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Windows 8 : Features, Review & More

In this post, we will discuss about the latest operating system from Microsoft, Windows 8 and my experience with it for the last two months. It is not yet released but consumer preview copies are available from Microsoft to download and experiment. The download size for the 64 bit version is around 3.6GB and is available at Microsoft website. I have installed it in two machines at home, one a Windows 7 upgrade in a desktop and another a clean installation in a Dell Latitude laptop.

Microsoft designed Windows 8 as single OS across all the hardware platforms, as a desktop OS, as a Tablet OS and a mobile OS. Initially you will find it very hard to see the improvements since most of the features are hidden, much improved task Manager, virtual drive running .iso files directly, integration with skydrive etc. Once you dig out all of those hidden features Windows 8 becomes interesting and you will understand it is a big improvement over Windows 7. These features will be discussed in successive parts of this article.

Introduction to Windows 8

Installation is very easy and needs hardly any input once you pop in the installation CD. You can choose either clean installation or upgrade your Windows.

The desktop interface looks and works much as it did in Windows 7, except that you won't find a Start button or Start menu, both of which are familiar to us since Windows 95 debuted about 17 years ago. And you no longer see the desktop when you start up Windows. Instead, you see the new Metro interface, which Microsoft developed originally for its Windows Phone 7 Smartphone operating system. When you boot into Windows 8 you will see a tile like interface which is composed of a series of application squares or "tiles" arrayed on a flat background. Soon you will realize that these app tiles are more than just static program icons; they can display snippets of updated information, such as your next appointment, the current temperature, and two lines of your unread messages. Music tiles shows which track you are currently playing and the social networking tiles the latest messages from your friends. You are going to appreciate this when early morning these pops up in a tablet but the same not be very attractive in a desktop.

In either case, one of the tiles brings you to the "desktop," which looks essentially identical to the traditional Windows 7 desktop, except that the Start menu isn't there anymore. Instead, you click on the lower-left hand corner and go to the Metro Start screen, or “Windows” key brings you to the same place. Metro is something which is designed for a touch screen and not exactly for a mouse and track pad. Unfortunately you will be reminded of this painful truth while navigating between applications. With start menu missing you will wonder how to start any programs. So let us solve this mystery of start.


Need to get back to the Start screen or toggle between the Start screen and an app? Simply use the new Start experience, which replaces the old fashioned Start button and now works in both the desktop and Metro environments. Here's how:

Keyboard: Tap the Windows Key (WINKEY) on your keyboard, or CTRL + ESC.

Mouse: Mouse into the lower left corner of the screen to display the Start tip, and then click it.

Touch: Activate the Charms by swiping in from the right side of the screen and then tap the Start charm.

Windows UI has lot of hidden elements which will pop up different option menus when you move around the corners of the screen.


Charms Bar

Windows 8 Desktop view and Metro Start Screen let you open Charms bar – a right-side bar menu that gives system-wide access to Search, Sharing, System Settings and Basic Actions. To access the Charms bar
  1. Just move your mouse pointer to bottom- or top-right corner of the screen
  2. Use Windows + C hotkey combination to access the charms bar.
From my experience I always felt the second option is quicker and sometimes the first option gives you a Charms Bar which plays hide and seek which gets you frustrated.

It also shows the current time, day, date, and Internet status and battery level at bottom-right side of the screen.
Charms menu in the right side of the screen

How to shutdown the system?

In the absence of Windows style start menu you need to relearn how to shutdown a Windows machine! You will get Windows 8 Settings pane which can be selected from the Charms bar which contains power button options (marked in red circle), such as, Shutdown, Restart, Sleep etc. It also contains many shortcuts of system-related settings including, Network, Volume, Notifications, Power, and system notification toggle.

How to run a program?

You can run the program in Windows 7 style desktop if you wish. Click on the desktop tile in the start screen and you will get your old Windows 7 style desktop with all the short cuts as before. Now you are ready to launch any program.

You can run a program in Windows 8 native style by just clicking the corresponding tiles.

Windows 8 Start Search

You can search for may program by typing the first one or two letters in the startup screen and it brings up an interesting menu which list the programs installed in the machine as shown below. You can click on any of that program to launch it.

Unlike Windows 7 search, which shows results in Windows Explorer when Enter key is pressed, Windows 8 Search extends the Search pane to whole screen area, allowing you to view filtered search items from pre-defined, as well as, custom search categories. Apart from opening files/folders, and launching applications, you can right-click the application to run the application as administrator, open new window, open file location, and Pin to Taskbar and Start Screen.

How to switch between programs? Switcher

Switcher is a new task management UI that helps you switch between the currently running Metro-style apps and desktop applications. You invoke Switcher as follows:

Keyboard: WINKEY + TAB (or WINKEY + SHIFT + TAB)

Mouse: Move the mouse cursor into the top left corner of the screen. When the thumbnail of the previous app appears, move down the left edge of the screen.

Touch: Swipe in from the left side of the screen, and when the first app thumbnail appears, swipe back toward the left

Windows 7 vs Windows 8 : Comparison

Now, I will continue my discussion by seeing some of the features which are very different from Windows 7 and is hidden from a causal user.

1. Task Manager

The following figures give you an idea of the extent to which Microsoft revamped Task Manager in Windows 8. You may be familiar with the first two screens in Windows 7 but the details on the subsequent screens are entirely different.

