Windows 8 is the latest version of Microsoft's iconic operating system. And it's a lot — really, a lot — different from those previous versions you've learned to know and love. (Well, at least to know and tolerate.)
The entire Windows 8 experience is new, from first power-on to running your favorite apps. It's so different, in fact, that current Windows users may have a hard time figuring out exactly how to do what they want to do. Windows 8 doesn't look at all like Windows 7 (or Vista or XP), and doesn't work quite the same way.
Whether you're upgrading to Windows 8 or purchasing a new computer with it already installed, you're going to have to learn to live with Windows' new tiled interface and Metro-style (excuse me, Modern-style) apps. The challenge is to do so while minimizing the learning curve — which is what this article is all about.
Welcome to the Start Screen
The first thing you see after logging into Windows 8 is something called the Start screen. This ain't the old Windows desktop folks — far from it. The Start screen looks more than a little like the screen from a Windows phone, which isn't surprising because that's where Microsoft got the design.
Figure 1 The Windows 8 Start screen — this is where everything begins.
You see, Windows 8 is Microsoft's attempt to design an operating system for handheld touchscreen devices. Most of the basic operations, in fact, are optimized for touch, not for mouse or keyboard use. The strategy is to provide a version of Windows that works great on tablets (and thus let Microsoft compete with Apple's iPad) and is pretty much the same across all types of devices, from personal computers to tablets to smartphones.
The problem is, 99.9% of all current PC users do not have touchscreen devices. We have notebook and desktop computers with traditional keyboards and mice (or trackpads). So being forced to use on our computers an operating system that was designed for tablets and phones — well, one can certainly argue the wisdom of that decision. But that's exactly what Microsoft has given us, a touch-based tablet OS for your notebook or desktop. Lucky us.
Knowing this background helps a little when it comes to figuring out just how Windows 8 works. It certainly explains all those tiles you see on the Start screen; they're the Windows equivalent of the tappable icons you have on your iPhone or iPad.
In fact, Microsoft goes Apple one better by making many of these tiles “live,” in that they display real-time information right on the face of the tile. Take the Weather tile, for example, which displays your current weather conditions, or the Photos tile, which displays a slideshow of your favorite pictures.
The goal here is to make the Start screen as useful as possible, so you get a lot of information without having to open all those apps. Basic weather info without launching the Weather app? Yeah, that's pretty neat.
The main point of the Start screen, however, is to provide a gateway to all the apps you run on your computer. Every app appears as a tile on the Start screen; to launch an app, all you have to do is click the appropriate tile. This launches the app in full screen mode — which is the new default way to view apps. Microsoft is discouraging the tillable or stackable windows experience, in favor of viewing everything by itself on the big screen. So that's something else to get used to.
By the way, it's likely you'll have more tiles pinned to the Start screen than can be displayed at one time. No problem; the Start screen scrolls left and right (not up and down, like you're used to), using either the left/right arrow keys on your keyboard, or by displaying the scrollbar at the bottom of the screen and then using your mouse.
One more thing. Once you launch an app and it displays full screen, how do you get back to the Start screen? There are several ways to do so, but the easiest is to press the Windows key on your keyboard. This will always return you to the Start screen in Windows 8.