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What it does do, however, is represent a fundamental shift for Microsoft, one away from the PC hallmarks of a mouse as the primary input device, moving instead towards the simplest input device of all – the human finger. Whereas Windows 7 included the basic tools for touch input, it was more of an afterthought, there to give those niche users who bought Windows-based touch devices a less frustrating experience, albeit one that was still designed with a mouse in mind. Windows 8 eschews such thinking, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Start menu. In Windows of old, the Start menu is a small pop-up that resides in the task bar, linking to search, apps and the system’s control panel and other utilities. The small button with a Windows logo has become familiar, dependable and consistent across each OS release. And Microsoft has removed it.
In its place is something altogether more modern – so much so, Microsoft has named it its Modern UI, though in reality it’s the Metro design language that debuted on Windows Phone 7 two years ago. The scrolling, changing, square and rectangular Live Tiles are a constantly updating, visually appealing way for Windows 8 to reveal key bits of information – weather updates, new emails, breaking news, sports stats – to users, without them needing to enter an app. Like Windows Phone, tiles constantly update with new information and the whole experience is much more dynamic and fluid than the plain desktop of old. Users scroll or swipe left and right to move between their apps, which can be downloaded from Microsoft’s own app store, and includes many big names such as Netflix, The New York Times, eBay, StumbleUpon, Cut The Rope, Angry Birds and more. Key apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Temple Run are no shows for the moment but should be there soon, though Facebook and Twitter are integrated into Microsoft’s People hub, which handles users’ contacts. These apps open full screen, and each features a clean, bold look designed to maximize visual appeal and ease of use for finger control.
Indeed, Windows 8 is an OS clearly designed to be used by touch, be that either a touch-screen or multi-touch trackpad. With touch, gesture support is built-in and available, allowing for a variety of neat tricks to access key functions. Swipe in from the right, and a series of five icons, or ”charms,” appear, offering the ability to search, share, return to the start menu, access devices connected to your PC – such as printers, phones or a TV, both wired and wirelessly – and access system settings. Swipe in from the left to switch between apps, or swipe in from the left and back out again to view a pop-up list of your currently running apps. Swipe up from the bottom to access a contextual menu that carries app-specific commands. Swipe down from the top of the screen and drag the app to close it. The usual gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, two-finger rotating and dragging items across screen are also implemented. Users who prefer a mouse and keyboard can use the active corners of the screen.
To access charms, move to the upper- or lower-right of the screen. To cycle between apps, click in the upper-left of the screen, or move to the upper-left and drag down to see open apps. Contextual menus can be accessed by right-clicking, and apps can be closed by dragging them down from the top with the mouse. Mouse users also have a start button, or a variation thereof. Point the mouse in the bottom-left corner and a preview of the start screen appears, and clicking will take you back to it. It’s not as intuitive as touch input, though, and I’d caution users who lack a touch-screen or trackpad to test Windows 8 first and see if they can adjust to this new control system – though most should manage just fine, and if anything Microsoft has given itself an excellent reason for owners of legacy hardware to upgrade, as Windows is a joy to use with touch.