It doesn't feel like it, but Windows 7 is coming up to its third birthday. However, there'll be no party as Windows 8 is due to be launched later this year, and will be pre-installed on just about every new PC and laptop.

Windows 8 is a crucial operating system for Microsoft as, unlike 7, Vista and even XP before that, this latest OS isn't a mere evolution of the last version. No, Windows 8 is as different from Windows 7 as Windows 95 was from Windows 3.1 before it.

In this age of touchscreens and gestures, the keyboard and mouse almost seem antiquated and clunky, and Windows 7 looks and works pretty much exactly the same as Windows 95 did almost 17 years ago.

17 years is a very long time in computing terms, so you could argue that Windows 8 is long overdue. However, as you'll see, there's an equal number of arguments that a touchscreen interface makes no sense on a laptop, and possibly a desktop PC too.

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One OS to conquer them all

With Windows 8, Microsoft's aim is to have one operating system that runs on all your devices, be that a smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC. Regardless of screen size or how you interact with the device, Windows 8 will scale perfectly. That's the theory, but is it madness… or genius?

We've tried the new 'Metro' interface on a range of computers, including touchscreen all-in-one PCs, laptops and tablets, and were surprised at just how well the interface copes with a huge range of screen sizes from 10in right up to 27in. Although there's no Windows 8 for smartphones yet, Windows Phone 7 already has the Metro UI (user interface), so we already know that it works well. Xbox 360 owners will also be familiar with the tiled Metro UI, as it was rolled out as an update in late 2011.

There's no real integration with Windows Phone 7 so you still have to install Zune to sync your handset. This is likely to change (and Zune is likely to disappear) when the next version of Windows Phone is released. This could be in summer 2012, or it could coincide with the release of Windows 8 itself, which is purported to be in October. We'd be surprised if it isn't called Windows Phone 8; Microsoft's codename for the update is Apollo.

Windows 8 on 10in tablet

Resistance to change

Most computer users resent even tiny changes to interfaces, struggling to cope with programs and settings being renamed or moved. Facebook is a classic example, as it is constantly updating and refining its website. With each change comes a barrage of protest, and the change from the classic Windows desktop to Metro will no doubt lead to people returning their new purchase to the shop where they bought it.

Trouble is, without change there is no progress. As long as you're willing to at least try the new interface - we'll show you the ropes to make things easier - you'll quickly feel at home and will appreciate many of Windows 8's new features.

Even if your computer doesn't have a touchscreen, Windows 8 can be controlled with a mouse, so don't let that put you off giving it a try.

The cloud

One of Windows 8's main themes is integration with online services. As well as the all-new Store where you can download Metro-style apps, you can also connect apps to your existing online accounts. For example the Mail app can pull in email from Gmail, and the Photos app can display images from Facebook. All your settings and personalisation are stored in the cloud as well, so you can log onto another Windows 8 computer using your Microsoft account and everything will look and work just like your computer does.

NEXT PAGE: The Metro UI explained

The Metro UI explained

The Metro interface is the most radical shake-up since Windows 95 replaced Windows 3.1. Here's how it works. Rather than desktop icons, the Metro interface has 'tiles'. Tiles act more like Android widgets than traditional Windows shortcuts; you can use them to launch a program, but they can also display live information.

The Charms bar (shown to the right of the Start screen, below) appears when you swipe your finger in from the right-hand edge of the screen. Alternatively, if you're using a mouse, point the cursor to the top- or bottom-right corner of the screen. In order, the Charms are:

Search: Tap this to open the search box. This essentially replaces Vista and Windows 7's Start menu search box, but it's cleverer. You can tap on a particular app to filter the search, so you could search for an app in the Store, a TV show in Video or a place in Maps.

Share: As the name suggests, this icon allows you to share things with people, but the options will change depending on which app is running. Extra sharing options will appear when you install apps that can share content, such as Twitter clients.

Start: Takes you back to the Start screen if you're in another app, or switches to the most recent app if you're on the Start screen.

Devices: Tap this icon to show relevant connected devices. Printers, speakers, screens and network devices can be displayed here. You could select a media streamer, such as a connected Xbox for example, to play a particular video on your TV.

Settings: Shows six commonly used settings including network status, screen brightness and power options. Also provides a link to the new streamlined Control Panel.

 Metro UI with Charms and Options bars

The Options bar (shown above below the Start screen) appears when you select one or more tiles from the Start screen and provides contextual options. Certain tiles on the Start screen can be resized, but others can't.

