The Start menu. Look closely at the photo, because you may not see it for days
I've been familiar with Windows 8 for a while now. As you might expect, here at PC Advisor we snap up every version that is released and install it on as many devices as possible so as to get a feel for Microsoft's upcoming operating system. A Windows 8 tablet sits at my left hand as I type, and has done for several months. But there is a big difference between using an operating system and relying on it. So last Friday I decided to upgrade my work desktop to Windows 8, and stick with it come what may.
Here's what I've learnt from a few days of using Windows 8 as my primary platform.
1. Don't panic about the Modern UI
The erstwhile Metro Interface may not be quite the radical departure you were expecting. Put simply: you may never see it on your desktop PC. During my full day's 'work', today, I have used email, word-processor, web browser, spreadsheets, text document, photo editor and presentation tool. Some were Microsoft's own products, many weren't. And the only time I have seen the Modern UI was when I thought: 'I haven't seen the Metro UI today' and went to check it out. For fun.
The Start screen and all the apps which share its Modern UI, are beautiful to look at and great fun to use, but it is important to note that you don't have to have anything to do with them. And you can forget all those people who say Windows 8 is a touchscreen operating system. It is an OS designed to be used with a touchscreen, but that doesn't mean it won't work with mouse and keyboard input. In fact, it works in a similar way to Windows 7 - with some minor tweaks that you may find you like (see point number 3).
Windows 8: like Windows 7. A lot like it.
In a way it's an indictment of the upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8. If you are upgrading a machine without a touchscreen and with a legacy of existing software already installed, you are almost inevitably going to find yourself in the Desktop environment, almost all of the time. You'll use Windows 8 in much the same way as you use Windows 7, Vista or XP, and the shiny new UI will come in to play only on occasion.
Microsoft needs to move people on to a touch-enabled OS with apps and with live data permanently tiles, because that is the way mobile computing is headed. And Microsoft really needs to catch up there. But it doesn't want to scare off existing Windows users and - from my first few days use - Windows 8 won't do that.
The low upgrade price of £25 reflects the fact that Microsoft hasn't made a really compelling case for Windows 7 users to move on. Users of new PCs and laptops with Windows 8 pre-installed will find some new features, but nothing too terrifying. And the Windows Store will give Microsoft the opportunity to build an app ecosystem, whilst the more radical aspects of Windows 8 will be experienced principally by users of tablets and Ultrabooks, and all points in between.
My suspicion is that Windows 8 is a bridging operating system, so that traditional desktop computer users are not left behind, but in an attempt to grab a large slice of the tablet and mobile computing worlds. Whether that makes it a genius play or a horribly hobbled compromise remains to be seen.
Lesser spotted Windows 8 Start screen
2. ...or the lack of the Start menu
If you are principally doing your computing in the Desktop part of Windows 8, the most radical change will be the lack of a Start menu. It is indisputably disconcerting at the outset. I never realised quite how often I reached for the comfort blanket of the Start menu in my computing day. But it didn't take me too long to get over my initial panic.
Within the desktop environment you can access the Start screen and all its options by mousing to the bottom left. Go to the top right of your screen and you will see the Settings icon. And, of course, the Charms bar - offering access to Search, Share, Devices, Start and Settings - requires only a mouse up to the top left.
Hit Windows+X and you get the Admin menu (pictured).
The lack of the Start menu makes things different, but not more difficult. And the new way of doing things ties in the Desktop with the rest of Windows 8. And that may be the point.
3. You should learn some shortcuts
Trust me, using Windows 8 makes a lot more sense when you start using the shortcuts. So much so, in fact, that my colleague Jim Martin listed a whole bunch in his unsurpassed Windows 8 review. I won't repeat them all here, but suffice to say that Windows+Q is a great way to search your system. Using it to search and then launch an application makes you forget that the Start menu ever existed. Simply by hitting that combination, typing 'Op' and hitting Return I can launch Opera. And I do. It's very convenient.
Similarly, Windows+I takes you direct to the Settings interface, Windows+X brings up the Admin menu, Windows+D opens or closes the Desktop... and on it goes. If you are new to Windows 8 and finding it a challenge, learn some shortcuts. It's a slightly different mindset to using Windows 7, Vista or XP, but it is a fun and efficient way to work.
4. It feels zippy
And Windows 8 works fast - or at least it seems to. Microsoft has made great play of the fact that Windows 8 has the same system requirements as Windows 7, and it's paid off. Windows 8 seems to have given our three-year-old PC a new lease of life. It's not an earth-shattering change, but everything feels slick and smooth, and fast. More importantly, there's been no instability and - so far - no incompatibility with software or hardware.
5. It looks great
This may seem an odd thing to say after my point about how rarely the Modern UI comes in to play, but it is relevant none the less. The prevailing wisdom is that the Desktop part of Windows 8 is just Windows 7 without the Start menu. It's not entirely true. The visual difference is subtle, but impressive. Gone is the showy transparency of Aero, to be replaced by a more sober, but stylish trim. Transitions are similar. The colour scheme seems to fit together better.
And don't just take my word for it - earlier today a Mac-loving, OS X-toting colleague leaned over, looked at my screen and said: 'Is that Windows 8? It looks great. Really professional.' Reader, at the time I was looking at a Word document, a spreadsheet and the PC Advisor website. This is high praise indeed from an Apple fan.