The two halves of the OS may feel rather disjointed, but Windows 8 is fast and does a lot of things better than Windows 7
Microsoft has long dominated the desktop and laptop markets with its Windows operating system, but things have started to change; Apple has started to gain market share with its Macs, while tablets, led by the iPad, have started to eat into the traditional PC’s dominance. It’s clear, then, that Microsoft has to change to keep up and that’s where Windows 8 comes in: it’s an OS designed for traditional desktops and tablets alike.
It’s a brave move, as even Apple has decided that it needs on OS for real computers (OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion) and one for its mobile computers (iOS for iPhone and iPad). There’s a real danger that Windows 8 will end up being poor for both tasks, alienating all the operating system’s potential users.
With the final Released to Manufacturing (RTM) version of the OS now in our hands, we decided to find out if Microsoft has created the perfect hybrid operating system or a complete mess that tries to mash together a laptop and a tablet.
TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
The first thing to get your head around is that Windows 8 now has two interfaces. So, as well as the Desktop view that we’ve all come to know and love, there’s also the Metro interface, with its Live Tiles. Or rather, it was called the Metro interface until a supermarket with the same name complained and Microsoft was forced to drop the name completely, changing the interface’s name to just plain Windows 8. As the new interface now has the same name as the operating system, to avoid confusion we’ll call the new interface the Start Screen.
The Start screen replaces the Start menu and has Live Tiles, shortcuts, built-in search and its own applications
As the name implies, the Start Screen replaces the old Start menu. It’s more than just a program launcher: as well as plain shortcuts, the screen can house Live Tiles, which update to show you live information, such as how many unread emails you have or what the weather is like. Live Tiles are a great way to keep up with what’s going on and having all this information on a single page is very useful and a vast improvement on the old Gadgets in Windows Vista and 7.
The Start Screen is beautifully smooth to navigate. With its large icons, it certainly looks like it’s designed for tablets, and it has some touchscreen-ready features. On a touchscreen device, you can swipe to move between Start’s multiple screens, drag-and-drop tiles where you want them and pinch-to-zoom to get an overall view of your Start Screen. Fortunately, Microsoft has remembered desktop users and you can use a mouse’s scroll-wheel or the scroll bar to move left and right through the pages.
Searching your computer is now done through the Start Screen, and you can just start typing to bring up the search dialog. This defaults to searching for Apps, but you can also filter by Settings and Files. One of our big bugbears with the Consumer Preview was that once you’d searched for files, your only option was to click a search result and have it open in the default application. Fortunately, Microsoft has fixed this and right-clicking a file now gives you the Open location option, which opens an Explorer Window on the Desktop, where you can copy, rename or delete the file, as well as right-click and choose which application you want to open it with.
Search has been improved since the Consumer Preview and you can now open a file’s location
It’s still a bit of a kludge that you have to swap from the Start Screen to the Desktop to perform a simple task, but it’s a lot better than it was in the first versions of Windows 8 and, based on several days of solid Windows 8 use, this behaviour is something we can happily live with.