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Windows 8 is more than just an updated operating system from Microsoft. While previous versions of Windows usually got a visual bump with each update, it never strayed far from its trademark user interface of a Start button and a task bar. However, Microsoft has decided to completely redesign the desktop, opting for a more “tablet home screen” look than its trademark desktop. The new look and a host of new features makes Windows 8 a significant departure from the formula to which Microsoft has stayed true all these years.
When you turn on Windows 8 for the first time, the difference between it and Windows 7 is immediately obvious. Instead of being greeted by the iconic Windows desktop with the usual Start button and toolbar, you’re introduced to the new Start screen with “tiles.” These tiles on your Start screen are not just enlarged desktop icons. They contain content, such as news headlines, weather forecasts, sports scores and even notifications from your favorite social networks.
All tiles can also update in real time, so you can see what’s going on the second it happens, without having to click on the tiles. You can share and connect with your friends and family with a couple of clicks. Tiles are a quick way to see it all. You can also launch apps, switch between tasks and check notifications without having to go looking for them in your Web browser.
Not a fan of the new Start screen? Windows 8 also incorporated a Classic View option so you can change back over to the Windows 7 desktop with which you’re already familiar. You can switch back to it and see that all the settings and features you’ve used in Windows 7 are still there in Windows 8.
Microsoft has decided that while the keyboard and mouse are still efficient ways to navigate your computer, they also wanted to include touch features with Windows 8. Going for a more hands-on approach, you’ll be able to use your mouse, keyboard and multi-touch gestures (if the computer/tablet supports it). On new, touch-enabled Windows 8 computers, you’ll be able to transition seamlessly from mouse to keyboard to touch. You can switch between apps, organize your Start screen as well as pan and zoom.
There’s also a touch keyboard on the new touch-enabled Windows 8 computers. The touch keyboard allows you to type, navigate and interact on the fly. There are two modes for the touch keyboard. You can either use a full-sized keyboard with large buttons or a handy thumb keyboard that splits the keys on either side of the screen. The latter makes it easier to type while holding a tablet. Also, the touch keyboard layout automatically adjusts to the language you choose for Windows 8.
To take full advantage of Windows 8, it is recommended that you sign up for a Microsoft account (if you haven’t done so already). Your Microsoft account saves all your preferences, such as the desktop background and all personalized settings. When you sign into any Windows 8 device with your Microsoft account, it automatically imports all your personal preferences so you don’t have to set it all up again. It even works on brand-new computers running Windows 8. One Windows 8 computer will show the personalized, cloud-connected access based on the Microsoft account that is signed in. If you’re worried about losing hard drive storage space to various Microsoft accounts, you can rest assured that your computer’s hard drive remains clear since the apps, games, music, photos, files and settings are stored in the cloud.
With Windows 8, your entire computer is cloud-connected. You’ll have new built-in apps like Microsoft Mail, Calendar, SkyDrive, Photos, People and Messaging apps that are connected to services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, just by adding them to your Microsoft account.
With SkyDrive, you can access your documents and photos on other PCs because when they’re in SkyDrive, they are accessible through any device that is connected to the Internet.
The Video and Music apps give you access to all your favorite movies, TV shows and songs. Videos that you purchase are available for playback on both your Windows 8 PC and on your Xbox 360. Also, you can choose from more than 15 million songs, and play your songs in your personal library with the Music app.
If you have an Xbox 360 console, you can access the Xbox Live Games app to connect and play with friends, create your own unique gamer avatar and even find, as well as purchase, games for your Xbox 360 console.
The Mail app allows you to see all your accounts in one place, whether it’s Outlook, Gmail or your company’s Exchange account. You can pin email accounts to the Start screen so you can see incoming mail on the live Mail tile without having to open the Mail app. You can also pin individual folders to stay up to date. Click on the tile to go straight to your inbox so you can read the email in full or send a reply. You can even send a file from your PC and have it automatically upload to SkyDrive for recipients to see.
The People app includes contacts from Outlook, Messenger, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and others. If you choose to connect with a contact from a mail account, that contact is then available in your apps as soon as you sign into your Windows 8 PC with your Microsoft account. With the People app, you can quickly see what’s new, share an update, comment or initiate a conversation with the Messaging app.
