Windows 8 represents a strategic shift for Microsoft in favour of mobility. But for those of us who rely on Windows to sit down at a keyboard to do real work, the early returns on Windows 8 are cause for concern.
"Windows Frankenstein," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde OS" - much has been made of the inconsistencies of Microsoft's two-faced UI. If there's one consistent element to all the talk about Windows 8, it's about what's missing: the Start menu, the Aero transparencies, the many details people take for granted that make Windows, well, Windows. It's little wonder then that many folks are seriously considering skipping Windows 8 altogether.
But what if you can't? Or what if you've decided to take the Windows 8 plunge and want to know not just how to get by but to thrive in this brave new Windows world? Here we discuss how to do just that: how a legacy Windows user, with existing hardware, can make the best of Windows 8, focusing on the most immediate and pressing changes that will impact your moment-to-moment Windows use.
Coping with Windows 8 Start
The biggest change in Windows 8 is the one you almost certainly already know about: The legacy Start menu is gone for keeps. In its place is the full-page Metro-powered Start screen.
Because the new Start menu takes up the whole screen, it's bound to be jarring. One way to get around this is to move the Start screen to a secondary monitor, if you have one; another way is to use the taskbar that much more.
Apps can be pinned to the taskbar and accessed with a single click, just as in Windows 7. To pin an app, right-click on it on the new Start screen and click Pin to Taskbar in the App bar that appears. (On a touchscreen, drag it to the bottom and then release.) Your average taskbar has space for quite a few apps, with Explorer and IE (which you can replace with the browser of your choice) pinned by default. You probably already do this with Windows 7 for commonly used apps, so there's all the more reason to continue this practice now that Microsoft has scuttled legacy Start.
Right-click on legacy Windows items on the Metro Start screen to pin them to the taskbar, as a way to avoid having to traverse the Start screen to launch them. The taskbar should have enough space on most systems for several commonly used applications. (Click for larger version.)
It may look like it has vanished, but type-to-search remains another useful way to avoid getting hung up on the Start screen. Type-to-search behaves roughly the same way as it does in Windows Vista and Windows 7: Begin typing, and you see results. (You do need a physical keyboard, so this technique won't work on a tablet with just an onscreen keyboard. Instead, open the Search charm by swiping from the right edge of the screen.)
Simply begin typing from the Start screen to start a systemwide search. Note that the context of the search is determined by the highlighted item directly below the search box. (Click for larger version.)
A major difference with Windows 8 is that results are visible only one category at a time, instead of showing the first three choices from each category, as is the case with Vista and Windows 7. In Windows 8, categories are listed beneath the search box. Just use the arrow keys or mouse to navigate between categories to reveal relevant results.
Triggering a search from within a Metro app by pressing Win-Q will automatically have the current app used as the context for the search. (Click for larger version.)
You can always go with the likes of PortableApps to access popular apps from a menu on the legacy desktop. PortableApps offers a curated collection of free and open source apps that run in a self-contained way, without touching the Registry or other system settings. It might prove a useful way to organize and update many apps you might already work with, such as Skype, Chrome, Firefox, and so on.
Use the PortableApps system to launch and organize many common open source and freeware applications, without accessing the Metro Start screen.
Navigating Windows 8 without touch
If your system lacks touch input, true for the majority of PCs, you will need to use your mouse to emulate Windows 8 touch commands. Problem is, the mouse isn't really a one-for-one substitute for touch: Flicking, for example, is impossible to execute with a mouse.
Mouse movements are also used to expose functionality like the application switcher or the charms bar, by flicking the cursor into a corner of the screen - a task made all the more difficult by having multiple monitors (see below) because you can overshoot the edges too easily.
If you hate fishing around for features using the mouse, Windows 8 offers a slew of new keyboard shortcuts that give direct access to Windows 8 features and settings, such as charms, search, and app options:
- Win-C: Open charms bar
- Win-Q: Open Search charm
- Win-H: Open Share charm
- Win-K: Open Devices charm
- Win-I: Open Settings charm
- Win-W: Search Windows settings
- Win-F: Search files
- Win-Z: Open Metro app options
- Win-Tab: Cycle to next open app
- Win-.: Snap Metro app to left
- Win-Shift-.: Snap Metro app to the right
- Win-PgUp and Win-PgDn: Move Metro desktop between displays
- Alt-F4: Close Metro app (exactly like a real desktop app)
- Win-D: Open the Windows Desktop (if you're already at the desktop, this toggles between minimizing and restoring all windows on the desktop)
- Win-B: Switch back to to the Windows Desktop
- Win-X: Open fast-access menu with links to common system tools, such as the power options, Mobility Center, and Command Prompt (regular and admin-level)
Be warned that utility software with hooks into Win-key combinations will likely override these shortcuts or make them behave strangely.
