Peering through new Windows

  • Technology
  • Thursday, 25 Oct 2012

TOUCH TYPING: There are many ways to interact with Windows 8 including gestures.

Microsoft’s next-generation operating system is versatile enough to cater for both tablets and desktops.

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s biggest software launch in its 37-year-history.

The software giant quickly regained its footing with Windows 7 after it stumbled with Vista, the operating system before it.

With Windows 8, the company is charting a new direction for the world’s most popular desktop operating system because it’s exploring new territories — tablets and touchscreens.

It comes in two flavours — Windows 8 and Windows RT. The key differentiating factor between the two versions is that Windows RT will not be able to run x86 or x64 programs — basically, older Windows 7 programs.

It can only run apps designed for Windows 8 that’s available via the Windows Store.

Windows RT is tailored for devices powered by ARM processors. It has desktop mode but it’s restricted to only pre-installed Microsoft programs like the touch optimised version of Microsoft Office.

The “full” version of Windows 8, on the other hand, will be able to run both apps designed for Windows 7 and the current version.

Windows 8 runs on Intel-powered ­devices, tablets, desktop PCs and laptops.

Bold blocks

Windows 8 is the most radical makeover Microsoft has made to its operating system since the transition from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 back in 1995.

It is a bold re-invention that aims to bring the operating system closer to the era of touchscreen devices.

In fact, the very first screen you’ll see upon starting up Windows 8 is not the familiar desktop that you have been used to for the past umpteen years.

At first the welcome screen and the new user interface (UI) felt strange mostly because it’s unfamiliar.

We got the hang of it over the last few days and our experience with Windows 8 is based on using a tablet which the new interface is made for.

The Start screen gives you quick access to all the apps stored on your computer or tablet.

It presents them in a visually appealing style just like Windows Phone — information like news, weather and stock prices are viewable at a glance via the numerous ‘live’ tiles.

The default apps that come with Windows such as Mail, People, Messaging, Calendar, Weather and Maps are pretty nifty and well designed.

The People app, for instance, keeps your contacts in one place and even integrates people you know on Facebook.

The Weather app is one of the best that we’ve seen — it gives you a complete ­breakdown of the week’s weather right down to the hour.

News presents aggregated content from various sources in an attractive layout and even shows you the top headlines when you are connected to the Internet.

More apps can be downloaded from the Windows Store and while it does not feature as many applications as the Apple App Store or Google Play, it covers all the important categories such as productivity, news, entertainment, games and education.

Downloaded apps install automatically on the Start screen. They are easy to uninstall too — all you have to do is swipe down on a tile and hit uninstall. You no longer need to head to the Add/Remove feature in the Control Panel which is tedious.

Charming interface

Much of Windows 8 is designed to be tablet friendly so it is no surprise that it understands finger gestures to make things more accessible.

Another major change is the inclusion of the Charm bar, a universal toolbar that can be accessed anywhere and even when running applications.

It offers five different elements such as an improved Search engine that allows you to search for information across many different applications.

For example, if you are looking for information on KLCC, you can search for its location on Maps, find out additional information through Bing and look for videos of it on YouTube.

Sharing is another built-in feature in Windows 8 that allows users to share content via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.

However, the option to share is not available in every single app as the OS needs permission to use the sharing function.

It is also in the Charm bar that you can find the Start button which can take you back to the Start screen if you are using an app or viewing the desktop.

Meanwhile, the Devices button helps you check out the various devices you have connected to your Windows 8 machine.

Finally, there is a Settings button that changes depending where you access it be it the desktop, Start screen on within an app.

On the desktop, you have the option of opening the Control Panel that gives you full access to all the system settings.

Here you can personalise the look of Windows 8, adjust system notification behaviour, change privacy settings and also initiate a Windows Update.

If you are opening it from the Start screen, it comes with a limited number of options such as for changing notification, volume, keyboard and brightness.

Accessing the settings menu within an app allows you to change the setting for it. This is great as you always know where the settings are for every app. So you could change the video and audio settings in games or manage Internet options for your web browser from the same place.

If you happen to have more than one app open at a time, swiping lets you switch between different applications.

Also, swiping slowly from the left brings out a previous application — this allows you to run two apps on the same screen.

Oddly enough one of the app will only take up a third of the screen space, leaving two thirds of the space to the other app.

The annoying thing about this is that you cannot split the two applications perfectly like how you could do so easily on the desktop.

Still, it’s fun to have two apps running at the same time — for example, you can play a video as you are browsing the Web on Internet Explorer 10.

You can also preview up to five apps ­running in the background by swiping slowly from the left side of the screen and pulling back.

Also, swiping downwards from the top of the screen on a tablet closes an app. It is a little difficult to master — the trick to is to perform it in one sweeping motion.

Closing thoughts

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s biggest gamble yet as it marries a tablet friendly interface with the traditional desktop.

The new Start screen is refreshing and makes it easy to find a lot of settings that were not easily accessible last time.

On the app front, Mail, Messages, Calendar and People are really handy and well designed. And Windows Store will make it easy to find more apps and as they are cloud aware, the settings can be synced between Windows machines.

The Charm bar is an interesting addition that makes everything more accessible, especially search and sharing content.

Windows 8 is also super fast. Opening up applications is incredibly quick and the gestures, while annoying to perform on a desktop, are useful to have on a tablet.

However, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the extreme makeover Microsoft has given Windows.

For instance, the Start Screen is visually appealing but ultimately it may not be the best fit for all devices because it’s very tablet centric in most ways.

In the end, love it or hate it but Windows 8 is the next evolution for the desktop PC operating system.

It might take a little time but chances are the host of new features and performance enhancements are worth the initial teething problems you’ll have with the OS.

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