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Tooling Around With Windows 8

By Patrick Nelson
Nov 8, 2012 5:00 AM PT

My first impression of the bargain-basement US$39.99 Windows OS upgrade: To all outward appearances, Windows 8 is a vivid, visual, deeply rewarding and aesthetically pleasing skin to the 2009-released Windows 7 PC desktop OS.

Tooling Around With Windows 8

Big deal, you might say.

However, digging in a bit, I found that this rather beautiful desktop isn't just a revamp of Windows 95 and later incarnations, with their ever-proliferating static shortcut icons. The icons in Windows 8 are live.

Here's a look at some of the things that are different from boring old Windows 7 and its earlier versions, why this OS is worth 40 bucks, and how you can explore it to get up to speed.

The Animated Start Page

Most of Windows 8's widget-like tiles are live and animated. They are really self-updating widgets -- a la mobile OS -- rather than the static icons we're used to on a PC.

Click on the "Photos" tile on the Start page. Then add some photos by connecting to a social network or to Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud service. After a while, the pictures will appear and animate within the Photos tile on the Start page.

Follow the same concept to populate other tiles. For example, populate the Weather tile by clicking on it, and allowing Location Services at the prompt.

Software - That Is, Apps

Apps are the new applications, or what we used to call "software."

Click on the "Store" tile to launch the Store Spotlight. Scroll through the categories like Games and Productivity by placing the pointer at the bottom of the screen and clicking on the scroll-like navigation bar that appears.

Choose an app, like TuneIn Radio, say, by clicking on it and selecting Install. The install process will commence and may ask you for the Live password that you used when setting up the operating system.

Look for the newly installed app on the Start screen.

SkyDrive Storage

Microsoft's Dropbox- and Google Drive-like cloud storage product is tightly integrated into Windows 8. SkyDrive provides 7 GB of free storage. Download SkyDrive on a Windows 7, Vista or Mac OS X Lion computer within the same network as the Windows 8 PC you're on, and the machines will find each other.

Drag some files into the SkyDrive folder on the legacy computer, and they will sync on the Windows 8 computer. As with Dropbox and others, there are SkyDrive apps for mobile devices too.

Internet Explorer 10

Browse to a Web page that you'd ordinarily bookmark or save to favorites. Then select the Pin to Start.

The page will become accessible from the Start page. Some sites create a live notification when updates are available.

Organizing and Touch

This OS has been designed for touch in much the same way as smartphone and tablet OSes are.

You need a new, multitouch-compatible computer to take advantage of this, but you can get a feel for the experience on a mouse-based computer.

Moving a Tile

Place your cursor over a tile, like the Photos tile. Then hold the left mouse button down and track the pointer so it drags the tile to a new location on the Start screen.

Release the left mouse button, and the tile will be relocated.

Navigation Tips

There's no Start button -- even to stop. On touch computers, swiping in from the left changes apps. Swiping in from the right returns you to the Start screen; swiping in from the bottom displays navigation functions; and pinching and stretching will zoom.

These concepts work with a mouse too. Try some of this navigation by clicking on the Internet Explorer tile. Then move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen until the pointer morphs into a hand icon.

Press the left mouse button and drag the Internet Explorer page to the bottom of the screen with the mouse. The screen will be returned to the Start page.

Click in the top left corner within an app screen to see recent apps. Drag one of those apps to a spot on the screen until a space appears. Release the mouse button and both apps will share the screen.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech you'd like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that's got you confounded? Please send your tech questions to me, and I'll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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How do you feel about accidents that occur when self-driving vehicles are being tested?
Self-driving vehicles should be banned -- one death is one too many.
Autonomous vehicles could save thousands of lives -- the tests should continue.
Companies with bad safety records should have to stop testing.
Accidents happen -- we should investigate and learn from them.
The tests are pointless -- most people will never trust software and sensors.
Most injuries and fatalities in self-driving auto tests are due to human error.