Windows 8: First Impressions

Where has my Start menu gone?

Firstly, let me just say that the biggest and most fundamental change in Windows 8 is the removal of the Start Menu as we know it.  This is also one of its most defining features.  Why?  Because the Start Menu was introduced back in the mid-nineties for the launch of the game-changing Windows 95 and it is now old-fashioned and the way it groups and organises our programs is also old.

Microsoft have ditched the old way once and for all, removing ability to even resurrect it by preference in the deepest most dark corners of control panel – no, the old Start Menu has officially gone forever.  Fear not though.  Once the initial shock of the loss is over, you will come to appreciate how easy and intuitive the Start screen makes using your Windows PC.

A quick press on your start key (or a click of your Windows button on your tablet) introduces a full screen, colourful Start screen bejewelled with modern and contemporary Start tiles.  Deja-vu anyone?  Yes, this idea was first introduced for Windows Phone 7 and it is hard to believe it works on a desktop computer, but it somehow does.  You have the ability to “pin” programs, bookmarks, people, and shortcuts – pretty much anything you can think of there.  Many tiles are also dynamic and refresh their content.  For example, the Mail live tile will show you the latest unread message and who it’s from and the Photos live tile will scroll through the latest uploads from your social networks.
Where the Start screen really comes into its own is on a machine equipped with a multi-touch display.  Hello pinch-to-zoom, swipe to see application options and slide to reorganise your Start screen.  These gestures make using your Windows PC fun and intuitive.  It also makes it feel very now.

But what’s under the hood?

The fundamental architecture of Windows 8 is based on the same structure as Windows 7.  Microsoft have optimised this for performance on lower-powered devices though and now makes the best use of your computers GPU – offloading many common tasks needed for running Windows to the GPU.  All this helps to ensure a speedy and pleasant experience for the user.

Due to the nature of this evolution of Windows 7, many if not all of your existing drivers and software will be available for use with Windows 8.  This should ensure the transition is a smooth one.

Dig a little deeper and you will find many familiar screens and options as you navigate through the interface, yes it’s clear that this OS has been built on Windows 7, but it does feel different enough to have its own personality.
Menu bars and ribbons feature on most Windows Explorer windows, bringing touch friendly functions that adjust dynamically depending on what you are viewing.  In Computer viewing documents?  The ribbon now shows common file organisation tasks.  It is touches like these that make using your computer easier and just more efficient.

A game of two halves

Another interesting feature to note in Windows 8 is that there are now two “environments” in which to run applications.  The traditional desktop and the “Metro” or “Modern UI” interface.  The latter of which is accessible only from the Start screen.

These Modern UI apps are only available from the Windows Store and have been designed to run full screen and provide a new experience to Windows users.  These are very similar to other apps that can be run on many other popular tablet PC platforms.

These new style apps are very thin on the ground, however Windows 8 hasn’t even officially launched yet.  It will take a big push to get popular applications on the store and I am hopeful that this does happen because I think it will give Windows 8 a fighting chance to compete – and it does deserve it, this is the most radical change to Windows in many years and it really brings it bang up to date with other offerings.

RT or Pro- what’s the difference?

Windows 8 will come in two (very different) flavours.  Windows RT is a slimmed-down version of Windows designed to run on very low power and portable ARM devices such as Tablet PCs.  These devices will be the entry-point for affordable and portable computing.  RT will not offer support for traditional Windows desktop applications, running only the new Modern apps from the Windows Store.  RT will only be available preloaded on devices.  Windows 8 Pro is the full Windows experience running on traditional x86 and x64 processors.  Offering the best and most complete experience for users, Pro allows you to run both Modern UI and traditional Windows desktop applications.
For many users, RT will suffice if you simply want to surf the internet, read your mail and keep up with social networks.  Also, RT is going to ship with a touch-optimised version of the hotly anticipated Office 2013, at no extra cost.  Those who are willing to spend a little more and who don’t want to compromise on experience are best to hold out for Pro.

Final Thoughts

I have been running Windows 8 on my own laptop and tablet for a while now and after using it daily, I am enjoying the simplicity of use and organisation that the new Start screen brings, I love how it updates my tiles automatically with content that I want to see and I don’t feel overloaded with program options and menus.  It just shows me what I need, when I need it.  It’s a simple change but it is one that makes the biggest difference.

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