First Looks: The Windows 8 Desktop

Tuesday Apr 10th 2012 by Helen Bradley
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In part three of our series on Windows 8, Helen Bradley takes an in-depth look at the new desktop.

You might think that the desktop is just another tile on the Windows 8 Start screen, but it's where most small business users will spend their day. The desktop runs all of your legacy software; it's where you store and manage your files, and you can browse the Web from there too.

While the new Metro interface is the main changes in Windows 8, Microsoft definitely made changes to the desktop, too. Here are some of the changes and challenges that await anyone who upgrades to Windows 8.

Windows 8 Desktop Start

Figure 1: The desktop might be just one tile on the new Windows 8 Metro Start screen, but it's where you'll spend most of your workday.

The Windows 8 Details

In some cases, the little things in Windows 8 are going to make all the difference. For example Windows Explorer now has a Ribbon interface. Click the down-pointing arrow in the top-right of the window, or press Ctrl + F1 to see the Ribbon.

In Windows Explorer you can select viewing options from the icons in the bottom-right corner of the window. The One Folder Up icon takes you one folder up through your file system. A Copy Path button lets you copy the path of a file to the Clipboard to use in another program. Use the Share and View tabs on the Ribbon to select various options; and the file ListView runs "snaking-column style" not zigzag across the screen as it did in Windows Vista.

Windows 8 Explorer

Figure 2: Windows Explorer now has a Ribbon interface and some long-overdue features such as options for displaying file name extensions.

Previews are live, so in the View tab you can mouse over a view's preview to see what the folder would look like if you chose this option. And you can view file name extensions and hidden items with a single click on a Ribbon icon -- putting these options in an accessible and visible place is a long-overdue feature.

The new Copy To and Move To options make it quick and easy to copy files and, when you do, you get a new Copy window that shows you the file copy progress. If you have multiple copy tasks running at once, they're assembled into one dialog, and you can individually pause and restart each one.

Windows 8 Copy

Figure 3: The new Copy dialog aggregates all your copy tasks and lets you pause them individually, if desired.

New Task Manager

The Task Manager has received a significant overhaul. The default view is a simple dialog that shows very little but, when you click More Details, you get access to a tabbed panel showing options that include Processes, Performance, App History, Startup, Users, and Services. In the new Startup tab you can view and manage the programs that run on startup and disable those you don't want to run.

Windows 8 Tasks

Figure 4: The new Task Manager contains a Startup panel where you can manage programs that run on starting Windows.

Which Internet Explorer 10 is that?

When it comes to browsing the Web, Windows 8 is a little confusing. It offers two versions of Internet Explorer, and they look and behave differently. The version on the desktop is the more recognizable of the two, and the Metro version that you run from the Start screen is very...well…Metro-like.

The Metro version of IE 10 has a bar across the bottom of the screen and icons that disappear as you browse. Some functionality has been removed from the IE 10 app and applied to the Charms icons (Settings, Devices, Share, Search, and Start), so you access the Devices charm to print a Web page and the Share charm to email it.

The two IE 10 versions share a history list, but they're so different that it can be confusing when moving from one to the other. Which IE version you run depends on where you are when you click the IE 10 icon -- from the Start screen you run the Metro version, and from the desktop you run the older version.

Happily, you can switch from the Metro version to the more familiar and functional desktop version by clicking the Tools icon and choose View on the Desktop.

Charmed by Charms

On the desktop the Charms operate a little differently to how they work in Metro. For example, Charms are not application-specific on the desktop, so they give you access to general desktop settings and not specific application settings.

The Search charm, which replaces the old Programs menu as one way to run programs, will be forced on users even when using the desktop. While programs install as tiles on the Start page, you can also use the Search charm to find them by typing their name or selecting them from the list.

Windows 8 Search

Figure 5: One method of launching programs will be using the Search charm, which is an improvement on the Windows Vista and Windows 7 programs options.

While this might seem an unwanted change from a user point of view, it is a significant improvement on the clunky programs option featured in Windows Vista and Windows 7. There is, in fact, a lot to like about the Windows 8 Search charm, and most people should find it easy to use once they know it's there and where to find it.

Metro or Desktop: Is it a Choice?

Most business users will be focused more on the desktop than they will on Metro, because the desktop is where you'll run legacy programs such as Word, Excel, your small business accounting software, Photoshop and the other day-to-day programs.

In this sense the desktop will be familiar territory for most people. You'll like that you can run multiple programs at a time and adjust the size of their windows to suit yourself. This freedom doesn't exist in Metro where you can only view two applications at once and their size is fixed - one app runs at a large size and the second app in a shrunk down narrow panel.

Instead, you can display the desktop over multiple monitors. If you're using two monitors you can arrange things the way you want them to look.

In the business environment, the desktop won't cause a lot of problems. The biggest issue will be training employees how to switch between Metro and the desktop, how to deal with the fact that there is no Start menu, and how to find and use the Charms that contain features they will want and need to use.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com

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