” and was presented with the search screen within about half a second. From there I can select whatever it is that I was looking for. As you can see, the right side offers a lot more categories than just applications, so you can use this quick method to search for anything on your computer. It is very cool and so fast it almost seems to anticipate what you are about to type. WIN+Q also brings up search and WIN+F brings up a search screen with “Files” pre-selected.
This is the Desktop I use every day. The hexagon patterns in the corners belong to a skin I created for Rainmeter. Rainmeter is kind of like desktop gadgets on steroids. You can use it to add all kinds of functionality to your desktop. In my case, I have meters showing CPU, memory and disk usage, date/time display and one-click launchers for applications, folders (opens in Explorer) and websites (opens in the default browser). With Rainmeter running I rarely need to access the Start Menu/Screen or have any programs pinned to the Taskbar.
One Line Overview
– everything you love about Windows 7 made better, with a bunch of touchscreen stuff added in.
One Paragraph Overview
Windows 8 builds upon the strengths of Windows 7, making even greater improvements to efficiency and ease of use. On top of these improvements, Microsoft has added a brand new suite of touch-friendly, mobile phone style “apps” that work in their own touch-friendly environment. Moving from this new environment to the familiar desktop is simple and generally seamless. Windows 8 is as easy and intuitive to use with a mouse and keyboard as it is with a touchscreen. There are still a few hard edges that need to be smoothed out but overall it is a very positive step up from Windows 7 that is much easier to learn than the move from XP to Vista or Windows 7 was.
The Full, Rambling Overview
Everything you know how to do in Windows 7 carries over to Win8. The one thing that has changed is the Start Menu and, let’s be honest, it was severely broken in Vista and Win7 anyway, so good riddance. As that is the one and only change, you only need to learn one new thing to be up and running. You only need to know that even though the Start button is gone, you can still click in the bottom-left corner where it used to be and open the new Start Screen. Alternatively, you can just hit the Windows key on your keyboard, which is what I have learned to do. All your familiar keyboard shortcuts will still work, MS have even added several new ones you can learn at your leisure, and things like Control Panel and Device Manager are just as they have been since Vista. It is all there and it works as well as it always has, even better in some cases.
OK, so you are wondering how I can possibly suggest that Win8 is so similar to Win7 when the only image you ever see of it is something totally alien to any Windows 7 user. The answer is simple (the good ones always are), that is the one thing that has changed and it isn’t all that different to the old Start Menu, really. Just imagine that the column of pinned icons on the left-hand side of the old Start Menu has been given a whole screen to sprawl over, which allows you to pin many more things to it. It’s also been made so that you can customise the hell out of it and get everything in exactly the order you want it. And when you want to find something that has not been pinned, you just right-click on the background and choose the only option – “All Apps” – which shows you everything that would previously have shown up under “All Programs” in the Win7 Start Menu.
“What are all those stupid looking, multi-coloured squares and rectangles!?!” I hear you ask. They are new additions, things that have not previously been a part of Windows. If you ignore them completely you will be no worse off. e.g. There are new music and video apps but if you don’t like them, Windows Media Player is still there and it works just as it does in Win7. (i.e. Not very well at all; it is one of the things I hate about Win7.) Some of them are actually OK – I like the new email app and the weather app is really good, too. And the tiles make them even better because they display up-to-date information, even if that app is not currently open. The email app shows the latest emails and the weather app shows the current weather, both without the need to go in and look for the information. There is also a Windows Store where you can go and download more, much like Apple’s App Store.
It has mostly been good so far but the reality is that there are still a few areas that don’t work as well as you might like. In some situations, moving between the new app interface and the desktop is a bit jarring. e.g. The default program for opening a PDF file is the new Reader app, which is a simple app that does its job nicely. The problem is that once you have read the file and closed the app, you are back at the Start Screen, not back in Explorer where you started. It’s not a disaster, you can get straight back to Explorer using the familiar ALT+Tab keyboard shortcut, but it is definitely not as slick as it is in older versions of Windows. The same thing happens with pictures and videos you want to look at from Explorer. If it gets really annoying, you can simply spend a few minutes making photos open in Windows Picture Viewer, videos open in Windows Media Player and PDFs in Adobe Reader or whatever else you use. Or you can do what I did and just get used to it.
