Tips: Using the New Tiles in Windows 8

by Reads (64,843)

In Windows 8, the Windows start button is gone. That’s only one change in a long list of visual differences confounding the vast throngs of users accustomed to previous editions of Windows. So here are some tips on how to cope with the new tile-based user interface (UI) in Windows 8.

With the missing start button in Windows 8,  Microsoft has done it again. Whenever Microsoft introduces a major new version of an existing product, the company does its level best to completely confuse customers who finally became comfortable with the earlier version (or so it seems).

That’s what happened with Office 2010, to cite one of a million examples. Users who could work with older editions of Office in their sleep were suddenly unable to figure out how to do things they’d been doing for years. Finding a familiar operation quickly turned into a snark hunt.

While the capabilities of the Windows operating system have changed extensively over the decades, the basic look of the interface has pretty much remained the same since Windows 95. Windows 8, however, is a total visual paradigm change. The tile-based user interface (UI) doesn’t really look anything like Windows 7.

There is a method to this seeming madness. Microsoft is now releasing new versions of Windows for smartphones (Windows Phone 8), ARM tablets (Windows RT) and PCs (Windows 8). Why not offer a consistent UI across all of these platforms?

After all, if you get to know the new UI on any of these devices, you’ll probably be able to adapt quite quickly to another Windows device platform, right?

Unfortunately, however, although Windows 8′s user interface makes conceptual sense, it’s so visually different from the previous interface that experienced Windows PC users will need to climb a learning curve.

Square Tiles & Other Esoteric Stuff

The first time you turn on a Windows 8 PC, the differences are immediately apparent. Instead of a desktop with icons, you get a screen with a big label “START” in the upper left-hand corner — and this screen is filled with square tiles stacked up against each other.

Moreover, you might not be able to access all of the tiles that you need, because they might extend horizontally beyond the edge of the screen. Moving to these other screens requires a swipe gesture either from right to left or left to right.

These aren’t the only gestures you’ll want to know, either. Fortunately, though, many Windows 8 gestures mimic those that you’re probably already familiar with using on some sort of smartphone.

Yet while Windows 8 is optimized for a touch screen display, the truth is that many PCs out there today are not touch-enabled. Windows 8 is also useable with a mouse, but some of the gestures, like pinch and zoom, are difficult to duplicate in that manner.

You can certainly duplicate some of these gestures on a laptop PC’s touchpad, but depending on the size of the touchpad, you might find it tough to perform all of them. As one potential workaround, Logitech’s new Touchpad T650 gives you many of the same advantages as a touchscreen display. This five-inch square, $80 touchpad offers a scratch-resistant glass surface, a rechargeable battery, and plenty of room for using the gesture recognition built into Windows 8.

Where, Oh Where, Is the Start Button?

Most importantly, though, you will instantly notice that there’s no start button in Windows 8. When you hit the Windows key on the keyboard, you won’t be presented with the familiar start bar that lets you access the applications you’ve installed, turn off the system, or do a restart.

Exactly what the Windows key does bring up will depend on how you originally set up Windows 8 when you installed it, and on where you happen to be in the OS when you hit that key.

When I installed and set up Windows, it asked me for my Windows Live account name and password. As I discovered a bit later, this is used for user authentication to log into the laptop or boot or when the system has gone to sleep. I also found out that pressing the Windows key immediately after booting took me to my MSN mail account.

If the Windows 8 tile interface greatly upsets you, you can switch to a more familiar desktop directly within Windows 8. There’s a desktop tile on the start screen. However, Microsoft doesn’t provide a start button or bar on this desktop, either.

Another thing that seems to be missing is the button to turn off or restart the PC. In the past, this was located at the bottom of the start bar. The Windows 8 UI does let you power off the machine or put it to sleep, but the way to do so isn’t easy to find. When you put the cursor in the bottom right corner of the screen, a vertical bar extends from the right side of the screen.

On this bar is an icon that looks like a gear, and clicking on this brings up the settings menu. At the bottom of this popup is a box with icons for a number of settings including network, keyboard layout, and power off. Click on this and you can choose whether to restart, put the laptop to sleep, or power off. You can also use the practically age-old Ctrl+Alt+Delete key combination.

None of these methods replaces the start bar. However, their existence does show that Microsoft built many of the same functions you’re used to into Windows 8. You just have to know how to hunt them down in the new OS.

All Is Not Lost: Rolling Back the Screens

The fact that familiar functions are there, somewhere, is scant comfort to people who are used to powering their way through the older versions of Windows. Luckily, though, there are a number of third-party programs that can make things easier by rolling back the screens to ones such as were part of earlier versions of Windows.

One of the most widely touted of these is a free application, Classic Shell, which lets you add start bars and program popouts to the Windows 8 desktop, while also rolling back Internet Explorer by adding the toolbar that went missing in the Windows 8 version.

While Classic Shell has received some great reviews, for some reason I could not get it to install on the laptop I used for test purposes. I kept getting the message, “Cannot install on this PC.” Given the features that it offers, I recommend that you try downloading and installing Classic Shell, anyway. However, back up your laptop first, just in case.

One application I was able to download and install quite easily is Start8, from Stardock. This application isn’t quite as fancy as Classic Shell, but a 30-day trial version is available free of charge, and I think the app is well worth its purchase price of five bucks.

Start8 offers you lots of options on how the start menu will look, as well as what numerous operations will result in (such as setting the laptop to power off or sleep when the lid is closed). You can set these options in Windows 8 as well, but you’re likely to have a much harder time finding the settings.

Once Start8 is installed, when you switch to the desktop you will find a small Windows flag where the button used to be. Click on it, and the familiar start bar appears, complete with drill-down program choices where applicable.

Conclusion

While Microsoft layered the tile shell (formerly called Metro) on top of the classic desktop in an attempt to bring consistency between different computing platforms, Windows 8 is very different in use than the previous versions of the OS.

In the future, it will be interesting to see if Microsoft and its partners offer rollback programs, similar to the ones that took place when Vista was introduced and users wanted to backtrack to Windows XP.

In the mean time, you won’t have a choice if you buy a new Windows PC, because these will come with Win8 already installed.

Unless you intend to forego Windows 8 entirely, now is the time to begin learning how to cope.

To read more stories about Windows 8, check out the Wait for 8 Special Report on NotebookReview’s sister site, Desktop Review.

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