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Windows 8 Prep School

Microsoft rewrites the book with Windows 8, changing many of the features users expect in an operating system. Here are a few tips to help you find your way through the new interface.

The thunder you hear in the distance is the rapidly approaching Windows 8 launch date, slated for October 26. The new Windows operating system marks a real departure from Microsoft’s old Desktop format, focusing instead on completely new, touch-friendly Windows 8 applications, which are smartphone-like apps that provide specific information and functions.

New Features

The apps are the most obvious new feature of Windows 8, and reflect Microsoft’s decision to create an operating system for touch-screen tablets, smartphones, PCs and laptops. On a tablet, you’ll open, close and move apps with finger swipes. PC and laptop users can still navigate with a keyboard and mouse.

Windows 8 is loaded with new security features, including a picture-based log-in. The user draws a prearranged group of dots over an image to log in. Regular log-ins with passwords are, of course, still supported. The new operating system also comes with a complete antivirus program built into Windows Security Essentials, a move designed to make it easier to keep your machines virus-free.

Mastering Windows 8 Apps

These tile-based, touch-friendly apps are at the core of Windows 8, and you’ll need to learn how to use them. Here are a few pointers:

  • Apps run full-screen, but you can view two side-by-side by dragging an active app to one side of the screen. The app now displays as a sidebar and you can open a second app.
  • If you want to close an app, hover the mouse pointer over the left side of the screen. A “Charm” menu will appear with a list of open apps. Right-click the app you want and select Close.
  • You can organize apps into groups by dragging any app to an empty space on the Start screen. This creates a new group and you can drag and drop app tiles into the group.

Know When to Use the Desktop

These new apps offer all kinds of functionality, but sometimes you still need to access the traditional Desktop. Programs such as the Microsoft Office suite run on the Desktop, and you’ll find a Desktop link in the Metro app tiles.

Windows 8 also comes with two versions of Internet Explorer. Click the IE Metro app and you get a browser that runs entirely on HTML5 and doesn’t support Flash or website plug-ins. This version of IE conserves battery life and offers greater security. Flash has seen its fair share of security exploits and energy consumption issues in the recent past and many large companies, like Microsoft and Apple Inc., are no longer including the software as part of their default OS offering. If you need a browser that supports plug-ins, open Internet Explorer through the Desktop.

Discover the Hidden Tools

Microsoft keeps the Start screen uncluttered by hiding option buttons and tools in “Charm” menus, which only appear when you hover the mouse pointer over them. This has led some people to incorrectly assume that Windows 8 doesn’t come with a Power Off option.

Here's a quick breakdown of the Start screen’s hidden functions:

  • The “Charm” menu on the right side of the screen includes Search, Start, Share, Device and Settings options. The Shut Down option is in Settings under Power.
  • The left-hand “Charm” lists all active apps.
  • Hover the mouse over the lower left-hand corner of the screen and a menu of options similar to the old Start menu appears.

All “Charms” open from the Start screen or the Desktop, or while viewing full-screen apps.

If you want some hands-on time with Windows 8 before its launch on October 26, Microsoft has the Windows 8 Consumer Preview available for download. Bear in mind that the Consumer Preview is a beta product and, as such, may have hidden bugs. If you install the Preview over Windows 7 and decide you prefer the older operating system, you must reinstall Windows 7 completely.

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