In the coming weeks, I’ll be re-writing and updating my series of Windows 8 feature focus articles for the final release of this new OS and packaging them into a free e-book. However, in the meantime, here’s a rundown of the Windows 8 features I’ve highlighted so far this year.
If you've been looking for a way to easily manage the storage in multiple hard drives in a seamless, elegant fashion, Storage Spaces is going to make you very, very happy indeed. It’s one of the best new features in Windows 8.
If ever there were a poster child for the dual—one might say dueling—nature of the Windows 8 user experiences, it’s Internet Explorer 10. As with the OS on which it runs, Internet Explorer 10 offers two separate but complementary user experiences, a standard Windows application that runs in the desktop environment and a touch-first, Metro-styled app. Today, I’d like to focus on the latter.
Windows 8 includes a new feature called File History that attempts to right the wrongs of Previous Versions by offering the same file backup and versioning capabilities in a far easier to discover and use package. Apple fans will note that it works, in fact, a lot like Time Machine, albeit without the gratuitous animations and spacy theme.
While it's very clear that Microsoft is focusing largely on the new Windows Runtime and its associated Metro-style apps and Start screen in Windows 8, the software giant has provided a number of useful and desirable updates to the classic desktop environment as well. This is good news for those who wish to continue existing largely or solely in this environment going forward, as will be the case, I think, for most users of traditional desktops, laptops, and netbook computers.
People is a contacts management app that's based on the People hub that appeared first in Windows Phone, aggregating contacts from multiple accounts into a single place.
After trying to foist an unnecessary PDF competitor on us in Windows Vista and 7, Microsoft has finally thrown in the towel and provided its own app for viewing Adobe's popular document format. Dubbed Windows Reader, this new Metro-styled experience offers decent capabilities and performance.
As with the other App Previews, the version of the Mail app we see in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is not complete. But it's in far better shape than some App Previews and provides a pleasant, full-screen experience for managing multiple email accounts.
Continuing the tradition of the App Previews in Windows 8, Microsoft's new Metro-style Calendar app is high on promise but lacking some obvious functionality. I suspect it will only get better over time.
If you're familiar with the Messaging app on Windows Phone, you may assume that the identically named Messaging app in Windows 8 is, well, identical. It's not quite the same, actually, and is more accurately described as a Metro-styled version of Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's PC-based instant messaging application.
Windows Store is exactly what it sounds like, an app store for Windows 8. And even in this Consumer Preview version of Windows 8, where we can access only free apps, it's pretty clear that Microsoft has answered the needs of customers and provided a great apps platform that will extend the capabilities of the OS well into the future.
Windows 8's new Metro environment doesn't include a file explorer app, but it does include a SkyDrive file explorer app, just one of several hints in the new OS that Microsoft's cloud storage solution will take on a much more important role going forward.
Some of the App Previews in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview offer fairly complete user experiences, closely mirroring how they will work once the OS ships publicly later this year. Music is not one of those apps.
In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the App Preview version of the Photos app provides a basic but attractive interface for viewing photos found on the PC, or in online services such as SkyDrive, Facebook and Flickr.
The Video app, the final part of the triumvirate of pain that is Microsoft’s new selection of Metro-style digital media apps, is, well, horrible. It’s as lackluster as any App Preview I’ve used, and is perhaps even the worst of the bunch. Not that it matters. The back-end features that will make this and other digital media apps in Windows 8 special aren’t available yet. So all we can do now is look at what we’re given, shake our heads, and move on.
Following in the footsteps of the Bing Maps app for Windows Phone, Microsoft is providing a similar app for Windows 8. Available now in App Preview form, Bing Maps for Windows 8 offers location and directions services.
With Windows 8, Microsoft has replaced the lackluster Windows Virtual PC solution with the powerful Hyper-V capabilities from Windows Server 2012. This is an amazing change, but it somewhat limits how virtualization works in Windows 8. That is, instead of focusing on application compatibility, Hyper-V in Windows 8 is aimed at software development test environments and IT pros who are managing environments based on Microsoft’s enterprise virtualization solutions.
