If you're a PC user, Microsoft Windows is probably as familiar as the back of your hand right? Not any more.
Microsoft has gone back to the drawing board in designing its latest operating system, creating an experience that is more akin to using a tablet or smartphone - even if you're at a desktop PC.
Microsoft has developed an operating system that can be used across all your devices - from your work and home desktop computers to your tablet and your smartphone.
Windows 8 is designed with touchscreens in mind, but can also be used with keyboard and mouse.
It will be available on new Windows PCs and tablets, and in the near future smartphones running on a similar operating system - called Windows Phone 8 - will be hitting the market.
In a first, Microsoft is also releasing its own hardware with Windows 8. Its Surface computer is a cross between a tablet and a notebook computer, with a magnetically attachable touch keyboard. Pricing and availability is yet to be confirmed.
Windows 8 can also be downloaded to the majority of Windows 7 PCs - but again Microsoft is yet to confirm pricing. If you buy or have bought a Windows 7 PC between June this year and February next, you'll be able to download Windows 8 at a discount - for $20.
So what's new?
Instead of firing up your applications through the Start Menu or launching Internet Explorer to get to your email, you'll encounter something entirely different.
That familiar old Start button in the bottom left and those little desktop shortcut icons are gone. The Windows 8 user interface presents your applications (your email, calendar etc) as coloured tiles - similar to the tiles interface on Windows Phone smartphones. The tiles are "live" so, for example, you can see just by looking at your Hotmail tile whether you have any new emails, and your appointments for the day will show in the Calendar tile. Clicking on a tile launches that application in a new window. Again the experience will be similar to using an application on a tablet computer. There are also tiles for the usual Windows suspects, such as Microsoft Word. You can customise the home screen with whichever tiles you choose to give easy access to the applications that interest you the most.
If all of this sounds too scary, never fear - Microsoft hasn't completely cut ties with the old Windows. The Desktop tile on the Start screen will take you back to the more familiar Windows 7 desktop, and you can use all your older-style apps and software that haven't been updated for Windows 8. You won't be able to do this on Windows 8 tablets though, as they won't support traditional Windows apps. They will have a modified version of Microsoft Office though, minus Outlook. All other apps will have to be downloaded through the Windows Store.
Windows 8 also uses "hot corners" to give you access to certain menus.
Hovering your mouse or finger over the top or bottom right corner of the screen will bring up the Charms menu, which lets you search for anything on your device, adjust your device's settings, share files through email and social networking sites, return to your Start menu, and control settings with other devices such as printers.
You can also search for files just by typing in their keywords from any screen. Windows 8 will group results under the applications they appear in, such as Mail or People. Swiping your mouse or finger on the left edge of the screen will bring up a menu of apps in use so you can easily switch between them.
Clicking in the lower left corner will switch between the traditional desktop screen (if it is open), and the new Start screen. Right clicking in the corner will being up a menu with tools such as the Control Panel and Device Manager.
APPS, APPS AND MORE APPS
In true tablet (and smartphone) style, apps are a major focus. Windows 8 users will be able to browse and download free and paid apps for their PC, laptop, tablets from the Windows Store app. Downloaded apps will also be displayed as live tiles. Apps already built in to Windows 8 will include the Mail email app, a People app, which shows contacts and their social media status updates, and Messaging, Calendar, Photos, Music, Internet Explorer, Weather, Finance and Sports apps.
Windows 8 stores all your settings in the cloud so you can log in on any Windows 8 device and access all your apps and customisations just as you like them. Each Windows 8 device also comes with a SkyDrive account ready to go - so you can store and share documents online.
A cool, but slightly gimmicky, Windows 8 feature is the ability to use a photo password with one of your own snaps. You choose a photo for the lock screen and trace a gesture over the photo, which will become your new password.
Windows 8 is also the first operating system to come with antivirus software built in. The software is Microsoft Security Essentials - of course.
Windows 8 is likely to confuse at first - even seasoned tablet users will take some time to find their way around it - but reviewers say once you've got the hang of it, it's quite a clean, modern and pleasant experience.
If you're now on a Windows PC or laptop that doesn't have a touchscreen then there's probably not a lot of point upgrading to Windows 8. The next generation of desktops and notebooks are likely be touch-enabled, meaning Windows 8 will become more and more useful, and familiar.
Sources: Wall Street Journal, PC World, Mashable, TechRadar, Sydney Morning Herald, About.com, Cnet, TechCrunch, ComputerWorld, Windows 7 Hacker, Microsoft.
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