You can select tiles by tapping (or clicking) and dragging them downwards (or upwards). De-select tiles by dragging them upwards (or downwards).
Tap the user icon (top-right of Start screen) to change your account picture, lock your computer or sign out.

Top tips for getting around the Metro interface

  • Drag in from the left to switch to the most recently used app. Drag and hold to display that app to the left or right of the current app.
  • Drag down from the top to close the current app.
  • Tap and hold your finger on the screen to access menus in some apps (this is the equivalent of right-clicking).
  • Rearrange the position of tiles on the Start screen simply by tapping (or clicking) and dragging them to their new position.
  • Pinch two fingers together on the Start screen (and in other apps) to zoom out and see more apps at once. Without a touchscreen, hold Ctrl and use your mouse's scroll wheel.
  • Display all apps by dragging upwards from the bottom of the Start screen to show the All Apps button.
  • Add new apps to the Start screen either from the new Store or by selecting them from the All Apps list and tapping the 'Pin to Start' button. If you see a 'Pin to taskbar' icon, the program can be pinned to the taskbar on the traditional Windows desktop.
  • If you don't have a touchscreen, point your mouse at the right-hand corners of the screen to show the Charms bar. The bottom-left corner is a shortcut to the Start screen; drag down from the top-left corner to show thumbnails of all running apps.
  • To see the list of running apps on a touchscreen, drag right, then left at the left-hand edge of the screen.

NEXT PAGE: Lock screen and password options

Lock screen and password options

With previous versions of Windows, you'd have to click on your username and enter a password to log in. Alternatively, if you weren't bothered about security you could set it to boot straight to the desktop.

Windows 8 introduces a smartphone-style Lock screen which you have to drag upwards to reveal a more familiar list of users. The Lock screen can be customised to show your own photo, which is overlaid with the time, date and app notifications. For example, you can see Wi-Fi signal strength, the number of unread emails and battery level (for laptops and tablets).

Windows 8 lock screen

There are three options for authentication, though. You can type in a traditional password, a four-digit PIN or use a picture password. The latter requires to you complete three gestures on a photo, which is far easier to do on a touchscreen than keying in a password using an on-screen keyboard, but arguably more secure than a PIN.

You can choose any photo you like and then configure a series of three gestures using taps, circles and straight lines. You might draw a circle around a person's head, then tap each of their eyes - the options are limitless.

Windows 8 picture password

Settings

Although the old Control Panel still exists, the new Settings app lets you tweak things much more easily with your fingers. On the left-hand side are 12 categories: tap each to show the options on the right.

Under Personalize, you can choose a picture for the Lock screen and select which apps show their 'quick status' and notifications. Using the links at the top, which are easy to miss, you can also change your account picture and personalise the Start screen. There's a limit to how much you can customise it: there are six abstract backgrounds and a choice of nine colours.

Windows 8 PC settings

Notifications are new in Windows 8. As well as informative icons on the Lock screen, pop-up messages will appear in apps from other apps that you select here. Share options include whether to show a list of sharing methods that you use most often, as well as prioritising apps that you use most frequently to share things.

Other new and useful options include the ability to prevent Windows downloading updates and software on metered internet connections. This is primarily for tablets which could switch between Wi-Fi and 3G (or 4G) networks.

Sync settings Windows 8

Sync your settings is another noteworthy feature. Here you can select which preferences and personalisations to synchronise with your Microsoft account. Enable everything and you can log onto another Windows 8 PC using the same account and feel as if you're using your own computer since it will look and work just as yours does.

NEXT PAGE:Metro apps

Metro apps

Windows 7 came with far fewer pre-installed applications than Vista. Messenger, Movie Maker, Mail and more were stripped out and made available as a free download from Microsoft's website.

Windows 8 eschews this concept and there are more apps than ever. As you'd expect, they're designed to match the new Metro interface and to be controlled by touch, rather than a keyboard and mouse.

Store

The first app you notice, right at the top-left corner is the new Store.

Windows 8 Store tile

This is where you'll browse and buy new apps, just as you would on a smartphone. There are various categories and you can pinch to zoom out to scroll quickly through the categories, zooming out again when you see something you like. Tap on a particular app and a description, screenshots and user reviews will appear.

Currently, the choice of apps is very limited. You won't find Amazon or eBay apps in the Shopping section, nor Twitter or Facebook in the Social category. Expect numbers to grow quickly once Windows 8 launches later in 2012, though.

