Paul's take on Windows 8


The official release of Windows 8 is fast approaching, and for a few months now I've been using a release preview version of Windows 8. Windows 8 represents a significant evolutionary milestone in Windows development, principally to expand support to tablet devices and to provide a more unified user experience across all of Microsoft's offerings: PC, tablet, and smart phone. To get a proper feel for Windows 8, I've been using it on a traditional desktop PC as well as a tablet – the Samsung 700T.

The new tablet features in Windows 8 are particularly bold and innovative. A few minor issues aside, I'm impressed with its clever integration of a bimodal interface to simultaneously support both desktop and tablet use in the same operating system. I found the gesture navigation on the tablet to be quite satisfying and responsive. And in general, I find Windows 8 to be snappier and more responsive than Windows 7.

I did encounter some puzzling aspects of Windows 8. The bimodal user experience can introduce confusion, especially when two versions of the same application – such as Internet Explorer – can be opened and run simultaneously. Files can also be opened in either of the two available modes. For example, after opening a PDF attachment in Outlook from the desktop, Windows opens the file in Microsoft Reader, an application more suited for use on a tablet, rather than the desktop Acrobat Reader. A manual switch is then required to return to desktop mode. Thankfully, you can alleviate these switching problems by changing file and program associations in Windows, as I will explain later.

In summary, I'm excited about Windows 8 and am confident that existing Windows users will feel the same after they have had a chance to use it. Below are a few additional thoughts on the new operating system. I used green text to indicate tips from my own experience that you might find particularly useful.

Introducing the Windows 8 UI

You will immediately notice that a number of essential aspects of the Windows user experience have changed for Windows 8. And while these changes may prove confusing initially, after a short period of discovery most of these changes should quickly become familiar.

Bimodal user experience: Tablet and Desktop
Of particular significance, you should keep in mind that Windows 8 provides a bimodal user experience. That is, the operating system simultaneously supports distinct views best suited for both a tablet and a traditional desktop. Each view can be thought of as a framework in which applications are run.

Tablet
Those applications intended for use from a tablet are characterized as being of the Windows 8 style (previously referred to as the Metro UI). Windows 8 style apps typically occupy the full screen, are bereft of traditional menus, and provide a more limited collection of commands than you would expect from a full desktop application. And while Windows 8 style apps can certainly also be run from a desktop environment, users will most often notice their greatest benefit when using them on a tablet.

The screenshot below shows the Internet Explorer app intended primarily for use on a tablet.


Figure 1: The Windows 8 style Internet Explorer app.

Desktop
Traditional desktop applications – with familiar menus and commands – can also be run in Windows 8 from an available Desktop view. Visually, with a few additions and subtractions, this Desktop view largely resembles the traditional desktop from recent versions of Windows.

The Internet Explorer application window shown below is open in Desktop view in Windows 8.


Figure 2: Windows 8 Desktop view showing Internet Explorer.

Ramifications
One thing you should be aware of is that certain applications – Internet Explorer, for example – are available in both tablet view and the traditional desktop view. These are different applications that share the same name and can be used for the same purpose.

When the PC or tablet initially starts up, you will see the Start screen, which is a view suited nicely for use from a tablet. Strangely, there is no way to set the desktop as your default view (there should be). The quickest way to get into Desktop view is to click on the Desktop tile on the Start screen, which is a bit of an unnecessary step for those who prefer the desktop. The goal must have been to encourage people to acclimatize to Windows 8 style immediately. Third party workarounds will no doubt appear soon to bypass this step.

Goodbye Start menu; hello Start screen
This is one of the single biggest changes in Windows 8: the lack of the familiar Start menu. Instead, Windows 8 features a Start screen as a more engaging and useful entry point to Windows. You can always return to the Start screen by pressing the WINDOWS key (or the WINDOWS button on a tablet).

The Start screen displays a scrollable collection of tiles. Each tile represents an app (Mail, Internet Explorer, and Calendar, for example) or feature. Many are live tiles; that is, tiles that display notifications related to that app or feature. For example, the tile for Calendar displays upcoming appointments while the Mail tile displays subject lines for incoming email.

Apps you run from the Start screen generally are of the Windows 8 style suited for use on a tablet. Users who prefer a more traditional desktop environment can always click the Desktop tile to switch to a view more familiar to Windows users. You can also pin a desktop application to the Start screen, which will run the application in Desktop view.

As I'll describe later, common capabilities previously available from the old Start menu have been moved elsewhere in Windows 8. For those Windows users who can't live without the Start menu, 3rd party applications are available for Windows 8 that simulate the old Start menu experience. A notable example is ViStart 8, available freely at http://lee-soft.com.


Figure 3: The Windows 8 Start screen.

Finding and using Charms
A new control called the Charms bar is available throughout Windows 8. It offers access to important features – known as charms – such as Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings.

