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Windows 8 features explained: What’s new and how it works

A touch OS with multiple windows

windows-8-split-screen-ie10-news-feed

If you’ve used a smartphone or tablet, you already know that on these devices, applications run in full screen and you can only run one at a time. Windows 8 introduces a fantastic game-changing feature: split-screen apps. The new OS lets you open an app and drag a second app onto the side. Using your finger, you can then adjust its width to be as narrow or thick as you’d like. This feature is a lot like how Windows 7 intuitively ‘snaps’ your windows to the left or right of the screen for you. The image above shows Internet Explorer 10 alongside a news reading application.

windows-8-swiping-to-alternate-apps

Skipping between applications is simpler than any OS we’ve seen yet. Like the BlackBerry Tablet OS (one of our favorite touch operating systems, in terms of design), you simply swipe in from the left side of the screen. Depending how you flick the app you’re holding (see above), it will either be disposed of, become a split screen app, or maximize and take up the entire screen. Cool, right?

windows-8-start-swipe-right

If you’ve used a smartphone or tablet, you know that most have a set of navigation buttons on the bottom. Windows Phones have a Windows logo (Start), a Search icon, and a Back button. Microsoft has borrowed and adapted this concept for Windows 8. Pressing that pretty Windows Start button in the image above brings you right back to the homescreen grid of Live Tiles that we described earlier. In addition, buttons for share, connect, and settings have been added, which we presume will allow you to share things on social networks, store things to the cloud, connect to other devices, and change the settings of an individual app, or possibly the entire computer.

A Windows Marketplace app store

We won’t dwell on this, but the new demos definitely show that Windows 8 will have an app store. While we’re guessing that you can still install software via CD (if you have a drive for that), flash drive, or off the open net, a lot of you will be downloading apps right from Microsoft’s store. Apple’s App Store is one of the greatest and worst things to happen to computing. On one hand, the process of installing and updating apps is excellently streamlined. The only problem with such a centralized system is that, while it can weed out viruses and make the entire experience so much nicer, it also means that all applications for a platform are in one place. Any government body can demand that Microsoft, Google, or Apple remove an offensive app and many of them will do it. Other abuses can happen as well. Apple, for example, doesn’t allow apps on its store that compete with iTunes directly.

Hopefully Microsoft will make Windows 8 an open platform, so more app stores can pop up and applications can be installed freely.

A new keyboard

windows-8-traditional-touch-keyboard windows-8-thumby-keyboard

Windows 8 will come with full support for a keyboard and mouse, but for those using it on a touch tablet, Microsoft has come up with an interesting new way to thumb type on a large screen. One problem with wide 10.1-inch touch tablets is that they’re slightly too small for a full-size qwerty keyboard to feel natural. Sometimes you want to thumbtype, like you do on a smartphone. Microsoft has addressed this issue head on with a new split keyboard design that allows both of your thumbs to type on keys that aren’t halfway across the screen. Now, if only Redmond could figure out how to add the number keys in there…

A simpler Internet Explorer

windows-8-internet-explorer-10-touch

While Microsoft demonstrated Office in its old Windows 7 style, Internet Explorer has already gotten a makeover for Windows 8. IE10 is being designed with touch in mind. Now, when you’re browsing there are no menus visible on the screen. Only when you swipe down from the top of the screen do your open tabs appear along with an address bar at the bottom (an interesting location for the address). As writers, we use a lot of tabs and browser windows, so we’re hoping it will be possible to have two instances of IE open at a time and that you’ll be able to rip tabs into new windows and easy to skip between. Only time will tell, of course.

File folders still exist!

windows-8-files-and-directories

One of the staples of Windows is Explorer, the file system that has defined the OS for decades. Though Android, iOS, and Windows Phone (along with most other smartphones) attempt to minimize or eliminate folders and directories, Microsoft emphasized that folders are staying put, and that it’s possible to manipulate directories and files using the new interface.

While you can definitely use the more detailed Windows 7 style folders (more on that below), there appears to be a directory app built into Windows 8 that separates things into eight categories: documents, pictures, music, videos, desktop, downloads, computer, and network. All files from all apps are pulled together as well, so you can view every picture or song on your computer, no matter which actual folder it is in. In addition, any apps you install that allow remote uploading or storage will appear as options so you can easily dump the pictures or files you wish. Copying and pasting multiple files appears to be a bit easier than past versions as well.

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