When you tap the different tabs it comes to life -Processes, Performance, App history, Startup, Users, Details, and Services—which gives a hint on its amazing capabilities. As before you can open Task manager for killing an errant application hogging your CPU time.

If you have more than one processor your CPU slice will look like as shown below.


2. Windows 8 can read ISO files and mount VHDs - Virtual Hard Drives

These are not ground breaking features and we had it for older Windows with third party plug in. But now it is a built in feature of Windows 8. ISO images are images of CD or DVD and using Windows 7 you could burn them into a CD. Windows 8 allows you to mount these ISO images as if they are a separate drive and allows you to browse through files. ISO images are mounted as optical drives and unmounting them is as simple as clicking the eject option in the ribbon menu. This is really handy in real World scenarios where you need not search for your CD or DVDs; you can point to the stored image in your HDD and play. This feature enables you to copy the ISO image of CD to a Tablet using USB/ wireless and touch it to open.

Another feature of Windows 8 is the ability to mount Virtual hard disk (VHD). VHD files are similar to ISOs, except that they store the contents of an entire hard drive. Virtual machines created using programs like Virtual PC, VMware, and VirtualBox use (or can use) VHD files to store an entire bootable OS without the need of a physical disk. Working with VHD files in Windows 8 is a lot like working with ISOs - they're assigned a drive letter and then treated as a physical hard drive by the OS, allowing for viewing, adding, or modifying of files. Backup programs create VHD like files and using Windows 8 it is now easy to read it.

3. Windows Store

Similar App store in Mac OS X Lion Microsoft has launched Windows 8 store supported by the OS. You can download apps from Windows 8 store and install it. There are a few differences though. In Apple App store, there is no trial period of any apps, instead you need to download the lite version for free and play with it to decide on spending for the full version. Microsoft store allows you to download the trail versions with full features for a limited period to enable you to decide on the purchase. This is good for the developers since they do not have to create another feature stripped “lite” version like in iOS store.

Apple App store purchases are tied to an Apple User ID and it can be installed in multiple devices, same the case with MS store purchase. The license is tied to the user not to the PC so you can install it in multiple Windows devices.

Revenue Sharing: In Apple store 30% of the revenue is retained by Apple for the life time of the apps and 70% is given to the developers. Microsoft is little more lenient it cut 30% for first $25000 worth of purchase or subscriptions and after that it will be reduced to 20% cut. The sale price is determined by the developers not Microsoft. Microsoft not alone permits in-application purchases but encourages such transactions.

4. SKY Drive Integration

For years many years Microsoft offered SKY drive for free up to 25GB but it was not really very popular like DropBox. Now it is tightly integrated with Windows 8, you can save to Sky drive as if you are saving to any other local drive from any applications. But MS decided to give only 7GB free for the new users and you need to pay ($50 for 100GB) for more space. Existing users of Sky Drive will enjoy the 25GB for some more time, how long it is not sure.

5. Windows 8 Lock screen

Windows 8 Lock Screen is not static like earlier Windows lock screens; it gives out lot of information and is optimized for both tablets and PC users. The new Lock Screen includes two main components; the lock screen image with dynamic battery and network icons & application status message badges and login screen to enter password in order to login to Windows 8. Another noteworthy aspect of Windows Lock Screen is that it allows applications to show notification related to their different tasks and functions. The notification feature is highly configurable; you can either all supported applications to send notifications to Lock Screen or manually choose applications from App list.

You can customize the lock screen using control panel, the picture as well as the apps (up to 6) which generates the notifications. If you have a touch screen, you can select a picture for password and along with defined gestures.

6. Revamped File copying

Microsoft revamped the Copy Dialog box in Windows 8. Now you get useful visualizations of the progress and speed of your file copy. You can also pause / resume individual copies if you're doing many in parallel. Another interesting thing to note is that the file copies now properly resume if you put your system to sleep and wake it up later. If you are trying to copy /over write to an existing file you are presented with preview of the files for easier decision.

7. Built-in Antivirus

Microsoft has bundled an Antivirus along with the operating system called Microsoft Security Essentials.

8. Cross device Synchronization

Like Apple iOS devices MS offers synchronization across Windows devices, PC, tablet or phone.

9. Restore PCs/ Reset PC

When your PC running Windows 8 is becoming slower you may plan to make it faster by redoing the entire thing like what we used to do in Windows 7. Luckily Windows 8 comes with two options.

a. Restore PC
This leaves all the files, including metro style apps downloaded from the store, menu settings etc intact and clean the rest of the apps which clutter your PC. You have option to decide which one you need to reinstall. You do not have to start from scratch like in Windows 7.

b. Reset PC
This option is used if you want to sell your PC or start from a clean PC again. It wipes out the entire content and re install the OS alone.

10. Split Screen Applications

Split screen Apps is the way Microsoft implemented multi tasking across platforms in Widows 8. The main application will occupy the two third of the screen and the 2nd application will occupy one third of the screen.

There are many more features like USB 3.0 support, instant search, faster boot and shutdown timings… which may be discussed in later article. By end of 2012 we should know whether Microsoft approach of one size fits all really worked. As of now Metro style looks more suitable for touch control device (table or phone). Let us see how people will react to porting this to Desktop.