Press Win-C (for "charms") to open the charms bar no matter what system context you're in. The resulting menu can be browsed by using the arrow keys and Enter. (Click for larger version.)
Knowing when to go Metro
Metro's interface isn't its only thing facet. The way apps work under Metro is also significant -- so much so that Microsoft engineered an app-development platform and design language around it, WinRT (not to be confused with the Windows RT version of Windows 8 for ARM tablets that prvides the Metro environment and just special versions of the Windows Desktop's Office 2013 and Internet Explorer 10).
The Metro model works best for apps geared toward information consumption -- what some have called "lean-back mode" -- or where interaction is reduced to a few simple gestures. A Metro video playback app is going to be more useful than, say, a Metro-based text editor. On the other hand, a Metro Twitter client might be a good compromise; you'd still need to type, but not as much.
Most of the apps designed for Metro are content consumption apps or apps designed for simple interactivity, such as games. (Click for larger version.)
As a result, you're best off not trying to replace existing desktop apps with Metro apps, except for desktop apps primarily designed for consumption. Don't expect every single app, or every single kind of app, to turn up in a Metro incarnation -- at least not at first, and not until Windows users are comfortable enough with Metro to attempt working with more sophisticated apps.
One example of a good replacement app would be the Metro Kindle app. It's slightly easier to deal with via a touchscreen device than the legacy/desktop Kindle app, and its power consumption optimization will stand you in better stead if you're taking your Windows 8 machine with you.
A good example of a Metro app that works as a suitable replacement for a desktop app: Amazon Kindle. (Click for larger version.)
Mitigating the misery of multiple monitors
Because it is aimed squarely at slates and notebooks, Windows 8 doesn't handle multiple monitors well.
The big obstacle is Metro, which runs on only one display at a time -- by default, the primary display. There's no way to have the Metro UI span more than one screen. That said, you can move Metro apps between displays, just by moving the Metro desktop itself. If you have Metro visible, press Win-PgUp or Win-PgDn to move it between displays. You can accomplish the same effect by clicking near the top of the Metro desktop when an app is open (you'll see the cursor turn into a hand) and dragging the app between screens.
The black margin at the bottom of the left-hand desktop is due to the difference in the size of the two displays (a notebook with an external monitor plugged in). (Click for larger version.)
The way the taskbar behaves in Windows 8 is also important. If you have the legacy desktop duplicated across both screens, the icons in the taskbar are duplicated across both screens. This can be a bit confusing at first: For example, if you go to screen 2 and click on an icon for a minimized app that was on screen 1, it restores itself on screen 1, not 2. On the plus side, wallpapers can now span multiple monitors, so now you have an excuse to dig out that panoramic picture of Times Square you snapped last year. (Select the Span option for Picture Position when you select a wallpaper.)
A dual-display Windows 8 system with wallpaper that spans both desktops, which is now possible natively in Windows 8. (Click for larger version.)
Charms work on all monitors as well, but be careful of the way the edges of monitors that have been set to appear side by side flow into each other. With a single monitor, you can flick the mouse all the way to the right edge of the screen, have it stop there, and have the charms bar appear automatically. If the right edge of that screen leads into the left edge of another monitor, you'll need to slow down and feel around a bit for the charms bar to appear.
The sensitivity of the bar's appearance has been tweaked since the early Windows 8 alpha releases, so it requires a lot less fidgeting to invoke. But as noted above, using keyboard shortcuts like Win-C spares you a lot of pain.
Managing windows in Metro mode
Metro is only meant to run one app at a time, which stands in stark contrast to most users' typical way of working on Windows, with multiple windows open side by side or on top of each other. To ameliorate this shortcoming, you can "snap" a Metro app to run in the margins of the screen, while another Metro app -- or the legacy desktop -- runs in the remaining space.
The Metro Weather app, snapped to the right side of the display and running side by side with the legacy desktop. The draggable bar lets you reposition the snap to the other side of the screen or close it entirely. (Click for larger version.)
The desktop can also be snapped into a sidebar with Metro apps. (Click for larger version.)