Let’s start at the start. I’ve been a Windows user since 1995, when I bought my first computer – a DX2-66 running Windows for Workgroups 3.11. I dabbled with OS/2 on that machine for a short while but went back to Windows so I could learn Photoshop 3, having taught myself how to use CorelDRAW 3 a year or so earlier.
In 1998 I was exposed to MacOS 9 and wasn’t overly impressed with it. In 1999 I had my first go at Linux, which I persevered with on dual-boot for a couple of years before finally giving up. It was about then that I realised that something Winston Churchill once said about democracy also applied to Windows – it is the worst possible OS, except for all the others.
I first used OS X at work in 2004 or so and didn’t find it a greatly improved over OS 9. Shortly after I came to the conclusion that OSes are largely unimportant, it is the software we run on them. Since then I have worked out that you choose your software applications first, then find the OS that best supports them. Unless you are tied to Final Cut Pro or Logic Audio, the only OS that makes sense under this philosophy is Windows.
Luckily, this epiphany came to me at about the time WindowsXP was released, so it wasn’t hard to convince myself that I was on the right track. XP was a revelation and in all the time I’ve been using Windows since then, I have only experienced one Blue Screen of Death (BSoD). Even that was due to an out of date driver and was easily fixed by downloading a later version. Applications still crash on me now and then but they never take the system down with them.
I don’t think of myself as an early adopter; I stuck with Win98SE for a long time, skipping WinMe and Win2000 altogether (although I did use Win2000 at work for a few years) and I didn’t get into Vista until SP1 was available and resisted Win7 until I bought a new PC that came with it pre-loaded. I don’t even particularly like Win7 – for every good feature there seems to be something that is worse than it was before – which is why my M4400 still runs XP.
So why have I been so quick to take up Windows 8? The answer is easy, it is because of the Metro design language MS have been using for some time now. I first experienced it when I bought a ZuneHD in 2010 and I loved it instantly. It was so intuitive that it was almost impossible not to over-think its operation. i.e. The obvious way to do things was too obvious and so simple that you wouldn’t think it could be so easy, so you tended to look for some way that required more effort, just because that’s how we are used to things being. After that I bought into WindowsPhone 7, which led to Windows 8. I was happy to follow because it appeals to me as a graphic artist. The aesthetic is clean and fresh, with the emphasis on functionality over fussy design. And it works.
I get really frustrated reading all the misinformation around using Windows 8 on a PC with no touch input. I have been using Windows 8 previews since November 2011 and as my main OS since March 2012, so I think I have a decent perspective on the good and bad things about it. I thought I would build up a picture of what it is like to work with, in the hope of adding some real information to the largely speculative debate. In the coming days I will be adding new content regularly. I will steer away from videos, as we all know how Windows works, but I will post lots of screen shots, in the hope that some of you out there might stop equating Windows 8 with the one and only screen anyone ever shows – the new Start Menu.
It would be great to get some comments but I will be moderating them and if you cannot back up your words with real examples, your post won’t last long. I want this blog to be a useful resource based on actual experience. I will be completely objective about my own experiences and in my comparisons to other desktop environments, be it earlier versions of Windows or MacOS or Linux, all of which I have used for serious work at some time.
In fact, hardware/software is probably as good a place as any to start. My main PC is an Asus UX21E Zenbook, with a Core i7 CPU, integrated HD3000 graphics, 4Gb RAM and a super-fast 128Gb SSD. 90% of the time it is connected to an HD monitor and a 1Tb USB 3 HDD, as well as a wireless keyboard and mouse. I use it to run Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, Xara Designer Pro X, Autodesk Combustion and a number of music applications, including Synapse Audio Orion, SynthEdit and Sony Soundforge. It has been running Windows 8 since March. I also have a 4 year old Dell M4400 with Core2Duo, QuadroFX graphics and 2xSSDs that still runs 3DS Max (cannot transfer the license) on Windows XP, plus an Atom-powered Sony Vaio P Series which was the first of them to get Win8. I work at one of Australia’s TV networks as a Broadcast Designer and I work on a MacPro there.
So, onward and upward for here. Stay tuned for my overview of Windows 8 on a laptop.