Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider
Since yesterday’s big Windows 8 Consumer Preview launch, almost all of the focus has been on the new operating system’s tablet features. As it should be!
Windows 8 is a radical rethinking of the traditional Windows layout we’ve been using since 1995. It has that new tile-based “Metro” look that was first used on Windows Phone 7 devices. It’s gorgeous. It’s unique. It begs to be touched.
And best of all, it feels like Microsoft is innovating with Windows 8 instead pulling a Google and copying Apple’s iOS for iPad.
Good for Microsoft. Seriously.
I’ve been a Mac user for 11 years. This is the first time I’ve been excited to try a PC again.
How Windows 8 Works On The Desktop
Yes, mobile is important, but smartphones and tablets still represent a tiny fraction of computing devices out there. For now, we’re still mostly reliant on desktops and laptops to get stuff done. That’ll change. And Windows 8 could be a key to ease that transition.
I’ve been using Windows 8 on an Ultrabook laptop for about a day now. Based on everything I’ve read about the tablet experience (Microsoft snubbed me and wouldn’t let me try it), I don’t think Windows 8 on the desktop is nearly as useful or innovative.
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Microsoft’s solution for Windows 8 on non-touchscreen devices is to hide the traditional Windows layout behind the Metro view. It looks nearly identical to what you see on Windows 7 today.
But you still have to get through all those gorgeous touch-friendly menus to access the traditional desktop. That’s really tough to do with a mouse or trackpad on a laptop.
It took me forever to get the hang of how to navigate Windows 8 with my Ultrabook’s trackpad. (I’m still not 100 per cent sure I’m doing everything correctly.) You can use the cursor to click and drag stuff around. You can also scroll through screens using the arrow keys, which feels like a very archaic method on such a modern-looking operating system. I wish there were multitouch gestures for touchpads to make things easier to navigate. Instead, everything is just plain clunky.
Photo: Steve Kovach, Business Insider
To get to the traditional desktop, you have to add a “Desktop” tile to the Start screen. Click it, and in a dash, you’re back into the old Windows you’re used to. You won’t be lost. Almost nothing has changed from Windows 7. In fact, if you upgrade from Windows 7, all your icons and files on your desktop will be right where you left them. Tapping the “Windows” key on your keyboard will bring you back to the Metro Start menu. (The Start button and original menu are dead and gone.)
I have a feeling desktop and laptop users running Windows 8 will spend almost all of their time using the classic Windows desktop instead of the Metro menu. It’s just too difficult to get around without a touchscreen. That’s going to stink for Microsoft in the short-run since most people are still tied to their desktops.
So What’s The Point?
It’s a bit odd to see this ancient-feeling desktop tucked behind Windows 8’s revolutionary Metro interface. But it has to be there for now. Yes, it’s awkward, but Microsoft is easing the transition from PC to tablet. Windows 8 is key to weaning users off traditional desktop computing.
Apple has a different approach, offering two completely separate operating systems for Mac (OS X) and mobile (iOS). But OS X is getting more iOS-like, thanks to a bunch of new design elements added to Lion and a bunch of new iCloud-powered apps in the upcoming Mountain Lion.
Obviously, there’s no way to tell right now which method will work better. Apple already has a huge lead in tablets, but even with all of OS X’s new tablet-y features, it doesn’t push you towards an iPad.
On the other hand, Windows 8 does steer you towards tablets. It’s perfectly functional on the desktop, but if you want to unleash its true power, you’ll need a tablet or some other kind of hybrid touchscreen device.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I was excited for Windows 8. It’s something new. It’s something different. And not counting a few annoying quirks on the desktop, it works. Keep in mind this is just a Consumer Preview of Windows 8. There’s still plenty of time for Microsoft to make improvements.
If you're not using a tablet, you have to navigate the Start screen with arrow keys or the scroll bar that appears at the bottom.
You can click the magnifying glass in the bottom right corner to get a zoomed out view of all your tiles.
In some apps, like Bing Maps, you can click and drag to move stuff around. It's kind of like using your cursor as if it were a fingertip on a touchscreen.
There's a handy task bar that pops up on the right side, but it's tough to get it to show up. Sometimes it'll appear when you slide your cursor to the right of the screen, but it often takes a few tries.
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