For most users, Windows 8 will come as something of a surprise when it is released, thanks to the unusual implementation of the Metro UI. If you’re not inclined to make use of whatever methods are available to disable Metro, you will be left with attempting to understand the tile-based user interface.
Whether you’re using Windows 8 on a keyboard-and-mouse device such as a desktop or laptop or enjoying it on touch-based hardware such as a hybrid or slate, Windows 8 takes some getting used to.
There are swipes and gestures for touchscreen users which have to be replicated by mouse on standard computers, while the controversial Start screen itself is full of secrets…
Swipes and Gestures
If you have any familiarity with Windows Phone, you might already be aware of the finger gestures required to use Metro UI on a touchscreen device.
The most basic is the tap, employed to select items to launch from the Start screen, open menus and type. Following this is the tap and hold, or long tap, which on the Start screen can be used to rearrange the tiles by simultaneously dragging them to the preferred position.
Using a mouse, this process is tricky, requiring you to left-click and hold. While the motor aspects of that are simple enough, the user interface is geared to respond to a finger.
Fortunately there is a better option for scrolling left to right on the Start screen and other wide Metro screens, in the shape of a scroll bar at the bottom. Meanwhile, touchscreen users can simply swipe a finger left to right across the display.
Understanding the Start Screen
The Start screen itself is something of an enigma on Windows 8. While it does a good job in presenting the main apps that are installed on the system, it fails to allow users to see what other options are available, and this could be described as true in all screens, certainly in the Consumer Preview release.
An example is the “quick return” button, found in the lower left corner of all screens except Start. This is only available by tapping or dragging your mouse into the corner, and unless you know it is there it might be completely overlooked.
On the Start screen itself there are a couple of other useful but hidden features. Right-clicking your mouse, for instance, will display the All Apps button, which is currently hidden away at the bottom of the screen. There is a strong argument for placing this in its own tile, however.
Similarly, by dragging the mouse into or tapping the lower right corner of the display, you can watch as the Start screen falls back, Mac OS X style, so that the groups of app tiles can be rearranged.
You’ll also find that there is a hidden menu on the right edge of the screen, found by tapping and holding or leaving your mouse over that side of the screen for a few moments. Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings can all be accessed from here.
The Settings screen introduces some other conventions of the Metro UI – that of switches. Our previous guide on downloading and purchasing apps and games will give you an idea of the clarity of the new user interface, and this is clearly demonstrated in the Settings screen, where various options can be enabled and disabled at the swipe of a finger or click of a mouse.
For instance, if you tapped Settings – Notifications you would be able to alter how notifications are displayed, which apps display them and whether or not they should be accompanied by sounds or display on the lock screen.
Clearly these are useful features, but long-term Windows users will notice that there is an absence of an OK or Apply button. Instead, graphical switches must be flicked in order for you to specify your preference.
Remember, of course, that Metro is largely an overlay for an operating system that bears a strong similarity in all other ways to Windows 7. The Desktop view is a clear giveaway for this, as is the presence of Windows Explorer, complete with a strangely anachronistic ribbon toolbar.
We all know that Windows 8 is going to be a big deal, one way or another. It will either be warmly received when released later this year, or cast aside with derision after failing to convince reviewers that Metro UI is a useful implementation.
Whichever way it goes, the Start screen will remain tile-based and the user interface optimized for fingers and thumbs rather than a mouse. As easy as it is to use, Metro UI is going to represent a considerable culture shock for many users.
Of course, let’s not forget Xbox 360 in all of this, where a working implementation of Metro UI can already be found, one that can be controlled either via a controller or Kinect. Along with Windows Phone, Xbox 360 represents a success story for Metro, so don’t be discouraged – this user interface can be mastered and enjoyed.