Microsoft Windows 8 only just got here, but undoubtedly many users are eager to get their hands on it and see what the new operating system has to offer. But they should consider the switch carefully, because this is far and away the most different Windows experience that Microsoft has offered in quite some time. So if you’re looking to make the leap from Windows 7 — or any previous iteration of Microsoft’s OS — to Windows 8, there are a few things you should probably know.
#1: There is no Start button
That’s right, the famous Start button turned Windows orb, that’s been the key to navigating Windows for years is now gone. It’s going to take some time before you stop dragging your cursor down (or reaching down with your finger) to the bottom left corner, looking for that familiar menu.
Now, your options and programs are instead stored in the Charms Bar — more on that in a moment — and the tile-based Windows 8 UI (formerly known as “Metro,” aka the modern UI) side, which basically serves as a much larger substitute for the Start menu. All Windows 8 devices that have keyboards are required to have a Windows key, and hitting that now brings up the live tiles instead of the Start menu. Here, you can swipe and tap your way through tiles with shortcuts to all of your different apps and services, and you’re free to customize it by adding or deleting whatever tiles you wish.
There are essentially two, very distinct sides to Windows 8 that you will be bouncing back and forth between: the classic desktop, which is just how you remember it, and the live tiles, which have replaced the Start menu.
#2: There‘s a new toolbar in town
Okay, so without a Start menu, what did Microsoft do with all of the useful options that were found there? Windows 8 now has a toolbar, dubbed the Charms Bar, that can be pulled up from the right side of the screen with a swipe or by placing the cursor in the upper or lower right-hand corner on notebooks and desktops. And it’s on this toolbar that users will find shortcuts for Search, Share (via social media or email), Settings (which includes the control panel when you’re on the desktop side), a list of connected devices, and a button to switch over to the tile-based Start screen.
Windows 8 actually features the most intuitive search function yet. Users simply have to start typing while on the live tiles, and Windows will automatically engage the search. This is also a convenient navigation mechanism as simply typing “My Documents” will pull up the appropriate folder.
#3: Many basic programs are buried deep in the OS, including Notepad
Many of the common applications like Notepad or Paint are not as easily accessible as they once were. Without being able to pull up the Start menu and cut straight to the Applications folder, you will instead need to find them manually. The easiest method is to run a search for them either through the search function in the Charms Bar, or by simply typing “Paint” or the application name while on the live tiles side of the UI.
#4: This is an OS designed for touch
Make no mistake: Windows 8 is meant for touchscreens. And I’m not just talking about navigation and organization on the tile side of the UI (swiping left and right, holding down on tiles to modify them); there are also numerous gesture-based commands in Windows 8, and many of those can be triggered on both the desktop side and the tile side.
For Windows 8 devices that don’t have touchscreens, Microsoft requires new laptops that ship with Windows 8 to have multi-gesture touchpads so users can mimic the swipes and gestures within that area. The success depends greatly on the quality of the touchpad, and many early Windows 8 laptops have been panned as a result of lousy touchpads.
Consider this before upgrading an old laptop or netbook to Windows 8. An old or unresponsive touchpad can absolutely kill the experience.
#5: Set up a Microsoft account
Cloud syncing is the name of the game with Microsoft now, so if you want the music, videos, games, etc. that you purchased from the Store to show up on all of your Windows-based devices, it’s highly recommended that you set up a Microsoft account. Of course, if you use any of Microsoft’s software that requires a login, including Windows Live or Xbox Live, then you’re all set and can just use that.
Be aware, however, that logging in to sync all of your content is not a one-and-done deal. I don’t know whether or not this was by design, but I had to sign in with my account multiple times because I had to log in to different apps like Xbox Music and Xbox Live separately rather than just putting my information once and having all my info synced.
#6: Shortcuts can be on both sides of the OS
While the Windows 8 experience can seem fragmented at times due to the split between the desktop UI and the live tiles, be aware that shortcuts to your various apps and programs can be placed on – and launched from – either side of the OS. That being said, some of Windows 8′s baked-in applications, like Xbox Music, can only have shortcuts on the Windows 8 UI side and can therefore only be launched from there.
#7: Skype accounts tied to Outlook or Hotmail accounts are automatically used
Any Skype account that has login information tied to Microsoft’s email services, be it Outlook or Hotmail, will automatically be used when you login to Windows 8 using your Microsoft account. The frustrating part is that’s the only Skype account you can use; if you want to log out of it and use a different account that either belongs to someone else or uses login info from another email service, then you’re going to need to contact customer service.
#8: There is a minimum resolution for the Windows 8 UI apps
The apps on the “Metro” side of Windows 8, which can be downloaded from the Store, require a minimum screen resolution of 1024 x 768 in order to run. You will never encounter an issue with this if you buy a device with Windows 8 preloaded on it, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re upgrading an older system with a low-res display (think netbooks).
During the setup process, you will be warned if your machine doesn’t meet the minimum resolution requirement to run the apps, but you can continue with the installation if you want. After all, Windows 8 will still be usable in exactly the same manner – the live tiles side of the OS is still accessible – except for the fact that your computer won’t be able to run the Windows 8 live-tile apps.
Attaching an external high-res monitor and extending the display provides an easy fix, and in fact, Windows 8 works great with that setup, but that’s obviously not a viable option while on the road.
#9: It‘s a work in progress
As you might expect with a brand-new operating system, Windows 8 isn’t perfect right out of the gate and has its fair share of minor bugs. For instance, I would frequently encounter the same bug when I would attempt to play my music. I would attempt to play a song — which I bought from Microsoft’s store – but Windows 8 would tell me that the file type was not supported and therefore could not be read. But if I just kept attempting to play the song, around the fifth or sixth try it would suddenly work.
Most of the bugs I encountered were nuisances like this. None of them were never fatal, session-killing bugs that would cause crashes or freezes, but they were still disruptive. Windows 8 is still a young OS, so it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft starts updating and patching it up to hopefully create a smoother experience.
#10: There is a steep learning curve
You’re not going to get the hang of Windows 8 right away, plain and simple. While past iterations of Windows built on the comfortable desktop layout that we call home, Windows 8 takes a severe departure from its previous norm, shaking things up in the form of the live tiles. By removing the Start button and its menu and replacing it with the pages of live tiles, Windows 8 gives users two separate areas to manage and from which to work.
And when we say “separate,” we mean it. If you turn on your music on the live tiles side, for example, and then go to the desktop side before deciding that you want to make adjustments like a playlist modification, you’re going to need to go back over to the live tiles to do that. Needless to say, it’s going to take some time to get used to switching back and forth between both interfaces and the distinctly different experiences they provide.
This article has been updated to correct erroneous statements made with regards to the accessibility of Windows Explorer and the availability of certain apps.