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Your mini guide to Windows 8

26 Oct 12

In a world where technology seems to evolve faster than we do, it’s no surprise that we’re already getting ready to welcome a new version of Windows to our computers, tablets and even phones.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like just yesterday that we were introduced to Windows 7? Nevertheless, Windows 8 is here – and it’s full of exciting changes.

The next step

You might be thinking, “What’s so interesting about a new version of Windows? Is it really any different than all the other Windows operating systems we’ve come to know over the past 25 years? Is it really worthy of a NetGuide cover?”

Well the answer to all of those questions lies in the fact that the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system is designed around touch screens. Microsoft themselves say the Windows 8 upgrade is set to be the biggest and most dramatic change to the OS since Windows 95!

Windows 8 will work on both tablets and traditional PCs, and even on the Windows Phone. The home screen is filled with big, touchable panels, similar to the live ‘metro’ tiles in Windows Phone 7, and from there you can tap and swipe into other touch-based applications.

This may seem overwhelming, but fear not – underneath the fancy new touch technology lies the regular old Windows we know and love, complete with the familiar task bar, file manager, app icons and more.

How does it work?

The start menu has been replaced by a full-screen view of tiles that you can scroll through horizontally to view basic information like time and unread e-mails. As with Windows Phone 7, some apps show bits of information within the tiles – for example, you don’t need to click on the weather app to see the current temperature.

Swiping from the right bezel (edge) brings up a menu that can take you from an app back to the home screen. You can pin applications, shortcuts, documents, webpages and a number of other things, customising the interface however you like – so long as you stick within the constraints of rectangular and from left to right.

You can switch between open apps by swiping across from the left bezel. What’s really cool about the touch interface with Windows 8 is that when swiping in a new app, you can snap it in place next to the app that's currently running. This allows you to view two apps at the same time – something that no existing tablet operating system can do.

All about the apps

The apps for Windows 8 have been developed using HTML5 and Javascript and are fairly similar to the apps you use on any tablet. You’ll be able to purchase these apps through the Microsoft Store.

In addition to the new apps, the traditional Windows apps we know and love (such as Office, Word and Photoshop) will still be available as well. These apps and the rest of the classic Windows desktop have been redeveloped using a new kind of “fuzzy hit targeting” to make them more touch friendly and accommodate the fact that fingers are far less precise than a mouse.

Chief designer Julie Larson-Green says the goal was to transform these classic apps designed for a keyboard and mouse to make them work efficiently with touch. The new HTML5/Javascript apps, on the other hand, have been designed for touch first, but also work well with a keyboard and mouse.

Special gestures

Here’s where you’ll need to teach yourself some new basics (but don’t worry, it won’t take long!) There are a whole suite of special swipes and taps you can use to make the most of the touch screen interface (and, more importantly, make up for the general lack of visual indicators).

With earlier versions of Windows, everything that needed clicking was made evident through highlighted edges, raised buttons and so on. With Windows 8 there is no such luxury.

However, once you get to know the control gestures, they’ll quickly become as intuitive as those highlighted edges and buttons are.  (And, if you’re still anti-touch screen, there are mouse equivalents for each of the gestures as well).

Here are a few key gestures to get you started:

Right bezel: charms

Off the right-hand side of the screen is a set of “charms”. These give you quick access to basic system commands:

•    Search - Opens up the searching interface.
•    Share - Brings up a list of applications capable of sharing whatever this app is offering.
•    Start - Takes you back to the Start interface.
•    Devices - Gives you a list of all connected devices.
•    Settings - Brings up a list of settings (*Note - this is a substantially condensed version of what you would see in the Control Panel, but it is much easier to get to).

To load the list of charms, simply swipe a finger inwards from the right bezel. Using the mouse, throw the cursor in the upper or lower-right corner.

Left bezel: multitasking

If you like to have multiple apps and programs on the go at the same time, this gesture will likely become your best friend. Drag inwards from the left to bring up a small window showing your last used app. Drag it all the way over and it pops open to full screen.

Drag it only part of the way and it docks onto the left quarter of the display. (You can also drag it over and have it take up the right side of the screen.) Drag out and back and you'll get a list of your most recent apps, and you can select any of them with a tap.

With the mouse, start in the upper-left corner and you'll see the most recent app. Drag down from there and the list of other apps appears. From here, you can just click, drag or reposition any of them.

Start button

This will probably be where most long term Windows users will struggle – the old-school Start button is gone. Instead, you need to drag down to the lower-left corner of the screen (where you used to see the Start button) and click.

Keyboard shortcuts

In addition to these new gestures Microsoft is presenting us with hundreds of handy keyboard shortcuts as well. We can’t cover all of them here, but we have listed a few of the basics below:

•    Windows + arrow keys - This combination with the left and right arrow keys moves the new apps into their left or right docked positions. For Windows desktop apps, they function the same as in Windows 7 – switching over to the left or right half of the screen. Up maximizes, down minimizes.
•    Windows + C - This brings up the charms menu. If you replace C with I, K or H, you can jump straight to the Settings, Connect or Share charms.
•    Windows + Tab - This moves you between applications, including the Windows desktop (even though it’s not really an ‘application’). This differs between the classic Alt + Tab, which still works here, tabbing between each individual window on the desktop and the apps.
•    Windows + PrtScn - This captures a screenshot of the current screen and saves it in your Pictures directory.

Xbox integration

With Xbox 360 growing increasingly popular, Microsoft has made the Xbox Live pin a major part of the new OS. By tapping on this pin, you’ll be prompted to sign in to your account where you’ll be presented with all your gaming habits (much like you would on the console itself).

You can launch into recently played games and apps directly from your Windows 8 device and can even control them (sort of). You’re obviously restricted to up/down/left/right and can only access games that are downloaded to the console or printed on a disc in the console’s tray. Still, it’s a step in the right direction for gamers.

Connected with the cloud

Windows 8 will also make the most of cloud computing, allowing you to sign into any of your devices running Windows 8 and see all of your personalised settings and apps right there, as well as connect to your photos and files across all devices.

Your apps will also light up with connections to your friends and family. Information from the services you connect to – Hotmail, Messenger, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more – appears right inside the Mail, Messaging and People apps.

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