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Windows 8 ambitious, messy

Microsoft has just released, believe it or not, two new PC operating systems. By that I mean the two different worlds within Windows 8, one designed primarily for touch screens, the other for mouse and keyboard. Individually, they are excellent — but you can't use them individually. Microsoft has combined them into a superimposed, muddled mishmash called Windows 8, which went on sale last week and will be included with many new personal computers. Let's tackle each version one at a time.

DESKTOP WINDOWS: This is my name for the traditional Windows: the land of overlapping windows, menus and the taskbar across the bottom. Here, you can run any of the 4 million traditional Windows apps, which Microsoft calls desktop apps: Photoshop, Quicken, tax software, games.

Windows 8's desktop is basically the well-regarded Windows 7 with a few choice enhancements, like faster startup, a Lock screen that displays a clock and notifications and more control over multiple-monitor arrangements.

You can now log into any Windows 8 PC with a Microsoft ID. Boom: your wallpaper, online mail accounts, contacts, photos and SkyDrive contents are instantly available.

The Task Manager now offers a table of open programs, showing which are the memory and processor hogs. File Explorer (formerly Windows Explorer) now has a collapsible toolbar.

There's a superb new feature called Family Safety, which provides you, the all-knowing parent, with a weekly summary of how much time your offspring have spent on the PC, and which websites, searches, programs and downloads they've used. You can also set time limits for weekdays and weekends.

Finally, there's no more Start menu. The taskbar is still there, but the Start-menu icon isn't on it. More on this in a moment.

TILEWORLD: The enormous, controversial change in Windows 8 is the overlaying of the second "operating system," intended for touch screens.

(It's not really called TileWorld, but Microsoft doesn't have a good name for it.)

TileWorld is modeled on Microsoft's lovely Windows Phone software. It presents a home screen filled with colorful square and rectangular tiles. Each represents an app — and, often, that app's latest data.

For example, the Calendar tile displays your next appointment. The People tile (your address book) shows the latest post from your social networks. The Mail tile shows the subject line of the latest incoming message.

TileWorld is absolutely fantastic for tablets. The tiles glide gracefully with a swipe of your finger. You can "pin" frequently used tiles to the Start screen: programs, websites, playlists, photo albums, people from your contact list, mail accounts or mailboxes, icons from Desktop Windows and, of course, apps. The tiles are fun to rearrange, resize, cluster into groups and so on.

Swiping inward from the edges of a touch screen makes panels full of useful controls appear. A quick downward swipe on a tile is like right-clicking — a panel of relevant commands shows up.

TileWorld requires all new apps, and there aren't very many available yet. They're generally not as complex as regular Windows programs; they're more like iPad apps than, say, Adobe or even most Microsoft programs. They're full-screen, touch-friendly, mostly menuless. And they're virus-free, since Microsoft controls the single source of them: the Windows Store.

Microsoft starts you off with apps for messaging, calendar, news, contacts, music and video playback, maps, weather, mail and photo viewing (pictures from Facebook, Flickr, your SkyDrive and other sources). It's easy to split the screen between two TileWorld apps, so you can, for example, chug through email as you watch a video.

DESKTOP + TILEWORLD: TileWorld is fantastic for touch screens. Yes, there are mouse and keyboard equivalents for the touch gestures, but those are clearly afterthoughts (See related story, this page).

Conversely, Desktop Windows is obviously designed for the mouse. Unfortunately, in Windows 8, you can't live exclusively in one world or the other.

Even if all your programs live in TileWorld, you'll still have to use Desktop Windows to work with files or discs, connect to networked folders or open the Control Panel. And even if all of your programs live in Desktop Windows, your PC still starts up in TileWorld, and you still have to use TileWorld to perform tasks like searching and address book lookups.

The free program Pokki helps a lot. It restores the Start menu to the desktop, and can even take you straight there at startup.

Even so, two worlds means insane, productivity-killing schizophrenia. The Windows 8 learning curve resembles Mount Everest.

For example, you have what feels like two different Web browsers, each with different designs and conventions. In TileWorld, the address bar is at the bottom; in Desktop Windows, it's at the top. In the desktop version, your bookmarks appear as a Favorites list; in TileWorld, they're horizontally scrolling icons.

Settings are now in three different places. In TileWorld, basic settings like brightness and volume are accessible from the panel that appears when you swipe in from the right. A second set of settings appears when you tap Change PC Settings on that panel. A third, more complete set still resides in the Control Panel back in Desktop Windows.

The Help system is a scattered mess, too. On the Desktop, you have the regular Windows Help browser. In TileWorld, Microsoft has hidden the Help command in Settings for some reason, and at the Start Screen, it offers only three canned topics (like "Rearranging tiles on Start") and no Search command.

Got it? Me neither.

Windows 8 ambitious, messy 10/28/12 [Last modified: Sunday, October 28, 2012 5:28pm]
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