Since Windows 7 was released in 2009 the mobile technology industry has changed enormously and companies like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung have had to respond to that. Steered by consumer and business habits, smartphone technoloy has rocketed, followed by tablets when Apple led the way with their iPad a couple of years ago. Microsoft are due to release Windows 8 on 26th October to respond to the market changes and we bring you our take on the latest product to hit our market.The objectives of Windows 8 were to bring the most widely regarded operating system to a level where it is available for business and individual customers in a convenient, mobile and flexible manner whilst retaining its functionality and allowing it to be interoperable with tablets and other mobile devices. Whilst tablet computers have been available for a couple of years now, they have so far failed to make a huge impression on the business market through lack of ability to network them which leads to a loss of control, security and convenience.
Windows 8 has been designed to work on many types of device: PC’s, laptops, tablets and smart phones with the standard user interface lending itself nicely to both mouse and touch driven devices. The interface is very similar for all of these ensuring switching between devices is straight forward. Microsoft are also releasing a new version of Microsoft Office (Office 2013) and marketing their cloud service, SkyDrive at a similar time – making a huge leap forward in networked cloud environments.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Windows 8 is very colourful – bright colours everywhere which stimulate the imagination and look pleasing to the eye. There are a number of themes for you to choose from and all the inspiring background images scale beautifully to the size of your device’s screen. You will probably notice there is no ability to place your own picture on the desktop which is largely due to the fact they wouldn’t scale well with screen sizes and the option to ’tile’ images has disappeared. The login screen doesn’t bear much resemblance to its predecessor and when you get past it, there are several areas displaying relevent information to you – the local weather, recent documents and photos and any reminders you’ve set.
Depending on your device, you either swipe a certain direction or press a Windows key to show the Start screen which replaces the familiar start menu. The start screen makes the most of the entire display and is a tiled area made up of customizable sections of applications, documents and utilities. It’s possible you may rarely use the start menu depending how you use your interactive desktop features. The Start screen is also interactive in terms of zooming. By pinching the screen with fingers (or presumably a mouse operation for other devices) you can zoom in or out on the tiles to see more/less at once – it does this using the new semantic scroll technology, meaning it is a smooth experience.
A slightly disconcerting thought is how to access utilities on a non-touch screen device if a keyboard fails but there are other ways to access the start menu – by hovering the mouse button in the bottom left-hand corner you see a clickable thumbnail of the start screen. Right clicking will also bring up admin tools too such as the run dialog and task manager (…and breathe, support techicians)!
The entire operating system is very customizable via PC settings. It splits things into Lock screen, Start screen and Account picture with the predictable items being changeable – account pictures, themes, colours, screen layouts etc. It’s brought together into a very neat window, designed for easily switching between categories.
Another new feature is the ‘Charm Bar‘ – a strange name we think but essentially it slides into the screen on request and offers you links to a search bar, start button, devices and settings without having to go the long way around – a neat little feature in our opinion. Where relevent, the selections on the charm bar are contextual to the application currently in the foreground. This can catch people out, particularly the contextual search bar – be careful to ensure the search scope is as wide as you need it to be.
Windows 8 offers numerous screen switching preview tools and ways to get to documents and applications, from the desktop, much like Windows 7 but a lot more meaningful in our opinion – it will tile your open applications so you can click between them, whilst seeing them active in the preview windows. You can even snap windows to one side of the main window – really helpful when you are trying to use an instant messaging client whilst writing a document for example. Windows 7 had numerous ways to get to almost everything but Microsoft have learned that age-old saying ‘less is more‘ and have reorganized this to make it much more straightforward. You’ll be pleased to hear that the priceless Alt-tab command still works the way we all know and love!
One thing omitted from the Windows 8 build is the Aero Glass theme – this was a hit in Windows 7 for those who like to see what is happening in the windows behind the main one but for many, it proved unnecessary, distracting and consumed a lot of battery life for laptop users.
Windows 8 comes with a number of modern UI apps/utilities/essentials/widgets (there is no official name for them yet). These are a collection of useful apps such as Mail, the email client, a host of integrated social networking apps and useful tools such as photos, calendars and Skydrive. Once you’ve configured these, as part of setting up your new device, your desktop will be filled with helpful and user friendly information – your latest pictures, any up-coming tasks and recent documents. There are Maps and Sport, Finance and News apps too – much like you’d expect from a PDA. We won’t go into each of these here, but they use the latest technology and the Maps already beat’s Apple’s attempt through iOS6.
There is a ‘People’ hub too – this integrates all your social networking, contacts and communication tools into a handy little area for exploring – you can see notifications, preview screens and activity feeds from them all, and the bar can be maximized, minimized or pinned to an area on the screen – really handy for personal users, but will this prove distracting for businesses? We’ll expect a central way to manage these from the central servers!
We do love the new Mail and Photos apps – the Mail app isn’t far different from the Windows 7 version and is certainly no replacement for Outlook but it’s great for individuals – you can see crisp and informative calendar views as well as tasks, reminders and of course, email. Photos is slick – much like you’d expect from a Mac really. There are easy ways to arrange photos using drag and drop, and photos from all your stored accounts (Facebook, Flickr or Skydrive as examples) will also be readily available, without having to copy them between devices. This makes photo sharing really easy.
All the apps are excellent value and bring professional and stress-free working environment to the user. All the information is based on searches from reputable sources of course – Facebook, Twitter, Frommers, Bing, Google and Accuweather to name but a few.
As you would expect, there is an area akin to Apple’s App Store through Windows 8 too, so the world is your oyster (or very soon will be), whether you are a user or a developer!
There are numerous other changes which will be observed when you try Windows 8 for the first time – subtle name changes, layouts to utilites such as Device Manager and icon updates but we won’t detail these all here – they don’t change the useability too much of Windows 8. One thing that is excellent is the consistency in the ribbon style tool bars now, streamlining Microsoft’s tools into one interface.
There are things to learn about the differences in versions, licensing and useability with touch screens but we will detail these in a later article. However, take our word for it – Windows 8 works beautifully on a touch screen device as it has been specifically designed to do so (and arguably works better than on a laptop or desktop). The finger motions and swipe controls will undoubtedly take some time to adjust to but how long did it take the iPad users amongst us?
Overall, we think Windows 8 is a hugely positive response from Microsoft in this ever changing arena of technology. It’s a massive leap and one that will need to be implemented carefully and with the right amount of training. They have captured the market very well and listened to the feedback. We are really interested to see how it grows and how tablet technology can finally evolve in a business sense. After all, without a networked or centrally controlled tablet device, how is one really supposed to work it into the IT business strategy? Watch this space…
- Microsoft Sets 26 October As Windows 8 Release Date (misco.co.uk)
- Analyst on Windows 8: ‘I wouldn’t want Start menu back, even if I could have it’ (geekwire.com)
- Microsoft Betting BIG on Cloud with Windows 8 and Tablets (forbes.com)
- Microsoft reveals details on three Windows 8 versions (lenovo.com)
- Don’t Believe The FUD: Windows 8 Is Much Better Than You Think (techcrunch.com)
- Use Semantic Zoom In Windows 8 to See More On Your Screen (vikitech.com)