The wait is over: Windows 8 has arrived. After many, many months of talking about Windows 8, Microsoft officially releases the new operating system on Friday. You can buy an upgrade pack or a new Windows 8 device (including Surface RT) on Oct. 26.
With the exciting new era for Microsoft comes a huge list of changes to Windows. Not only is the interface totally different, there are several new features and capabilities. Here are our 10 favorites, plus one that gets honorary mention.
Windows 8 is the first truly gestural version of Windows. The OS supports intuitive simple touch gestures like swiping in from the left to switch apps and swiping in from the right for the Charms menu. Semantic zoom is another big winner. Whether you’re in the Start Screen or a specific app, like the People hub, you can navigate using the pinch-to-zoom gesture to get a high-level view. For example, you can use semantic zoom in the News app to see all of the news sections available, instead of having to scroll through the app.
Other useful gestures include swiping in from the top of the screen for app-specific commands and settings and dragging an app from the top down to close it out.
Live Tiles and Lock Screen
The apps you use in Windows 8 can feed you information without you even having to open them. This is especially helpful with home-bred Microsoft apps like Mail, Calendar, Photos and News, for viewing new e-mail, upcoming events, thumbnail images and the latest headlines. Third-party app developers can also take advantage of the Live Tile feature. For example, LivingSocial shows you snippets of new deals in your area.
If you’re sick of a specific app’s constantly changing tile, you can always turn the Live Tile feature off.
Microsoft has also given more life to the lock screen in Windows 8. You can select up to seven apps that will constantly run in the background and send notifications to the lock screen. You can also select between the Weather and Calendar apps to show information on the Lock Screen at all times. Got a meeting coming up? Your Lock Screen can tell you.
Windows 8 offers a great tool for searching for files, apps, and specific settings directly from the Start Screen, just by typing. If an app comes with built-in search, you’ll also be able to quickly search within that apps from the Search charms bar. For example, say you want to search for “food trucks.” The Windows 8 search will be able to look through any apps or files related to food trucks, but you can also just tap Bing to jump into that app’s search functionality.
Refresh and Reset
With Windows 8, Microsoft now offers a very easy way to refresh or reset your PC. The refresh option is especially useful when you find your PC acting slow or buggy. In a one-click or one-tap move, you can refresh the PC without changing any of your files, Windows Store apps, or personalization settings. All of the PC settings will be changed back to the default, and you will lose any desktop programs since those are not synced with your Windows Account. Still, if it comes down it, it’s a easy fix.
Reset, on the other hand, is great for when you want to hand off your old PC to a new owner. If you want to make sure that everything is wiped, this is your go-to button. No more having to delete individual files or go through manufacturer-specific programs to figure it out.
You can find both features in the Charms bar: Click Settings, choose “Change PC Settings” and go to the “General” section.
No matter what PC, tablet or notebook you use, you’ll be able to sync your personal settings. Thanks to the Microsoft account and Windows 8’s cloud-friendly platform, your personalizations can travel with you. The “Sync your settings” option within your PC settings lets you sync personalizations (background, colors, lock screen and account picture), passwords, language preferences, app settings, browser settings, and more. It makes using a new device much easier and makes borrowing a friend’s tablet or notebook a more personal experience.
Snap View for Multitasking
Windows Store apps, which default to full-screen mode, can also snap next to each other for super simple multitasking. When you snap two apps side-by-side, one occupies a small sliver of the screen (about one-fourth) on the right or left. A second app takes up more space for a larger view. This is especially useful for times when you want to, say, chat with a friend while browsing the web. Or perhaps you want to view Map directions while your road-trip partner (or kid) watches a movie. It’s a quick and simple way to do two tasks at once, without having to constantly switch through apps, tabs, or windows.
The Start Screen isn’t useful only for its Live Tiles and customization. It’s also a virtual bulletin board where you can pin specific websites and particular sections from apps. For example, you can pin individuals from the People hub directly to your Start Screen for quick access. If you’re a big fan of the Travel app but you only want to look at certain destinations, you can pin them for convenience. Pin Shanghai to your Start Screen before your big vacation, and switch it out for your next destination at a later date. You can always pin and un-pin items from your Start Screen.
Windows 8 brings sharing to the fore. If something is shareable, Microsoft wants you to share it, and not only with friends, but with other apps. When you’re in an app, open up the charms bar and tap the Share button (or hold the Windows key and the H key on your keyboard). You’ll see exactly where you can share your item, whether it’s an image, link or section within an app.
The Share menu will let you post to your social networks and e-mail, but you’ll also be able to share between apps. For example, you can share a link for the weather in New York from the Weather app to the Clipboard or Sticky Notes 8 (a third-party app I downloaded). The Share charm will even start to recognize where and with whom you share the most.
Not all of the best features are limited to the new Start Screen environment. The Task Manager in Windows 8’s desktop environment is much improved. The tool has several new features and is much more intuitive to use. Once you launch the program, you’ll see a complete list of everything that’s running on your device, separated by section: apps, background processes, and Windows processes.
You can see how much of your device’s resources each app or process takes. You can also drill down even further. For example, you can open up each window in a browser app or right click a process and choose “search online” to understand what it does.
The Performance tab gives you an at-a-glance status update on your CPU, Memory, Disk, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi usage in moving charts. App history shows you how much CPU and bandwidth your apps have used over time, making it easy to identify which apps take the most resources. The Startup tab lets you manage which apps will start automatically when you turn on your computer. The Users tab shows you usage based on the devices various users, while the Services tab lets you go through your services to restart services.
In short, the Task Manager adds much more functionality in a far more attractive space.
OK, this is a cop-out, but Windows 8’s best feature is its radically new interface. Without it, you wouldn’t have all the other features mentioned here. The stunning Start Screen UI enables a completely new Windows experience. While you might have complaints about how it doesn’t work as well with a keyboard and mouse — or on a desktop PC — it’s hard to label Windows 8 as anything but a step forward for Microsoft. The chromeless, full-screen Windows Store apps are incredibly slick, and navigating the Start Screen is quick and seamless. Windows 8 is speedy, and the new look only enhances this.
Honorary Mention: Keyboard Commands
Yes, Windows 8 does work most naturally in a touch- or gesture-based environment. But if you’re using a traditional mouse and keyboard, Microsoft has enabled tons of new keyboard shortcuts to let you access the best Windows 8 tools. Here’s a list of some of the most useful commands (courtesy of Microsoft):
Windows logo key + start typing: Search your PC
Ctrl+plus (+) or Ctrl+minus (-): Zoom in or out of many items, like apps pinned to the Start screen or in the Store
Ctrl+scroll wheel: Zoom in or out of many items, like apps pinned to the Start screen or in the Store
Windows logo key + C: Open the charms
Windows logo key + F: Open the Search charm
Windows logo key +H: Open the Share charm
Windows logo key +I: Open the Settings charm
Windows logo key + K: Open the Devices charm
Windows logo key + O: Lock the screen orientation (portrait or landscape)
Windows logo key + Z: Open commands for the app
Windows logo key + PgUp: Move the Start screen and apps to the monitor on the right (apps in the desktop won’t change monitors)
Windows logo key + PgDn: Move the Start screen and apps to the monitor on the left (apps in the desktop won’t change monitors)
Windows logo key + Shift+period (.): Snap an app to the left
Windows logo key + period (.): Snap an app to the right