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Windows 8: 8 things you need to know

Updated on October 31, 2012

Windows 8: a new beginning

Windows 8, released on October 26th, 2012, represents possibly the biggest change to the world's most-used operating system, at least in terms of visuals, ever. A lot of people are initially taken aback by the startling change in the default user interface, but once you dig a little deeper -- and actually start using it -- you'll see it's nothing to be scared of. You may even find a few things you really like.

Here are 8 things you need to know about Windows 8.

1. Bye bye, desktop

The first thing you’ll notice upon seeing a Windows 8 PC for the first time is the colorful new Start Screen, which by default replaces the tired old Windows desktop. The Start Screen is filled with tiles representing apps and programs on the PC, and many of these tiles are “live;” i.e., they are animated with news, weather, your friend’s status updates, new emails, etc. The tiles can be arranged in groups (which can be named for organization and can themselves be moved around on the screen), and most of them can be sized as “smaller” or “larger.” If you’re just not ready to give up the old desktop yet, you can always get back to it by clicking on the desktop tile. (Many tasks and programs, in fact, take you back to the desktop to execute.)

2. The magic touch

It should be obvious by the tiled interface of the Start Screen that Windows 8 is built for touchscreen interfaces, like tablets, smartphones, and touch-enabled PCs. Windows 8 works equally well using both touch and the traditional mouse and keyboard, but it really comes alive with touch. Swiping from various directions and tapping on live tiles is somehow more satisfying than pointing and clicking. If you’re stuck using a mouse and keyboard, the way you do things in Windows 8 is similar to the swiping and tapping of touch; for example, to close an app using touch, you’d swipe all the way down the screen from the top. Using a mouse, simply move your mouse pointer to the top of the screen until a small hand appears and move it to the bottom of the screen from there.

3. One size fits all

In addition to Windows 8 being made for both touch and mouse-and-keyboard, it also has support for traditional x86 PCs and ARM processor tablets. This ensures a smooth transition and similar experiences no matter what kind of devices you use. Windows 8 RT, the version that you’ll find on tablets, is a “lite” version of the OS that only works with apps from the Windows Store (i.e. it won’t run your legacy Windows 7 programs) but it does come preloaded with a preview version of the next Microsoft Office.

4. Apps!

Speaking of apps from the Windows Store, you’ll find that Windows 8 is all about apps. Windows 8 apps are simple programs designed to run directly from the Smart Screen (as opposed to programs which take you to the desktop to operate). The Windows 8 Store launched with thousands of apps, many of which are free. There are apps of all types, much as you’d find on smartphones and iPads, including games, productivity, news, social media, etc. Look for a future hub from me on 8 essential Windows 8 apps.

5. So charming

Charms are a new addition to Windows, and they serve several essential functions. You can find the charms by swiping in from the right side of your touch-enabled screen, or by moving your mouse to the upper right-hand corner of a traditional monitor. There are five charms: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. For the most part, these are self-explanatory but sometimes change depending on what you’re doing on your PC. For example, if you click on the Search charm while on the Start Screen, it’ll initiate a search of your PC. Clicking on it while in, say, the Netflix app, will by default only search Netflix (although you can change the “target” of the search no matter what you’re doing).

6. Sync up

When setting up Windows 8 for the first time, you have to choose whether to use your Windows Account information (formerly Live ID) to create a login, or to simply create a “local account.” Using a Windows Account ID gives you a huge advantage if you use multiple Windows 8 devices. With Windows Live Syncing, your familiar Start Screen and settings will be there for you on multiple devices if you’re signed in with your Windows Account.

7. PC makers get creative

The hybrid interface of Windows 8 (built for touch, but able to use mouse and keyboard) has made computer manufacturers think outside the box. In addition to standard laptops and desktops, several vendors are cranking out new tablets and hybrid machines. For example, the Asus Taichi has two screens, one on each side of the lid. Users can use it as a traditional laptop, but when the lid is closed, the screen on the “back side” becomes a tablet screen, giving you the best of both worlds. Look for some really creative devices to come in the next few months as manufacturers get a feel for what Windows 8 is capable of.

8. Upgrade on the cheap

For a limited time, you can upgrade to Windows 8 for an unprecedented low prices. Windows 8 Pro, which will eventually sell for $200, is available in disc form for less than $70. You can even get Windows 8 as a digital download for only $40 through Microsoft directly. These offers end January 31st, 2013, so if you’re thinking about upgrading, you’ll want to do it before then.

The final word

Sure, at first glance Windows 8 looks pretty different from its predecessors, but there's really nothing to be scared of. It's a stable and speedy OS with features for both work and play. Although it really comes alive on a touch-enabled screen, it can be used perfectly well with a mouse and keyboard. And of course, it'll be loaded onto most new computers for at least the next couple of years, so it's a good thing that there's so much to like.

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