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Windows 8 Feature Focus: Windows Desktop

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.


To understand what's new with the desktop, however, it's useful to also understand where the Metro environment, as I call it, pokes its tendrils into Microsoft's classic Windows interface. Remember that it is Metro, and not the desktop, that is the underlying platform, or OS, in this release. As such, the desktop is conceptually considered just another app. And while some may argue about the technical truth of that statement, it's easy enough to defend.


All key system features are now provided using Metro-style interfaces, and not through the traditional desktop as before. These features include, but are not limited to, the new Start experience, the new Back experience, the new Switcher task-switching interface, the Charms bar, notifications (which arrive as both full-screen experiences and flyover toasts), Snap (the side-by-side app screen sharing functionality), Search, and Settings. Each intrudes into the desktop, or really "above" the desktop, relegating this once proud environment to a more subservient position. It's a very clear new vs. old delineation.


I've written about those Metro features numerous times elsewhere. So let's focus instead on desktop features that are new and improved in this release.


Improved Windows Explorer


In Windows 8, Explorer adopts the new ribbon-based UI, replacing the previous version’s command bar with a more powerful but denser interface that puts all the options you’ll ever need—and  then some—right up front. Fortunately, thanks to feedback during the Windows 8 pre-release cycle, Microsoft opted to hide the ribbon by default. So you'll see something like the following:




Expand the ribbon, however, and all of the commands you'll ever need are surfaced automatically. And I mean that literally: The ribbon is context sensitive, so you'll see different commands, often in unique ribbon tabs, surfaced as you view different types of folders and other file system locations, and by selecting different file types.




Some of the additional tabs that pop-up from time to time include Manage: Library Tools, available only when viewing a Library, Manage: Picture Tools, and Drive: Disk Tools.


Copying and moving files


Microsoft has significantly updated the file copy and move experience in Windows 8, making it both faster and easier to manage. If you’re familiar with how this works in Windows 7 and older Windows versions, you know that each file and/or move operation you begin creates its own file or move window, and that each subsequent operation slows everything down to an eventual crawl.


In Windows 8, this is streamlined and much faster. File copies and moves all occur in a single window in which you can pause any copy or move processes if you’d like to give precedence to another operation. And file copies and moves occur much more quickly than before, even when you have multiple file operations going at once. File copy/move conflicts are also handled in a far more elegant fashion that before.




Pin to Start


Windows 7 provided a way to pin applications to the taskbar, and Internet Explorer 9 added the ability to do so with web apps and sites. In Windows 8, we can now pin Metro-style apps to the Start screen, of course. But we can also pin desktop applications like Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, and the like. You can do so from the Metro-style search experience, or from Windows Explorer directly. For the latter, you have to navigate in Windows Explorer to the location of the item you wish to pin, or to a shortcut representing the item. Then, right-click and choose Pin to Start from the context menu.




This method also works for libraries and folders, but not for documents.


Mounting disk images as part of the file system


In Windows 8, Microsoft has added support for two very popular disc (and disk) image formats, ISO and VHD, allowing users to browse within these special files as if they were physical discs (or disks) connected to the PC.


Windows 8 automatically “mounts” both ISO and VHD files so that they become, in effect, part of the PC’s file system, just as with any other attached storage device. For example, when you plug a USB hard drive into your PC, it may become the E: drive, or whatever. So it is with both ISO and VHD files: Simply by opening such a file—by double-clicking it with the mouse, say—it becomes part of the file system and immediately picks up the next available drive letter.




There are some differences between the two. While you can navigate around the virtual file system of both VHD and ISO files, and use all the standard file management actions--adding and removing files from the images, and so on--you can with physical storage, VHD's provide the full suite of Windows 8 disk utilities to work with. So they're seen as fixed disks, not as removable disks. That said, both can be "ejected" normally.




Microsoft included a useful feature called SmartScreen in Internet Explorer 9 that helps protect your PC against malicious software downloads. It works well, but of course is of no value if you've chosen a different web browser, or if that software enters your PC through some other means. So in Windows 8, this feature is made available to the entire file system through a feature called Windows SmartScreen. It needs to be enabled by default (through Action Center) because it requires you to anonymously opt-in to an online service that tracks application reputation. (Hey, give Microsoft some credit. They're not Google.) And when you run into an untrusted application, SmartScreen will let you know. It's hard to miss.




Task Manager


Windows has long offered an interface called Task Manager that, among other things, provides a way for users to manually kill processes and applications. It's perhaps a sad statement that this interface is one of the most-frequently used tools in Windows. But in Windows 8, it's gotten its most impressive upgrade in years, with a simple new user interface that offers a superset of the functionality from previous versions.


Task Manager provides a very simple interface by default, with a list of running desktop applications and Metro-style apps. You can right-click any of these and kill them immediately if you want, this interface's most common activity.




Or, you can click More details and Task Manager will expand into a power user's dream come true.




This interface provides filtering for better application management, a way to manage applications that run at boot time, services management, and more.


Final thoughts


There's so much more to the desktop, including a deeper understanding of how the Metro experiences pervade (or invade) into this environment, significant enhancements to multi-monitor support that most benefit desktop users, the coming SkyDrive app that will provide cloud extensibility to the file system, the ability to boot directly to the desktop and skip the Start screen, and more. But I'll be looking at all that and more in future articles, and expanding on some of the individual features mentioned here. For now, don’t despair if you're not sold on Metro: Microsoft is making plenty of improvements to the desktop environment in Windows 8 as well. And if you intend to stick to this interface on traditional computers as I will be doing, you'll still be well served by the upgrade to Windows 8.

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