See also: Top 10 Windows 8 apps: so far

Windows 8 Store

Maps

Another completely new app, Maps uses Microsoft's Bing Maps service to provide search and directions across the world. The interface isn't dissimilar from the Bing Maps website (www.bing.com/maps) but the entire screen is used for the map. You can scroll around with your finger and pinch to zoom in and out.

When you tap and hold the screen, top and bottom bars slide into view and you can set the map to your current location, switch from Road to Aerial (satellite) views and enter a location or business to search for.

Windows 8 maps

NEXT PAGE: More Metro apps

People

The People app brings all your contacts into one place. It's hardly a new idea, but it's the first time Windows has had a native app to pull in contact information from various websites. Most popular social networking sites are listed, and it's simply a case of logging in with your username and password and providing permission for the app to access the information.

Windows 8 People

Tap on a contact and you're given options for getting in touch, such as phone numbers and addresses. To the right, a number of panes will appear depending on the information available. For example, a What's new pane might show recent status updates from sites such as Twitter and a Photos pane could show recent images uploaded to sharing sites.

Contacts Windows 8

Media

Although Media Center and Media Player are still present, there are Metro-style apps as well. Music combines your local library with the music marketplace so you can quickly add to your collection.  Video is a separate app which looks identical to music and displays the files in the Videos folder. There's no 'video marketplace' yet, but there will almost certainly be one in the final version of Windows 8.

Windows 8 Music

In both apps, it's easy to control playback with your fingers, but it's not so easy to find what you're looking for. Admittedly, most of the Metro-style apps are unfinished, which would explain why it isn't possible to quickly jump to artists beginning with a certain letter, for example. Currently, you can browse only by 'most played'.

Windows 8 Music - now playing

Photos is perhaps the most polished of the media apps. It puts your pictures front and centre and is perfect for a touchscreen. As well as photos stored in your Pictures folder, you can link your Facebook, Flickr and SkyDrive (see below) photos, and view them all using the same great interface.

Windows 8 Photos - Facebook

Tap Facebook for example, and you'll see a list of albums just as you would if you tapped on Pictures library. A clever trick is the ability to pinch to zoom out from this view and see smaller album thumbnails to save you scrolling horizontally through all the big thumbnails. You can use the same trick when viewing photos themselves to see more of the contents of an album onscreen. If you don't have a touchscreen, hold Ctrl on your keyboard and use your mouse's scroll wheel to zoom in and out. If you don't hold Ctrl, the mouse wheel scrolls through photos in a slideshow, or through lots of thumbnails if there are too many to fit on screen at once.

Windows 8 Photos - Semantic Zoom

NEXT PAGE: Mail, Messaging, Internet Explorer 10

Mail, Calendar and Messaging

Mail brings Hotmail to the touchscreen for the first time. The interface is split into three vertical panes. On the left is a list of folders - or accounts, if you select that from the option bar - followed by the inbox in the middle, and messages on the right. When you enable the accounts view, you can link other email services including Exchange and Gmail.

Windows 8 Mail accounts

Messages are shown in the order they are received, as opposed to threads. Reminder emails are automatically sent for appointments created in the Calendar app. Calendar has the same colour scheme as Mail - grey and green - and can show day week or month views. Even in day view, three days are shown in landscape mode.

Windows 8 email

You can tap on a specific hour to create an appointment. All the usual options you'd expect are displayed in a column on the left including a list of calendars so you can select which one the meeting belongs to. By default you get three: your own, one for birthdays and a third for bank holidays.

Windows 8 Calendar

Messaging is another app that shares a similar design. As with all Metro apps, it's designed to run full-screen, which can feel a little strange on a laptop or PC. Unlike Windows Live Messenger from Windows 7, Messaging displays previous conversation threads so you can jump straight to one and continue chatting if the contact is online.

Internet Explorer

Windows 8 ships with Internet Explorer 10 and the Metro version is radically different from IE9. The interface is hidden until you tap or swipe upwards, giving the entire screen over to displaying the website. Swiping up reveals the address and search bar at the bottom of the screen.

Gone is tabbed browsing: swiping down from the top shows thumbnails of all the sites you have open, and you can scroll right to see the full list or tap the '+' button to open a new site.

Windows 8 Internet Explorer 10

NEXT PAGE: Windows desktop enhancements

Windows 8's desktop

There's an icon on Windows 8's Start screen called Desktop, if you're using a laptop or PC. This launches the traditional Windows desktop and looks almost identical to Windows 7. There's one obvious difference though: no Start button.

This also means there's no Start menu, which can feel quite disorientating to begin with. There are various ways of launching applications. One is to use the Search tool on the Charms bar (you can swipe in from the right to display it). Another is to right-click the bottom-left corner of the screen to display a 'Start menu' of sorts. This lets you fire up a Run box, Command Prompt and various management programs.