The availability of the Charms bar isn't obvious, as there are no visual cues as to how you display it. To invoke the Charms bar:
  • For tablet users, swipe inward from the right side of the screen.
  • From a desktop PC, move your pointer to a right hand corner – either top or bottom – until the Charms bar appears. You can also use the WINDOWS + C keyboard shortcut to display Charms.
Charms are applied to whatever application or view is currently displayed on the screen. For example, invoking the Charms bar while in Internet Explorer and then selecting Search allows you to perform a Web search. And when on the Start screen, the Search charm allows you to find applications and files anywhere on your PC. On a tablet, the soft keyboard will appear automatically when you select the Search charm. And with a physical keyboard, you can simply start typing from the Start screen to immediately search for files and applications on your PC.


Figure 4: The Windows 8 Charms bar.

Discovering commands in Windows 8 style apps
In addition to the Charms bar, many Windows 8 style applications – Maps and Internet Explorer, for example – offer commands that are most likely to be used given what you are currently doing in the application. However, there are no visual cues available to let the user know what features, if any, are available aside from obvious gesture-based scrolling and panning.

To display available commands, tablet users can swipe inward from either the top or bottom of the screen to expose available commands in a features bar. A desktop user would instead right-click in the application. Personally, I think it would have been nice to provide some sort of a visual cue indicating that commands are available, and how to invoke them.

For some applications, the features bar may occupy only the bottom of the screen, as shown for Maps below. Other applications, such as Internet Explorer, display an additional feature bar across the top of the screen.


Figure 5: Features bar in the Maps Windows 8 style application.

Locating the power commands
Now that the Start menu is gone, existing Windows users undoubtedly will wonder where to find the power commands: Sleep, Shut down, and Restart.

To find the power commands, display the Charms bar and then select Settings, which includes a Power button.

I found myself wishing that a Power tile was available on the Start screen to make these commands more accessible.


Figure 6: Windows 8 Power commands.

Closing a Windows 8 style app
To close a Windows 8 style app from a tablet, simply swipe down from the top of the app to the bottom of the screen. The same action performed with a mouse from a desktop PC, however, is not anywhere near as intuitive.

When using a mouse, to close an application the user needs to move the pointer to the top of the screen until it switches and becomes a hand. Then drag the app to the bottom of the screen.


Figure 7: Closing a Windows 8 style app when using a mouse.

Printing
From a Windows 8 style application – where the traditional menu system isn't available – the print commands may not seem to be available at first glance. Any printers associated with your tablet or PC can be found by displaying the Charms bar and selecting Devices. After you discover where to go to access your printers, you will happily find that it requires fewer taps or clicks to print from Windows 8 than from an iPad.

The example below shows the Devices charm, with available printers, when accessed from the Maps Windows 8 style app.


Figure 8: Printing from a Windows 8 style app.

Finding Help, familiarizing yourself with keyboard shortcuts
From a desktop PC, you may find that you prefer using keyboard shortcuts when interacting with Windows 8. You can find a complete list of keyboard shortcuts by searching the Windows 8 Help. To find Help, open the Charms bar (you can use the WINDOWS + C keyboard shortcut), select the Settings charm, and then select Help. You can also find a useful list of Windows 8 commands on CNET.

Note that the usual F1 key can also be used to view Help, but only from the Desktop view; F1 would not display Help from the Start screen.

Puzzling aspects of the Windows 8 UI

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed using Windows 8. However, there are a number of things introduced to Windows by the tablet aspect of the bimodal user experience that I found puzzling, especially for a traditional desktop user like myself

Difficulties with multiple monitors
I use desktop PCs with multiple monitors extensively and have noticed a few issues.
  • Unable to persistently display the Start screen
    I'd like to be able to leave the Start screen up on my primary monitor for use as a dashboard of sorts. But whenever I click a monitor that displays the desktop, the Start screen disappears. Perhaps this should be an option to allow the Start screen to persistently remain on one monitor.

  • Charms can be elusive
    For tablet users or desktop users with a laptop or single monitor setup, displaying the Charms bar is a snap. But with multiple monitors, however, on any monitor that is not the default monitor, it can be quite difficult to position your pointer in the right corner of the screen to display the Charms bar if another monitor is to the right. Instead, the mouse pointer drifts over into the adjacent monitor.
Silo effect between Desktop and Windows 8 style
For some applications – Internet Explorer, for example – the Windows 8 style and traditional Desktop instances of the same application can be run simultaneously. The Windows 8 application offers a more limited subset of features – typically in a fashion more appropriate for use from a tablet. But the same application run from Desktop view, by contrast, offers traditional menus that expose all available features of the application.