Snapping apps isn't a cure-all for the one-app-at-a-time restriction. For one, snapping only works if your display resolution is higher than 1,366 by 768; it simply doesn't work with anything smaller. Also, not all apps run properly when snapped into a narrow amount of screen space. For instance, when snapped, the Metro app store only shows the store icon against a green background, not the store itself.
Not all apps show up properly when snapped. The Windows 8 Store, for example, doesn't display anything when snapped. (Click for larger version.)
What the new-look Aero gives back
Much has been made about how the visual effects of Aero have been scaled way back in Windows 8, both for the sake of aesthetics and power consumption on portable devices. The Aero subsystem, which was introduced with Windows Vista, hasn't been completely removed; the underlying window-compositing functionality remains. But some of the fancier effects, like the rounded corners of windows and the blurred glass effects, are dialed down or absent completely. The Release Preview of Windows 8 offered an Enable Transparency option in the Personalization control panel's Window Color and Appearance pane, but it appears to have been removed in the final RTM code.
Removing the Aero Glass effects from Windows 8 saves energy and rendering power. The Enable Transparency option, which appeared in test builds of Windows 8 and allowed these effects to be restored, has since been removed.
Turning off transparency confers a few advantages. One, it consumes that much less battery power, which will be important to the tablet-and-notebook crowd that make up the majority of Windows 8's target user base. Two, it offers that much more visual consistency between the classic desktop and the Metro environment. Three, it means fewer UI elements to keep track of and render properly. To that end, if you're big on power consumption and overall responsiveness, turning off those effects makes for a net gain.
It's not inconceivable that a third-party company could add back in the missing style effects, via an app like WindowBlinds, but the dialed-down look and feel might work more in your favor than you think.
Browsing the Web on Windows 8
Windows 8 ships with Internet Explorer 10, albeit in two editions: a conventional desktop version and a Metro-only version. The differences are more than cosmetic: They're incarnations of Microsoft's philosophy of how Web browsers should behave in Windows from now on.
When the first test releases of Windows 8 became public, people winced at how the Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 (the default version of IE bundled with Win8) didn't support Flash, due to tightened rules about how IE in Metro supported third-party add-ons. The short version: It wouldn't. If you wanted to use a browser plug-in with IE, you had to use the desktop version of IE.
The prerelease versions of Windows 8 backtracked slightly on that stricture, by using a workaround that should be familiar to users of Google Chrome. Flash's functionality is baked directly into Metro IE, rather than included as an add-on. To that end, Windows 7 users who do any work with IE can stick with the desktop version for the full gamut of functionality, but they can also load a page in the Metro version without worrying about losing the functionality of the most commonly used third-party browser component (save perhaps for Java).
Internet Explorer 10 for Metro gets around its own no-third-party-plug-ins restriction by baking Flash functionality directly into the program.
Things get a little sticky if you want to use a browser other than IE in Metro, however. Microsoft has restrictions about Metro apps that perform Web browsing. By default, those apps are encouraged to use the IE engine, for the sake of keeping the performance and security of those apps consistent with other Metro apps. That said, an app that is primarily a legacy-desktop app can implement a Metro "facet" for that app, as long as the app in question is installed as the system default browser.
Google Chrome already supports this behavior, although right now the Metro edition of Chrome is little more than the desktop version running full-screen. Expect future editions of Chrome to have closer Metro integration -- for example, with charms. Firefox users, however, will have to wait a bit, as Mozilla is planning a full Metro-themed UX overhaul for its browser. Opera is rumored to be doing something similar.
Chrome's "Metro edition" is actually Chrome itself running in a full-screen incarnation.
Task Manager: Stripped down, with an eye on metred data
Don't panic if you fire up Task Manager and see what looks like a nearly empty window. By default the program just lists what apps (desktop and Metro) are open and running, and lets you perform the most basic operations on them: switch between them, kill them, bring them to the fore, and so on. Click More Details at the bottom of the window if you want to see the more full-blown version of Task Manager we all know.
The default incarnation of Task Manager is a bit more stripped down than what you might expect, but right-clicking exposes functionality for each listed item.
Another change, but for the more potentially useful, is that the App History tab in the expanded view of Task Manager lists Network and Metered network columns. If your Windows 8 device has both conventional broadband and cellular connectivity, those two columns let you see at a glance which types of network media are being consumed. This comes in handy if you have a Windows 8 device with a data plan and want to keep an eye on it.
Clicking More Details exposes the full-blown version of Task Manager, for those who need it.