Windows 8 Start menu

Alternatively, you can pin programs to the taskbar or create shortcuts on the desktop. The latter option is a little convoluted as you have to either browse to the program's location on your hard disk, or right-click on the desktop and choose New, then Shortcut from the menu that appears.

Windows 8 traditional desktop

Everything behaves as it did in Windows 7, so you can snap windows to the left- or right-hand side of the screen, for example. The notification area is also identical, as is the shortcut to the right of it which closes all windows and shows the desktop. Where the Start button used to be is a narrow shortcut which, when hovered over, shows a thumbnail of the Start screen which you can click to return there.

Open an Explorer window and you'll notice the other main change. At the top is Microsoft's 'Ribbon', which will be familiar to Office 2007 and 2010 users. The aim is to replace toolbars and menus and provide quick access to commands to quickly complete a task.

Windows 8 Explorer ribbon

Each tab holds related commands, but the new feature is that one or more tabs are highlighted. In folders containing pictures, for example, there's a highlighted Picture Tools tab which includes commands for rotating images, playing a slideshow and setting a picture as the desktop background.

The Share tab makes it far easier than before to email, print, compress and burn files to disc. There are also tools for sharing the folder with other users on the network.

When you start any app that doesn't have a Metro interface, it will launch on the desktop. The old-style Control Panel is still present, as is Network and Sharing Center. It's also still possible to add gadgets to the desktop and change the wallpaper, just as you did in Windows 7.

Another minor update is a real-time graph showing transfer speeds when you copy files. This appears when you click the More details button. You can also pause transfers as well as cancelling the process.

Windows 8 file transfer

The Task Manager has had a big overhaul. The main list is split into Apps and Background processes and their usage of memory, processor and network is now much easier to see. A new App History tab includes a Metered network column so you can see which apps are eating up your monthly data allowance.

Task Manager App History

NEXT PAGE: Touchscreen keyboards and verdict

Touchscreen keyboards

Whether you're using Windows 8 on a PC, laptop or tablet with a touchscreen, there's a selection of onscreen keyboard layouts to choose from. The default view is a basic QWERTY layout and, even on a large screen, lacks a number row. To display it, you have to tap the &123 button, just as you do on many smartphones.

A keyboard icon at the bottom right allows you to select two other styles: split and handwriting recognition. The former is ideal if you're used to typing with your thumbs, and it also includes a central number pad. Depending on the size of your screen, this may appear too small to be very useful, but on smaller screens of around 10in, it's fine.

Handwriting recognition isn't new - even XP included it - but it's designed for use with a stylus. You could try using a finger on a standard touchscreen, but the results won't be very good. For most people, the standard touchscreen keyboard will produce the best results.

 Win 8 Standard Keyboard

 The standard keyboard (above) lacks a number row. The split version (below) is designed for thumbs.

Win 8 Split Keyboard

Verdict: Should you upgrade?

When Windows 8 launches later in 2012, it will quickly replace Windows 7 on all new PCs and laptops. This means that you're stuck with it unless you get your hands dirty and install a different operating system.

For those that aren't planning to buy a new PC or laptop, there isn't a great incentive to upgrade unless you have a touchscreen. The Metro UI is designed specifically for touch control and, although it can be controlled using a mouse, it isn't half as much fun.

Then again, using a touchscreen on a laptop or PC isn't much fun as your arm quickly tires of being held out in front of you when sitting down. It's a slightly different story if you have an all-in-one PC on a kitchen counter that you can use standing up, as that's a much more comfortable position to operate a touchscreen.

A tablet is the best choice: a lightweight device that sits flat on a desk or on your lap is the obvious way to interact with a touchscreen. However, in this marketplace Windows 8 has tough competition in the form of Apple's iOS and Google's Android. We'll be comparing all these mobile operating systems along with BlackBerry OS next month.

Microsoft hasn't yet announced pricing for Windows 8, and cost will be a big factor in the upgrade decision. It's possible that the company will follow Apple's lead and allow Windows 7 users to download the update for £20-£30. If history is anything to go by, though, the actual cost will be more like £70, making is much less attractive.

Plus, bear in mind that the vast majority of applications will run in traditional desktop mode rather than Metro, so you'll likely find yourself using Metro a tiny fraction of the time. Until the applications you use on a daily basis are updated to work in the Metro UI, your experience will barely differ from Windows 7.

See also: Windows 8 Advisor