Getting to know Windows 8

Microsoft has unveiled its Windows 8 operating system - here´s a rundown of the main features to ease your passage into the brave new world

26 Oct 2012


The daily grind can get a bit boring. We eat the same foods, catch the same trains and use the same computer software.

Windows 8tiles

Sometimes we just need a change. If you're crying out to run naked through a field (steady on) or at least go for a latte rather than a cappuccino you're going to love Windows 8, the new Microsoft operating system leading us towards a brave new world of touchscreen tiles and charms.

They say you can't reinvent the wheel, but with Windows 8 Microsoft has had a really good go. Adopting a 'year zero' attitude, the software giant has completely redesigned its operating system to ensure it's fully strapped in as we journey head-first into the tablet age.

Rip it up and start again
Windows 8 is designed to bridge the gap between PCs and tablets, with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer saying it will "shatter the perceptions about what a PC really is". So what does this mean for us? Well, a totally new interface for one - with the familiar start menu from the bottom left of the screen a casualty of the overhaul and new touchscreen technology leading the way. Such major changes mean there'll be a bedding-in period as we find our way around. But if you want to avoid any embarrassment with the cool kids at work make sure you know your tiles from your charms by reading on. With the lowdown on the main curve balls coming your way, Windows 8 will soon go from a pair of rigid new shoes which leave red marks on your feet to comfy, worn-in trainers that you never want to take off - never.

Piles of tiles
So, down to business and the biggest change is the user interface. Load up Windows 8 and you'll see a start screen littered with pretty coloured tiles. These tiles represent your programmes, applications and collections of files. Some of these tiles contain information, dubbed live tiles by Microsoft. So, if your weather tile is live it'll tell you if it's raining; while your mail tile will let you know just how many emails you've failed to answer as you get to grips with the modern world of Win8. If you're wondering what happened to your trusty start menu, this is its replacement.

Before you start getting all misty-eyed for what went before, check-out the touchscreen capabilities. Place your finger on a tile and drag along the screen - magic, eh? As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, these tiles move like they're on rails - well, she was talking about cars cornering, but you see what we're getting at. If you want to open a programme or an app, just tap on a tile. You can also use your mouse and keyboard to operate the start screen if you're a stickler for tradition and retro heads struggling with sliding tiles can find their old desktop hidden one layer down by clicking on a tile named desktop - within one click you'll be back on more familiar ground.

Apps and programmes
The start screen tiles are where you'll find all your favourite programmes such as Word and Excel as well as your apps - and Windows 8 is all about the apps, baby. Some basic apps are built into the software, but there are hordes of others you can buy from the Windows Store. Many apps work in sync with one another to maximise what you can do with Windows 8. Basic apps include mail, photos, Skype and people. The people app is where your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn friends can be found, meaning a friendly chat - or some stinging banter - is never far away. Messages and notifications are blended into a single stream, so you may need to find a new excuse over missing your mate's birthday night out. Once you've downloaded an app it'll appear on your start screen - magic.

Lucky charms
Charms are another major feature getting us hot under the collar. These may bring to mind those novelty marshmallow-based cereals from back in the day, but their proper job is helping you turn off your machine, adjust settings and find documents. The Charms sidebar sits along the right hand side of the screen and can be accessed by clicking the lower right corner or by swiping from the right with your finger in true 'may the force be with you' fashion. Different charms do different things: the Search charm - funnily enough - searches your computer for everything from documents to tunes; the Settings charm allows you to put your PC to sleep or restart it; the Start charm brings you back to the Start page and as unbelievable as it sounds the Devices charm tells you what devices are connected.
These all sounds pretty straightforward, but things get truly connected with the Share charm, which provides access to your people app and lets you share content such as photos and links with friends and other contacts.

Sync me up Scotty
If you're a stickler for having things just so you'll love the sync capabilities of Windows 8, which allows you to synchronise your settings so you get your background, address book, internet settings, email and others regardless of whether you're on your own or your friend's Windows 8 machine.

How to get it?
So Windows 8 offers a taste of the future and you want a bite. You can get your hands on it by buying a PC, laptop or hybrid which runs it. The full version of Windows 8 runs on x86 devices, powered by Intel or AMD chips. You can also get Windows 8 by upgrading your current Windows PC or laptop - provided it meets Microsoft's requirements. You can find out all about this here. Another version of Windows 8 - called Windows RT - has also been designed for use on ARM-powered devices such as the Surface tablet. Windows RT only comes pre-installed and lacks some of the functions of the full version of Windows 8.

The rub
Ahead of the New York launch event, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer told The Seattle Times: "We are trying to re-imagine the world from the ground up with Windows 8." And this is a pretty fair approximation of what the company has done. Windows 8 is one giant leap into the future - easing us into a world where touchscreen tinkering is a major part of everyday computing. Yes, it may take us a while to get used to it but before long you'll be switching between tiles with the efficiency of a roofer on his last job of the day as you squish your feet around in the comfy trainers otherwise known as Windows 8.