In less than 10 days Microsoft will release what may be the most significant operating system in its 37-year history in PC software. Windows 8 marks a new chapter for the Redmond, Wash.-based company -- a transition from traditional desktop usage to a mobile-centric persona.
Although Microsoft has been talking about Windows 8 for quite some time, the operating system’s future is still unclear. Major players from big shot tech companies like Intel have criticized the software for not being ready yet, and heavyweights in the PC gaming industry like Valve’s Gabe Newell have slammed Windows 8 for its closed-platform approach, calling it a “catastrophe.”
All the while, manufacturers such as Lenovo have been slowly unveiling their shiny new convertible style laptops built for Microsoft’s upcoming OS. Some say Windows 8 is an innovative step for Microsoft, others have criticized it, but one thing is for sure: Windows 8 is a big change. And with big changes come an adjustment period and a learning curve, which is why we’ve compiled this guide of key Windows 8 features below.
Note: Microsoft will officially unveil Windows 8 at a press event on Oct. 25. The list below is based solely on the Consumer Preview, the Release Preview, the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) edition, and the Developers Preview Mode.
Touch-Based User Interface
With Windows 8, Microsoft is altering the traditional layout found in previous operating systems by layering a new animation-enabled user interface on a “somewhat upgraded” Windows 7, according to Notebook Review.
This creates what was formerly known as the “Metro” interface, which features customizable tiles in a mosaic across the screen. The addition of Live Tiles also lets users view information without having to launch an application, and the screen can be navigated through swiping and sweeping gestures.
“The [Metro] apps are full-screen. They’re beautiful,” said Jensen Harris, lead program manager on Microsoft Office User Experience at September’s Build conference. “They’re designed for touch, but of course they work great with a mouse and keyboard as well if that’s what you have. We wanted to make it really fast and fluid for you to switch between them.”
It’s also worth noting that Windows 8 users can access any Windows 7 apps on the new operating system.
Support for both x86 PCs and ARM tablets
Windows 8 will be Microsoft’s first operating system to be compatible with ARM-based tablets and x86 PCs based on ARM processors.
“Support for ARM-based chipsets, touch, and sensors makes Windows 8 work beautifully on your choice of a full spectrum of devices, such as 10-inch slates with all-day battery life, ultra-lightweight laptops, and powerful all-in-ones with 27-inch high-definition screens,” Microsoft says in a Windows 8 guide that comes with the Windows Developer Preview.
The ARM version of Windows 8 also boasts a new feature that allows a tablet to remain in standby mode like a smartphone with disconnecting from the Internet.
This feature is designed to make it easier for users to run two apps simultaneously in Windows 8. Users can resize them, switch between them, and snap an app into place on the desktop. Making an app larger is as simple as dragging the bar for the app, and to switch between apps users swipe from the left-hand part of the screen.
To scroll through everything currently open, users can flick the screen to gain access to any programs or apps in either desktop or Start screen views.
Charms can be thought of as a new iteration of the Windows Start bar. This can be used to quickly configure settings for individual apps, and are accessed by dragging the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen on traditional non-touch PCs. This is the same place the Windows Start button was located on previous Windows operating systems. On a tablet, users can swipe from the right side of the screen to access charms.
The Charms sidebar offers five sets of options that include both app-specific settings and system settings. These choices are Start, Search, Share, Devices, and Settings, with the Start option bring users back to the home screen and the Devices button showing a list of connected devices. The Share option brings up a list of social network sharing apps.
More Ways To Customize
The new “tattoos” feature gives users another way to personalize their desktop or home screen background beyond changing the wallpaper and screensavers. This was initially discovered in the Release to Manufacturing version of Windows 8, allowing users to ink their Windows system.
To add tattoos, users must hover the mouse in the lower right corner to pull up the Charms bar or use the keyboard shortcut Key + C. After this, select Settings and then choose Change PC Settings. Click the Personalization option and then choose Start Screen on the right to customize the color and add tattoos. Users can see a preview of how the tattoo will look before it is added to the Home screen.
Windows 8 RTM also contained a feature that allowed users to customize the lock screen picture on PCs. In this version of the software six different choices were available for the lock screen, which can also be changed in the Personalize menu referenced above.
Windows 8 Control Panel
In addition to an overhaul in the user interface and task manager, Windows 8 comes with a brand new control panel. Options include Personalize, Users, Wireless, Notifications, General, Privacy, Search and Share. The Personalize menu will allow users to customize their Start menu with any tiles they please, ranging from calendar, to music, Netflix, email and more.
Touch-Based Web Navigation
The Internet Explorer 10 browser that comes with Windows 8 features a gesture-based zoom pan for those preferring a touch screen experience. Users can also quickly access Charms while browsing the in Internet Explorer 10.
Microsoft has made it easier to copy multiple files at once with Windows 8. A new feature compiles copy operations into a single dialog box rather than requiring users to launch a separate dialog box for each app. This new box lets users pause, resume and stop each copy task and will alert users when one file is being copied on top of another.
A New Windows Store
While some have criticized the upcoming Windows Store of transforming the OS into a closed platform, others would argue that Microsoft’s new App shop has promise. The Windows Store is expected to get more than 100,000 apps within three months of its launch, a jump the company needs to take if it wishes to compete with rival mobile operating systems Android and iOS.
“In order to reach our goal, a conservative estimate of 400 million units in marketplace by July 1, we know we have to have a healthy ecosystem of apps,” Microsoft’s VP Keith Lorizio told Beet.TV. “We’re putting millions of dollars against that effort and working with publishers to get their apps live as soon as possible.”
Windows 8 will be available for purchase on Oct. 26. Users can download Windows 8 for $40 until January, and the software can be bought in stores for $70. Any customer who has bought or purchases a Windows 7 PC between June 2 and the end of January will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 for $15. Preorders for the software began on Oct. 12.
Microsoft will also be launching its Surface tablet on Oct. 26 alongside the operating system, but users can purchase it beginning at midnight at Microsoft’s various retail locations.
Lisa Eadicicco is a reporter covering mobile technology and video games for The International Business Times. Lisa joined the editorial team at IBT in January 2012, and has...