With Windows 8, Microsoft has drastically tweaked the user interface, so it works on both regular PCs and touch-based tablets. Most prominent is the new Metro Start screen, an interface first seen on Windows Phone 7.
You can try out Windows 8 by downloading the Release Preview version of the OS. This will work on any PC that can run Windows 7 and is available for free. There are hundreds of changes in the new OS, and here are eight that you should try out so you know how different Windows 8 really is from its predecessors.
1. Picture password
Instead of typing in a password, it is now possible to program a pattern of movements on the screen to unlock your PC. To do this, click on “Create a picture password” under Settings > Users . You will then be prompted to select a picture for use as your lock screen and pick three gestures to make on the image that will become your password. These can include lines or taps. Once that’s done, the next time you log in, you need only repeat those gestures in the correct order to get access to Windows.
This feature is especially useful if you use Windows 8 on a touchscreen tablet, as it would avoid having to bring up an onscreen keyboard to log in to the machine.
2. Desktop is an “app”
This is probably more a mindset change than a feature. To fully embrace the Metro interface, think of the old Windows desktop as an app, rather than being the default state. Like any other Metro app, the desktop can be started and closed, and appears like other programs when cycling through open apps.
3. Snap for Metro apps
Just like how apps can snap to exactly half the screen on Windows 7, Metro apps can snap into position, too. When snapped to a narrow width, information on the app gets reorganized to fit into the smaller width.
This feature is useful when you want something like an IM thread always on screen but don’t want it to affect your other maximized program.
4. Swiping gestures work with touchpad
Few mainstream PCs come with touchscreen displays, so gestures like swiping in from the right of the screen to bring up the Charms menu won’t work. However, if you have a touchpad on your laptop, the same actions can be used on it. So you can swipe into the left side of the touchpad to switch between apps, swipe from right to activate the charms and so on.
Do remember to update the drivers for your laptop’s touchpad after installing Windows 8 Release Preview. This should enable the multi-touch and swipe gestures. The Windows 7 version of these drivers should work if your laptop manufacturer does not have Windows 8-specific ones.
5. Separate wallpaper for monitors
A number of enhancements have been made regarding support for using multiple monitors with one PC. One of these is the ability to configure separate wallpapers for individual screens–with Windows 7, multiple screens shared the same wallpaper.
This will make different monitors more distinct from one another, which could help some users who have lots of apps open on multiple screens.
6. Snap to corners with multi-monitor setup
Using the corners of the screen is an important element of the Windows 8 UI as it lets you perform tasks like going back to the Start screen. Getting to corners can sometimes be problematic when using multiple screens in Windows 7 as you sometimes end up moving the pointer to the next screen.
Windows 8 has been designed so the mouse pointer will snap to the corner of the screen subtly before crossing the center divider to the next screen. The slight slowdown will allow you to go to corners to close programs or bring up the Charms menu without accidentally going to the second monitor.
7. Improved Task Manager
The Task Manager in Windows is sometimes used to end unresponsive apps or to see the CPU utilization of different programs. It has been improved in Windows 8 to cater for both basic and advanced users. By default, all you see in Task Manager now is a list of running apps. That’s all some basic users want, to close non-responsive programs.
Advanced users can choose to see more details, and compared with Windows 7, a lot more information is now available. Aside from the usual CPU and memory utilization, there’s also an App history list, showing all the apps used on the PC. You can even see how much network data is used by each app, and even drill down to whether this is on “Metered network”, which means data access using a mobile broadband plan. This should come in handy for those watching their Internet usage on volume-based plans.
8. Reset your PC quickly
If you are done playing with your Windows 8 Release Preview laptop and want to let someone else try it out, there’s an easy way to wipe all data. Instead of using the manufacturer’s Windows 7 restore, followed by a reinstallation of Windows 8, you can simply reset Windows from the menu. This will remove all personal files and put all settings back to default.
In the future, this will also come in handy when giving away or selling your laptop. The process of resetting Windows 8 is very fast, complete within a few minutes (granted you’re using an SSD), compared with the hour or more it sometimes takes with manufacturer restores.