Phone, laptop and tablet launches have become so common these days that you don’t really wait for one with your fingers crossed, unless it’s something really, really big. And while there’s so much action on the personal devices front, companies are just about half as dynamic when it comes to improving or launching new operating systems. You can’t blame the masses then if they wait with bated breath every time there’s something new nearing the horizon. That’s what we had been doing when we got to know that we could try out the new Windows 8 OS. Getting our hands on the finished product before most others was quite a thrill. And so was the experience with Windows 8 itself.

Redoing the basics

The main screen on Windows 8 will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has been gazing upon the company shots for over a couple of months now. The desktop is a colourful melange of live tiles displaying real-time, updated information about your mails, weather, maps, finance or whichever app you choose to have on the desktop.

If you are someone who wants an uncluttered desktop, with not many apps vying for screen space, you can ‘Hide’ most of the apps. Those which you do not use regularly can be accessed with a right-click. This pushes up an ‘All Apps’ panel at the bottom of the screen which you can then click on to see all apps on your PC/tablet.

Microsoft has simplified all these and categorised it into batches. So under ‘Apps’ you’ll find Messaging, Music, Sports, SkyDrive and so on. What you find usually marked as Accessories are your traditional Calculator, Notepad, Paint etc, which is not exactly a departure from current Windows OSes. System tools are bunched separately and you can access the Control Panel, Task Manager, Windows Defender and a bunch of others under this option.

Mobile gestures

The unit we used to test Windows 8 on was not touch-enabled. However, Microsoft has taken care to provide physical alternates in case you are not running it on a touch-enabled device. For example, you can take the cursor to the right bottom of the screen and let it hover a small ‘-’ (underscore icon) to access different functions such as Search, Share, Devices or Settings.

Akin to any smartphone operating system right now, you can ‘swipe’ from one screen to another. To put it more accurately - because the Windows 8 interface doesn’t exactly have different screens that you can swipe to - you can take your pointer to the far end of a screen for it to extend and display more information that might remain hidden till then.

Taking it to the left hand top corner helps you access all apps or programs currently being used on the device. It doesn’t show up all at once, but cycles through all programs running in turn. So, say, you are proofreading your project paper and at the same time you want to get live updates of a tennis match, you can just keep swapping between the two by hovering around this corner.

When you plug in an external hard drive or thumb drive, a violet pop-up on the screen alerts you to the same. You then have the option to choose the drive to speed up the system, access files or format it.

Considering the Metro interface is aimed mainly at a tablet device, you might want to switch to the good ol’ desktop mode when you want to get some serious work done. The swap involves just one press of the Windows Start button.

Tailored to run on a tablet, Windows 8 gives you the option of two virtual keyboards. The first is your regular QWERTY with large buttons and the second a redesigned keyboard that splits the keys on either side of the screen, making it easier to use it on the move.

SkyDrive

Like its competitor Apple Inc., Microsoft too has laid much-needed emphasis on connectivity to the Cloud. You have access to SkyDrive which lets you access all your data and media stored in the Cloud, from any Internet-enabled device. Documents or spreadsheets you might have worked on while logged in to SkyDrive will have retained changes real-time across devices.

In Windows 8, apps are also designed to work without multiple layers of commands in between. You can share information between apps and streamline your work. For example, the Photos and Mail apps are connected, so you can select a picture from an album in your Photos app and email it to one of your contacts with a single click. This means you don’t have to open your mail separately and attach the picture as a file. You can enable apps to include content from SkyDrive, share with your contacts in the People app, and send mail to people you know.

New IE

Microsoft absolutely had to rescue Internet Explorer from the depths of unpopularity that it has reached in the recent past. Hence, with Windows 8, they introduce IE 10, the latest avatar of one of the oldest Web browsers. You can access it both in the Metro mode as well as the desktop mode. Like Safari, this too now occupies most of the screen on the device, leaving out the annoying little add-ons and search bars that you see in the current iteration of the Web browser. They’ve taken ‘seamless’ to great lengths and you can’t even see the various tabs opened while you are on a Web page. A swipe towards the upper edge of the screen reveals all and actually makes for a pretty neat Web experience. Although, we have to say Google Chrome is still leaps and bounds ahead of IE, what with its uber-cool Chrome Web Store packed with lots of virtual goodness.

Final word

We used the Windows 8 on a device running an 3rd Gen Intel i5 320i processor with a clocking speed of 2.5 GHz and 4GB RAM. The boot-up time on the device was about 35 seconds.

There are a lot more changes which will reflect better in a touch screen device. But with Windows 8, Microsoft seems to have re-imagined Windows really, really well. There hasn’t been an OS in the recent past which has got us this excited to try it out. The Windows 8 has immense potential both to give the users an exciting new platform to be using and its powerful competitors a run for their money.

Considering the fact that it has been designed keeping a portable, touch-screen device in mind (it happens to beautifully adapt to a laptop interface as well), Windows 8 might be a real fun OS to use on the new Microsoft Surface as well.

mahananda.bohidar@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on August 28, 2012)
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