Five ways Windows 8 overhauls the PC

Windows 8 makes numerous and substantial changes to how we use computers. Here are the most important ones that you'll have to get used to.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
4 min read
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Watch this: Windows 8 leads with tiles, apps, sync -- and a learning curve, too

In 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted the fictional Star Trek chronology and franchise. In 2011, DC Comics did the same with its superheroes. But now Microsoft is about to reboot the very real Windows operating system, and it will forever change how we use computers.

Windows 8 is Microsoft's answer to the question of how to integrate mobile and desktop computing. For the most part, it succeeds, but it's an ambitious answer that will be best understood only when many people to stop thinking of desktop and mobile as discrete entities.

Touch will drive Windows 8's buzz, but it's so much more. The biggest change in Windows 8 is that it is designed for touch screens, but that doesn't mean that the keyboard and mouse are dead. In fact, to see that the opposite is true you have to look no further than the iPad. Apple's dominating and innovative tablet owns its market, but it drives a booming business in third-party keyboard solutions.

Instead of being confined to a mouse, Microsoft is saying that personal computers -- and mobile devices, for that matter -- are moving toward a variety of control solutions. Touch is one of these, as is voice, but so are the traditional keyboard for lengthy document writing and the pointer. The two-button mouse as we know it may be dying, but it is hard to imagine a scenario where you'll never want the precise control that one provides.

Smartphones and tablets have driven touch popularization, and Microsoft is taking a big risk bringing it so forcefully to desktops and laptops, common wisdom says. And yet, the very first thing I did when I got a first-generation Chromebook was swipe at the screen. It was a subconscious reaction to the new device, and of course it resulted in nothing happening because Chromebooks don't have touch screens.

And this morning, I pointed a colleague's 10-year-old daughter visiting the CNET offices at my Toshiba DX1215 running Windows 8 RTM and asked her to use it. I gave no instructions or hints to her about the edges and Charms bar. As someone who has spent a decade on Apple products, she looked at it for a second, swiped the screen once, and tapped the Cut the Rope tile.

On her way to blasting through the first five levels, she said, "It's like a giant iPad." Touch will no longer be the purview of devices sized 10.1 inches or smaller, and touch is how many young people will grow up using computers. Do not underestimate touch, you computing curmudgeons.

Windows 8 kills chrome. No doubt that Internet Explorer 10 is the best version of that much-maligned browser so far, but we're not talking about Google Chrome competitors. Lowercase "chrome" refers to an app's interface, the static visual elements that anchor an app's features. Microsoft's default apps hide most of an app's chrome, and other app developers already are taking their cues from Redmond's guidelines and lead.

Basically, Windows 8 apps do a great job of getting out of the way of the content they're meant to show you. From one edge of the screen to the other, all you see is content because the chrome has been hidden under the four edges of the screen.

Windows' lessons from the edges go beyond app chrome. The steepest part of the Windows 8 learning curve will be figuring out which app and operating system controls are hidden under which edges. The rule of thumb is that the left and right edges belong to Windows 8, while the top and bottom edges belong to apps, although this isn't strictly true. (App settings are often accessible only from the Settings charm on the right edge.)

The important lesson here is that the swipe gesture can be applied in ways we haven't yet seen in Android or iOS, which allows the content to shine through. Microsoft's engineering on the concept of hiding chrome and controls under the edge has made it accessible to touch pads, traditional mice, and hot keys.

Windows 8 kills your icons, too. For the entirety of its existence, the icon has been a static, stale program identifier. It's occasionally gotten little pop-up indicators, but basically it's been small and unchanging. Windows 8's tiles create a unique and innovative method to reveal real-time content on screen, without forcing you to dive into the world of the app.

It sounds minor, but tiles will change your workflow on PCs because you won't be immersing yourself in an app every time you want an update. The implications of this for app-usage could be huge. It won't be good for organizations that measure how much time you spend using a particular app, but it does make sense for how we use computers.

Windows 8 introduces the lapdesktabbooktop. Whatever you want to call it, Windows 8 makes desktop computing portable by unifying the operating system across devices. Not much is known about the coming shape, style, and price of Windows 8 hardware, but we've already seen some touch screen laptops (mostly at Computex) that come close to the thinness of a tablet.

The unification will make it easy to connect the necessities of desk work peripherals, and then disconnect and take the tablet or laptop on the go. This is where the overall features and functionality of the operating system have a chance to revolutionize the devices we use.

Core to this idea will be attractive form factors and affordable price points, but Windows 8's combination of touch and robust productivity tools could herald the maturation of portable computing. With "Windows 8-lite" Windows RT running Office 2013, Windows 8 will be demonstrating that mobile doesn't mean underpowered.