The Calendar app combines all your information by pulling together your multiple calendars into a single day, week or month view. You can decide which of your calendars will be shown and adjust the colors to suit your preferences. Pin the Calendar app to the Start screen to see upcoming events in the tile. You can also choose to let the Calendar app post upcoming appointments on the Windows lock screen so you don’t have to unlock your PC to see it.
The Photos app pulls all of your pictures together into one place. All your albums from Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive, as well as all your pictures stored locally on the hard drive of your computer can be accessed via the Photos app. Make sure you connect your Microsoft account to all the services mentioned in order to gain access to them in the Photos app.
With the Messaging app on your Windows 8 PC, you can chat with Messenger or Facebook friends from one convenient place.
With the Reader app, you can read PDF, XPS or OXPS documents. You can interact with your PDFs by highlighting, adding text annotations, printing and sharing.
While there are many apps for Windows 8, you’ll need to visit the Windows Store to take your pick. In the Windows Store, you can browse through the many apps or search for a particular one that you’re looking for. All the apps are grouped in easy-to-find categories. Microsoft also highlights several apps you may enjoy and provides quick access to the most frequently downloaded apps. If you can’t decide whether you want to download or purchase an app, you can see the ratings other users left for it. If the ratings still don’t help you come to a decision, you can try out a demo of the app before you buy it (limited to apps that support this feature).
You can download your apps on more than one Windows 8 computer so there’s no need to purchase an app twice. After you install an app from the Windows Store, you can sign in to the Windows Store on up to five other Windows 8 computers and see a list of all the apps you own. You can pick and choose the apps you want to install on the other computers without having to search for and install them individually.
Microsoft screens all apps submitted to the Windows Store so you don’t have to worry about viruses or malware. Also, with Microsoft Family Safety, you can change the settings to determine what your children can download and see in the Windows Store. Setting a rating level filters the apps and games so that children can only access apps based on your preferred restrictions. Microsoft Family Safety also allows you to set up accounts for children that are monitored so you know what they’ve been doing. By connecting your account, you’ll be able to get weekly email reports in your inbox. You can also set up Web filtering, time limits and app restrictions.
Internet Explorer 10 was designed to take full advantage of Windows 8. It starts and loads websites fast, and brings a fluid responsiveness to the Web with a swipe, tap or a simple click. Internet Explorer 10 is also optimized for a touch experience and can utilize full-screen browsing. Navigation controls appear only when you need them and quietly withdraw when you don’t. You can flip ahead or back through your websites with the flick of a finger.
Tiles and tabs for frequently visited sites are oversized for easy tapping. With smooth, intuitive controls, you’ll be able to use just one box for both Web addresses as well as a search bar for faster browsing. You can also pin your favorite sites to your Start screen and get to them more quickly. You can also use SmartScreen technology to keep your Windows 8 PC and your sensitive information safe and secure on the Web by protecting against socially engineered malware. Privacy tools like Do Not Track are built into Internet Explorer 10 and can be enabled with a simple click.
If you’re looking for a more business-oriented version of Windows, Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Enterprise editions provide all the above features as well as several additional features geared towards productivity and security.
DirectAccess allows remote users to access resources inside of a corporate network more securely and seamlessly, without having to launch a separate virtual private network (VPN) connection to the corporate network.
BranchCache downloads files and apps from corporate headquarters and stores the data in the branch office. Client PCs in the branch office can access the content locally rather than repeatedly download it from headquarters. By using BranchCache, you can reduce the time required for branch workers to access data on the network.
BitLocker drive encryption helps protect corporate data on mobile PCs that include a trusted platform module (TPM) chip. On Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise editions, BitLocker now encrypts hard drives more quickly, helping to keep data safe without significantly interrupting worker productivity. BitLocker now supports encrypted drives, which are hard drives that come pre-encrypted from the manufacturer.
AppLocker is a simple and flexible mechanism that allows IT administrators to specify exactly the apps that are allowed to run on employees’ PCs. On Windows 8 editions that support Group Policy, AppLocker uses Group Policy to allow or restrict the types of files that people can use. This helps prevent the installation of unapproved or potentially harmful apps.
Is the new Start Screen an improvement? Do the tiles update with the correct information? Are the multi-touch gestures and touch input responsive and accurate? Please let us know in the Comments section, below, your thoughts on the new Windows 8 operating system.