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

windows-8-unlock-screenEarlier this year, Steve Ballmer was asked to identify the riskiest product Microsoft was developing. His answer was Windows 8, and this week we learned why. For the first time since 1995, Microsoft has gone back to the drawing board with its flagship operating system, completely redesigning the user interface (UI) we’ve all become intimately familiar with in the last 16 years. As with any change, some critics believe Windows 8 could be the death of Microsoft, while others are certain to believe it the company’s savior. One thing is for certain, however. It is most certainly a bold step forward.

But what’s new, and how will it work? We’ve broken down some of the biggest new features behind Windows 8 to provide an in-depth guide to one of the biggest face lifts Microsoft has ever attempted.

Afterwords, head on over to our list of the best Windows phones as picked by our expert reviewers.

Microsoft’s armored tank, equipped for battle

For the last 25 years, the only competitor Microsoft had to worry about was Apple. This is no longer the case. Because of the explosive success of the smartphone and tablet markets (driven by Apple), Windows is facing a fleet of lightweight, simple operating systems. Aside from Apple, which has already begun transforming its Mac OS X to incorporate more iPad and iPhone features, new operating systems are creeping onto devices more and more similar to PCs. Google’s Android, RIM’s BlackBerry Tablet OS, HP’s webOS, and Google’s Chrome OS are all out to snatch a piece of the smartphone, tablet, and PC markets. In this “post-PC” world where smartphones and other devices are just as important as PCs, demand for PCs that incorporate many of the great new features of smartphones like instant notifications, online app stores, better connectivity, and touch-based UI is growing and will continue to grow. Microsoft’s answer to this trend is Windows 8.

Windows Phone 7 is not doing well and Microsoft will be woefully late to the tablet market when Windows 8 hits shelves in mid 2012. Microsoft seems to acknowledge this reality. Windows 8 is a huge gamble by Microsoft, and represents the struggling tech giants best weapon against the onslaught of hungry operating systems that hope to dethrone it. The new Windows will have a simpler touch interface and has been designed to work on tablets (even those using ARM processors) and PCs with or without a mouse and keyboard. Oh, and did we mention that it manages to do this while maintaining all compatibility with Windows 7 applications? Microsoft is hoping customers see this as a win-win.

Live Tiles are the new icon

Windows 8 Start Screen

Microsoft is as big a fan of icons as anyone, but the famed grid of shortcuts that made up the Windows homescreen is now gone. And let’s face it, while sometimes pretty, icons are always static. They don’t do anything. Live Tiles are the opposite. Borrowing from Windows Phone 7, when you log into Windows 8, the first thing you’ll see is a homescreen full of square and rectangular Live Tiles. These are shortcuts, but they’re also much more. Since they’re larger, they can display pictures and animate to show new, relevant information to you before you ever enter an application. For instance, the Hotmail app may show you how many unread messages are in your inbox. The weather tile above actually shows the weather before you even enter the app.

We’re also assuming that Live Tiles will be very flexible, allowing you to make a tile for almost anything you wish, from an individual flight, to a webpage you want to remember, to a file, to a single feature or page within an application. In many ways, Live Tiles offer much more information than a standard desktop, but are sparse enough that you don’t get information overload from looking at your homescreen.

From what we gather so far, it appears that the standard Windows 8 homescreen can hold a grid of 18 square Live Tiles. As you can see above, some apps will have small square Live Tiles, while others will have double-sized tiles. It would be cool if tiles could grow even larger, assuming you desire it. We presume that the new homescreen will add pages infinitely (or for a while) based on the number of tiles you add. If not, it will likely have a set number of homescreen pages you can fill, much like Android phones. You’ll be able to drag Live Tiles around and reorganize them as you wish.

Still don’t understand Live Tiles? You can always go to a store and try out a Windows Phone, or just think of it this way: Your entire desktop is full of widgets. This is a grid of widgets. We’re guessing that you’ll be able to remove that ugly purple background too, so don’t worry.