This makes perfect sense until you realize that Windows doesn't always share user-defined aspects of the application between these two versions. For example, bookmarks I create in Windows 8 style IE are not available in IE when run from Desktop view. One can hope this will be fixed in a future release.

Inadvertently switching modes
In Windows 8, users will be surprised when they are switched unexpectedly between the desktop and Windows 8 style applications. This is because Windows file associations allow you to associate a file type not just with an application, but also with the specific application running in either Windows 8 style or the traditional Desktop mode.

For example, if using Outlook running in Desktop mode, when I click a link from an email to a Web site, I clearly intend for Internet Explorer to open in Desktop mode as well. But Windows may instead associate URLs with the Windows 8 style version of Internet Explorer. If so, clicking that link would open the Web page without the full array of IE features. Further, this would also require that I then switch back to Desktop mode and resume what I was doing previously in Outlook.

You can see this phenomenon when running apps such as Weather or Maps from Desktop mode as well: after you shut these apps, you end up at the Start screen and need to manually switch back to Desktop mode. Note that you can alwasy use the WINDOWS key (or WINDOWS button on a tablet) to quickly switch between modes.

Personally, I would almost always prefer for Windows to leave me in whichever mode I was already in.

Inability to build hierarchies on the Start screen
As they are currently implemented, the tiles on the Start screen can only be arranged in a single flat scrollable 'layer'. So if I have hundreds of tiles, I may need to perform lots of scrolling to find the tile in question. To get around this, I would prefer to have the option to build hierarchies of related tiles, thereby making it easier to organize the Start screen to my liking and reduce the amount of scrolling required. This would also be especially useful from a tablet to prevent repetitious swipe-scrolling.

Both Apple's iOS and Google's Android already offer this functionality on their mobile devices in the form of folders.

Difficult to scroll in Desktop view on a tablet
On a tablet, I often find myself switching to Desktop view to use traditional applications such as Outlook. But in this view, the scroll bars are so small in comparison to the size of my finger that they are nearly impossible to use. As a workaround, it would be nice if the user could optionally enlarge scroll bars in Desktop view to better facilitate scrolling.

No clock on the Start screen
It seems odd that I can't, at a glance, view the current time from the Start screen in Windows 8. To view the time, I need to display the Charms bar.

On-screen keyboard doesn't appear automatically in Desktop view
On a tablet in Desktop view, the on-screen keyboard doesn't appear automatically when I tap a text box (the Google or Bing search box in Internet Explorer, for example). Instead, you need to manually invoke the keyboard from the notification area in the lower-right of the screen.

Preparing my desktop PCs

As I mentioned earlier, on my desktop PCs I prefer to start applications and play media using traditional Desktop applications rather than Windows 8 style apps. To make this happen, I modified the program associations used for common file types as well as for mail and calendar. I also modified the Internet Explorer options so that URLs would open in the desktop version of IE.

These changes helped me to prevent Windows 8 from unexpectedly switching between desktop and tablet views.

Modifying program associations
I changed mail, calendar, and file type settings by opening Default Programs, which is available at Control Panel > Programs > Default Programs, shown in the screenshot below.

To change my mail and calendar settings, I selected the Set your default programs option and associated Microsoft Outlook as the default program for each.

To change my file type settings, I selected the Associate a file type or protocol with a program option and did the following for common file types:
  • Video file formats: Windows Media Player
  • Music file formats: Windows Media Player
  • Photo file formats: Windows Photo Viewer
  • PDF file format: Adobe Reader


Figure 9: The Windows 8 Default Programs dialog.

Modifying Internet Explorer behavior
To ensure that URLs always open in Internet Explorer in Desktop view, I opened the Internet Options dialog in Internet Explorer and on the Programs tab specified that links should always open on the desktop.


Figure 10: Internet Explorer setting for opening links.

Conclusion

Windows 8 does certainly require a brief adjustment period before users become familiar and comfortable with the new bimodal operating system.

Desktop PC users, with only minor tweaks and adjustments, should be able to pick things up without much trouble. I am sure most the minor issues I pointed out will be addressed in the next release of the operating system. And it won't be long until third party developers become more familiar with Windows 8 and begin to create and distribute applications that help smooth out many of remaining rough edges. In fact, I noticed that a clock application has already been developed that places a live tile with the current time directly on the Start screen. I'm sure that we can expect many exciting apps soon that take advantage of these live Start screen tiles.

I'm particularly excited about the prospects for Windows 8 on a tablet. The tablet interface is elegant, responsive, and stacks up nicely with other tablets on the market. And with its capability to optionally switch to desktop view right on the tablet, Windows 8 extends to mobile users the flexibility to run traditional applications and become more efficient and productive while on the go.

Touch seems a natural progression in the evolution of operating systems, and I'm confident that Windows 8 offers the best of legacy Windows features with an eye toward a very promising future.

I hope this helps,

Paul