Windows 8: Something Old, Something Awkward

Microsoft's old Windows desktop and tablet-friendly Metro UI make strange bedfellows

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The Devices charm doesn't do much just yet. The Settings charm leads to a severely restricted (but very pretty) set of Windows settings: volume, brightness, power. In case you were wondering, that's where you go to turn off your PC.

On the left side of the screen, you can see thumbnails of all running programs by clicking or touching in the upper-left corner, then dragging your finger or mouse down the side. If you have a Metro app or the Windows desktop running, you can click one of the thumbnails and drag it to the right. You'll then arrive at a split screen, with one app occupying 20 percent of the screen and the other occupying 80 percent.

You can split screens between two Metro apps, or one Metro app and the legacy desktop -- no other combinations allowed. (Split screen is officially called "Metro snap," no doubt to confuse Windows 7 users, who know full well what "snap" means.) There is no interaction between the two split applications; you can't drag anything from one side to the other. The only size adjustment is to put the small pane on the left or right.

The Windows Experience Index has changed; the maximum score has been raised to 9.9. To get there, right-click or tap and hold in the bottom-left corner, then choose Control Panel. Under System and Security, choose Review Your Computer's Status and Review Performance Information.

For those of you who take screenshots all the time, Windows 8 has a one-step shoot-and-save capability. To shoot the entire screen and store the shot as an incrementally named PNG file in the default Pictures folder, hold down the Windows key and push PrtScr.

Microsoft is finally catching up with Apple's Time Machine by introducing a very straightforward file backup feature called File History, found in Control Panel. While you're spelunking, don't overlook the Windows 8 Refresh and Reset options (click/tap the Settings charm, then More PC Settings) and the Storage Spaces approach to virtualizing pools of hard drives (back to Control Panel again). I talk about all of these in my Windows 8 Consumer Preview slideshow.

Windows 8 has a new Task Manager, and it runs rings around the one in Windows 7. To see it in action, right-click or tap and hold in the lower-left corner and choose Task Manager.

Finally, there's Internet Explorer 10. In spite of the terminology, IE10 Metro and IE10 legacy desktop are two separate apps that work in completely different ways, though they use the same rendering engine. IE10 Metro's great claim to fame is that the working parts disappear when you don't use them; Web pages fill the entire screen. IE10 legacy's interface is very similar to IE9. Microsoft has been proffering IE10 previews for almost a year now, and you can expect many more changes before the twin browsers ship with Win8.

Internet Explorer 10 doesn't play well with other browsers in Windows 8. If you set a third-party browser to be the default on the legacy desktop, IE10 Metro disappears. The only way to bring the IE10 tile back is to make IE10 the default on the desktop. It isn't clear at this point if this is standard behavior or a bug.

Unanswered questions In spite of the massive outpouring of software and documentation about Windows 8, there are still many burning questions for IT types. For example, will enterprise apps be available from the Windows Store? Microsoft has been promising for ages that enterprises will be able to load Metro-style apps from the Windows Store onto corporate PCs, but we haven't seen any details or examples.

Also, what happened to Windows to Go? In theory, Windows to Go will let you boot to a custom Windows 8 system from a USB drive inserted into any Win7 or Win8 PC. Windows to Go runs in an isolated environment and leaves no traces behind: The host PC can't get into the WTG session, and the WTG session can't get into the host PC. Microsoft calls Windows to Go an "enterprise feature," but aside from a handful of working USB drives distributed at the Build Conference in September, nobody has seen prototypes. There's also no word about licensing requirements.

And how will Windows SmartScreen technology actually work? Just as SmartScreen in Internet Explorer 9 aims to protect users from malicious URLs, SmartScreen in Windows 8 is supposed to protect users from installing rogue apps, tossing up a notice that "Windows protected your PC" when you try to run an iffy installer. So far, however, this has proven to be a pain in the neck. Windows guru Long Zheng, who has detailed his travails with Windows 8 SmartScreen in his blog, complains that the application reputation mechanism is shrouded in mystery. Additionally, "the act of signing your installer and application with a code signing certificate (which costs up to $499 a year from Microsoft's recommended certificate authority VeriSign) doesn't automatically grant you 'enough' reputation either," he writes. Fortunately, you can disable SmartScreen fairly easily.

Finally, there's another nagging factor. When the so-called WOA systems -- the Windows 8 systems that run on light, cool ARM architecture -- arrive, they won't join Windows domains and they won't be managed via the Microsoft System Center. WOA machines will only run Metro apps, with a few Microsoft-dictated exceptions. This makes it hard to imagine why IT would recommend WOA machines over iPads. Perhaps there's a convincing argument coming down the pike.

Microsoft's COO Kevin Turner is expected to talk more about the enterprise and Windows 8 at his CeBIT keynote in Hanover on March 6. Hopefully, we'll learn more then.

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This story, "Windows 8: Something Old, Something Awkward" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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