Complaints about the weird design notwithstanding, Xbox LIVE Games is an interesting front-end to the Xbox LIVE gaming activities that Windows 8 users will one day be enjoying along with, curiously, some Xbox 360-related functionality as well. It’s sort of like the Games hub in Windows Phone except, again, that it weirdly draws in a lot of Xbox 360 content for some reason.
The Xbox Companion app, available now in preview form in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, provides an integration point with Microsoft’s best-selling video game console and entertainment device. Similar to the Xbox Companion app for Windows Phone, this new Metro-style app lets you browse and interact with content in Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE-based online markets.
The Start menu that sat behind the Start button has been replaced by the new, full-screen Start screen and in the interests of consistency, Microsoft has come up with a new interface that those used to the Start button should have little trouble using. It’s called the Start tip.
Microsoft is introducing a new Back tip in Windows 8 that gives mouse-based users a way to easily access the new Back experience. In essence, it’s an alternative to the ALT + TAB keyboard shortcut (Windows Flip) and the new multi-touch-based single swipe gesture for switching to the previous app or experience.
Windows 8 adds new touch- and mouse-based application switching capabilities that work across all of the system’s Metro- and desktop-based experiences. One of these new application switching features is called Switcher, and it provides a handy way to switch between apps whether you’re using a mouse, keyboard, or touch.
While Metro-styled apps are advertised as being full-screen experiences only, they can also support a less-well-known snapped mode, in which they can be used side-by-side onscreen with a second Metro-styled app or the Windows desktop. This Windows 8 feature, not coincidentally, is called Snap, and it’s named after a similar desktop feature that debuted in Windows 7.
While befuddled new Windows 8 users certainly have a lot on their plate when it comes to using this operating system version, I have a few tips about getting up to speed quickly. Key among these is learning the new user interfaces that are available system-wide, from the Start screen, the desktop, and in all Metro-style apps. And the most important of these interfaces, by far, is the Charms.
As with the smart phone systems that it emulates, Windows 8 includes a Metro-style camera app that integrates with the cameras found in your Windows-based PCs and devices. During the Consumer Preview, this app is pretty much relegated to using a web cam and is clearly unfinished.
Modeled after the Windows Phone lock screen, the Windows 8 lock screen is a full-screen, Metro-style experience that appears when you boot your PC or resume from sleep. And as with its smartphone-based counterpart, the Windows 8 lock screen is designed to provide basic glance-and-go information and status notifications for key Metro apps and the services behind them.
The Start screen is the face of the Metro environment in Windows 8 and the controversial replacement for the application launching capabilities of the Start menu from previous Windows versions. A full-screen experience, this interface is populated with live tiles representing Metro-style apps, desktop applications, web sites, libraries and folder locations, and other items.
Unless you’re a serious old timer, you probably don’t remember when copy and paste functionality, now a common and expected feature, was added to Windows. Well, this time you have no excuse: Microsoft is adding a new capability to Windows 8 called contracts. And as with copy and paste, you’re going to have a hard time remembering using Windows before this happened.
In previous versions of Windows, applications were represented by icons, simple graphical objects that offered almost no form of dynamic or expressive content. With Windows 8, however, Microsoft is adopting the tiles system pioneered in Windows Phone, offering users glanceable, dynamic information from your favorite apps, even when they’re not running. And if you’re not already familiar with Microsoft’s mobile platform, the expressive nature of this user interface element may surprise you.
Looking ahead, the topics I know I’ll be covering in feature focus articles in the coming weeks include Charms, lock screen, power user menu, settings sync, Start screen, task management, web-based Setup, File Explorer, File History, multi-monitor, Storage Spaces, Task Manager, Bing Finance, Bing Maps, Bing News, Bing Sports, Bing Travel, Bing Weather, Bing, Calendar, Camera, Internet Explorer 10, Mail, Messaging, People, Photos, SkyDrive, Windows Reader, Windows Store, Xbox Games, Xbox Music, and Xbox Video. If there is a Windows 8 feature you don’t see listed here that you’d like to learn more about, please let me know. When this series of articles is complete, I’d like to bundle it together as a free PDF you can download and reference offline.