Now it was time to try to get my head wrapped properly around the Metro way of doing things. For anyone used to Windows, this largely revolves around living with a start button-free desktop. One of the major issues I had during earlier Windows 8 experiences was finding it difficult to adjust to the notion of the desktop no longerbeing the absolute bottom of the workspace.
Coming to terms with the notion that the desktop was now an App, hiding in the slick Metro tile layout, was the next big challenge. The sheer number of mechanical changes made to Windows in order to make it touch friendly became apparent.
One of the great advantages of Windows 7, when using a keyboard and mouse on a large screen, is that it is a pixel perfect operating system. The fine nature of the buttons and other interactive objects on screen works well with the precision control that a mouse offers.
But the big problem for moving Windows to a tablet is dealing with the shift from mouse pointer to decidedly imprecise finger control. Not only is the shift to the tile-based Metro UI an acknowledgement of the clunky nature of poking a screen with a digit, but the general way in which the operating system deals with concepts is designed to get around these touch limitations.
The new enhanced Task Manager in Desktop mode.
Most noticeable of these is the inherently horizontal nature of the Metro interface. Because it is designed to be swept through by hand, the Metro tiles run left to right. This means either constantly dragging a scroll bar on the bottom of the screen, as I had to do with the laptop, or using the up and down scrolling of a mouse scroll wheel to move the interface left or right.
While it’s an interface that feels quite natural when used on a touchscreen, the translation to keyboard and mouse control is somewhat confusing. Even worse, I suspect it will be more confusing the more familiar one is with Windows XP and 7. Hitting the desktop tile brings up the “almost familiar” desktop – sans the start button.
Not only did this make for several hours of accidentally opening Internet Explorer every time I wanted to run a program, but it meant I kept bashing the Windows key to run programs and was thrown back into Metro.
Thankfully, the Windows key operates as a “switch to last program” button so as long as I didn’t hit a tile in Metro I could press the Windows key a second time to bring up the desktop again.
Working on the desktop was pretty easy, once the Windows key-hitting habit subsided. Windows Explorer is at least visibly similar to Windows 7, with one major addition: the use of the notorious Microsoft Office Ribbon bar at the top.
This only appears when you select an item however, and ultimately it is quite a handy way of controlling things, even if I did occasionally need to figure out what functions from Windows 7 are now called, and where they have been hidden.
A few other interesting things emerged in the time spent trying to work on the desktop. Namely, the new “Charms” that Microsoft has added to the interface. These are basically hot corners of the screen – move your mouse over them and a context menu will pop up. Bottom left takes you to the Metro Screen, top left enables you to open a menu of currently-active programs (or you can just alt-Tab like the days of yore), while the right hand side opens a contextual menu.
This contextual menu gives you several options, which change based upon your currently active App. These are Search, Share, Start, Setting and Devices. It is always present on both the desktop and the Metro interface, and while occasionally useful my main annoyance was that it meant settings were smeared across several applications, making what should have been simple a lot more confusing than intended.
After a bit more exploration a few other things became clear. Namely that Windows key shortcuts were even more important than ever (and some of the ones that I’d carefully trained myself in, such as snapping applications, still worked on the desktop, but not in Metro).
Microsoft has also added perhaps the best ever shortcut for a very narrow slice of the Windows-using public – hit Windows Key and Prtscn and a .png file of the current desktop is dumped straight to the pictures library.
I was at least comfortable using the desktop now, even though I still kept occasionally opening Internet Explorer as I went for Start. So it was time to see if Metro offered me anything on my very non-tactile laptop screen.
As I mentioned at the start, I have been a Windows Phone 7 user of late, which means I’m already familiar with the basics of Metro. But while the easy customisation and pinning of tiles makes sense with touch, it’s a somewhat fiddlier procedure with a mouse.
Add to that the fact that non-Metro programs end up as somewhat ugly blank tiles with the icon at the bottom and it made customising my once Windows 7 install both frustrating and aesthetically unpleasing.
The native Metro Apps that do ship with Windows 8 were pretty slick though. I added my Gmail account to mail with little hassle (although Win 8 does seem to lack support for multiple Gmail accounts), and had an enjoyable play with the slick Weather App, which was so much more convenient than looking out the window.
The Metro-based weather App.
Unfortunately a lot of the media-based tiles have only partial functionality, due to the inability to sign in from Australia. This means no Microsoft video or music stores– which makes the Apps appear somewhat naked. I did have limited success accessing the DLNA based video library on my NAS but the video player application just felt a little too lightweight for my needs.
The Xbox stuff looks quite interesting, bringing a similar level of integration as seen in Windows Phone. I eagerly hit sign in but was unable to access past scores - yet another service not available in our region. I was still able to play some of the games at least, but I think that Solitaire asking me to sign into Xbox Live is some sort of indication of an impending apocalypse.
As for standard Windows games, once I got my Steam files linked properly things worked fine. I tried a few of my guilty pleasures and they ran without a hitch, if not a little better than they did under Windows 7.
I suspect this is largely due to the relatively unchanged nature of the DirectX 11 graphics API used in Windows 8.
With that, the journey from Windows 7 to Windows 8 was complete. There are a few general observations though that kept coming up during this learning phase that are worth mentioning.
The escape key really needs to work in Metro Apps. Rather than backing out of an erroneously opened program, it did precisely nothing; the Windows key or mousing to the bottom left corner was the required way of getting out of the program.
Second, the operating system is going to be light years ahead of Windows 7 when combined with a touch interface. However, for those using a keyboard and mouse/touchpad the learning curve is steep, annoyingly unsignposted and often goes against years of ingrained habit.
One of the most frustrating things is that there appears to be two sets of rules – one for the Desktop and one for Metro, which can make some navigational attempts frustrating at best.
Overall though I enjoyed Windows 8 a lot more than I would have if I hadn’t taken the plunge. Don’t take this as a recommendation to jump in wholesale – I still have a work desktop for working and a home desktop for gaming, so committing my laptop to Windows 8 wasn’t me totally giving myself over.
What it does do, though, is make me excited for the new generation of touch-enabled Windows 8 laptops, which if done well could make the two-operating systems-in-one aspect of Windows 8 a lot more attractive.