Windows 8: what you'll need to relearn
23rd Jan 2014 | 16:10
How will you cope with the move to Windows 8 or 8.1?
There's plenty to like about Windows 8. It boots quickly; synchronises your data to the cloud; mounts ISO files for easy image browsing; provides thousands of free Windows 8 apps in the Windows store and has some excellent system repair options. The list goes on…
What really matters this time, though, isn't just what Microsoft have added to the Windows mix: it's what they've changed, or taken away.
And that's because this is no gently incremental upgrade. Rather, Windows has undergone a major redesign which sees the Start menu scrapped, the desktop demoted, and years of interface conventions thrown away.
Can you learn to live in a Windows 8 world, then? That all depends on how you feel about what Microsoft has done. Let's take a closer look.
The Start Screen
Log on to Windows 8 for the first time and you'll notice that the Start menu has been replaced by the colourful Start Screen. This looks great, but it works very differently, and you'll soon notice some issues.
The Start menu provided easy access to every aspect of your system, such as search, Windows tools, settings, installed programs, recent documents and more. There simply isn't room to display all of this on the Start Screen, though, and so many functions have now been scattered around the system, making them much harder to find.
After launching Windows 8, for instance, you might want to customise it − but there's no Control Panel tile. The Start Screen does provide some shortcuts, but they're so well hidden that many users will probably only find them by accident (press Win+X, say, or move your mouse cursor to the top-left corner of the screen to launch the Charms bar, and click Settings). And even then they may be disappointed, as plenty of key settings now have to be accessed elsewhere.
Move to installing applications and you'll find that's easy enough, as your programs extend the Start Screen with tiles of their own. What you won't find is a Documents menu, though, or a clear way of pinning files to the Start Screen (third-party tools like Pin to 8 can help with the latter).
And it's not even obvious how to perform a simple task like shutting down or restarting your system. In Windows 7 clicking the Start button was enough to point you in the right direction. In Windows 8 you might move your mouse cursor over to the top-left corner of the screen, hit the Settings option (not the most obvious location), and click Power before choosing the option you need.
It's not all bad news, though. The Start Screen does include a simple menu which provides easy access to some system tools: Control Panel, Task Manager, the Command Prompt, shutdown options and more. Press Win+X, or move your mouse cursor into the bottom left corner of the screen and right-click to see it.
Better still, if you just start typing at the Start Screen then you'll launch the Windows 8 search tool. Type "Note", say, to see a link for Notepad, or type part of a recent document name to list that file. And if you ever find yourself unable to figure out how to perform some task, just type a relevant term − "shut down", say − and click Settings for more helpful links.
If this still isn't enough, though, Windows 8.1 can boot directly to the desktop, rather than the Start Screen (right-click the taskbar, check "...go to the desktop instead of Start"). You'll still need to access the new interface occasionally, but these tweaks should reduce your initial frustrations, and if you still run into problems then the Search tool will quickly point you in the right direction.
One notable problem with Windows 8 is that it tries to bring together two largely separate worlds: one for the programs you're running now, and another for its Start Screen apps. And this can complicate the way you work. Let's take task management as an example.
If you want to launch a regular Windows program, for instance, then clicking the Start Screen "Desktop" tile will launch something which looks much like the Windows 7 desktop (less like the Start menu, anyway). Run programs here, matching buttons will appear on the taskbar and you'll be able to switch between them with a click, as you can now. But there's no obvious way to launch Screen apps, and no taskbar buttons for any apps which might be running already. It's as though they don't exist.
Press the Windows key to switch back to the Start screen and everything changes. You can launch multiple apps, but there's no taskbar to switch between them, so instead you must move your mouse cursor to the top left corner of the screen to see the previously used app, then drag down to see all the others. And while this will show you the desktop as one of the apps, you won't be able to switch directly to a specific program which you've launched from there.
Again, there is a sort-of solution here: just use Alt+Tab. This displays all your programs on a single screen, whether desktop or Start Screen-based, and allows you to switch to the one you need. But this may not necessarily be straightforward − switching from one running program to the next might take a while, especially if you've lots of apps running in the background − and the underlying problems still remain. The taskbar isn't as reliable a way to show running programs in Windows 8. Users have to learn a whole new Start Screen task management technique which is similarly incomplete, and so even simple task switching can require a little more thought and effort than it did before.
That's just the start, though. The real problem with Modern UI apps comes when you want to run them alongside something else, because by default they run full-screen. Windows 8 allows you to run two alongside each other, if your screen resolution is high enough (move the mouse to the top of the screen, click, drag and drop the thumbnail to the left to move one app to a sidebar, then run another). Windows 8.1 increases this to three and allows you to adjust their window widths, but that's your limit. While the desktop allowed you to run multiple applications next to each other, in windows precisely sized and positioned to suit your needs, that simply can't be done in the Modern UI world.
Another Windows 8 irritation comes in the way it sometimes splits functionality between similar Modern UI and desktop tools. There's an Internet Explorer app on the Start Screen, for instance, but it doesn't have all the functionality of the desktop version. And there's no direct way to switch from one to the other.
Or maybe you'd like to customise some aspect of your PC? You might launch "Network" in the Start Screen's PC settings, or maybe "Ease of Access". But these tools have very few options when compared to the regular Control Panel applets. Again, the Search tool can help locate any particular setting, but of course you only need to use that so often because Windows 8 has added these extra complexities in the first place.
Install applications and you'll discover other issues. In the past, if programs added ten items to the Start Menu, say, it wouldn't matter as they were neatly hidden in a Start menu folder. Now, though, many are automatically pinned to the Start Screen as separate tiles, so you're likely to spend rather more time manually removing any you don't need (right-click, select Unpin).
And even figuring out how to close Modern UI programs can pose a challenge. There's no "x" top-right, no "File > Exit" option, no visual clues as to how this might be done − although the answer turns out to be reasonably simple.
To shut down apps with your mouse, first move your mouse cursor to the top of the screen until it changes to a hand icon, then click, hold, and drag it to the bottom of the screen. With Windows 8 you can release the left mouse button right away, but with 8.1 you have to wait until the app flips over. None of this is exactly obvious, of course, so the best approach might just be to press Alt+F4, which always closes the active program, whether you're on the desktop or the Start Screen.
This, and many of the other Windows 8 problems we've raised, are mostly just a matter of familiarity. They may be confusing at first, and perhaps take an extra click or two, but once you've learned the basics then life will mostly return to normal.
But other concerns still remain, in particular with the Start Screen, which just doesn't feel like it belongs on a desktop. If someone has a 27-inch monitor, will they be happy that they're restricted to displaying a maximum of three apps at the same time? Are they really going to look at the messy Apps View (which ditches the Start Menu's customisable folders and fills the screen with icons you don't really need), and think, "this is a step forward"?
It's important to keep this in perspective, of course. Whatever its interface issues, Windows 8 delivers a stack of worthwhile improvements to performance, security and reliability, more than enough to justify an upgrade. And bringing back the Start Menu with a tool like Classic Shell might simplify the migration process. Be ready for some frustrations, though: there are many significant changes, and it'll probably take quite some time before you have the system configured to suit your needs.
- Unsure whether to upgrade? Read our full Windows 8.1 review