Introducing Windows 8 and a Guest Blogger – my Husband!

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On November 27, my husband Dan Bechard and I attended the Microsoft Windows 8 Launch event at the Loden Hotel in Vancouver. Between mouthfuls of some very tasty food and drink, we got a chance to check out Microsoft’s newest operating system. Since Dan is the resident gadget geek in the family, he is writing today’s blog to talk about what we found out. You can also check out Dan’s new hockey blog Hands of Stone. Take it away honey!

Windows 8 Review by Dan Bechard
Windows 8 is very different from Microsoft’s previous offerings. Because it is primarily designed for mobile devices, the new operating system relies heavily on touchscreen gestures, though it can also be used with a more traditional keyboard and mouse. As a result, it felt both new and familiar.

Microsoft, and their partner Rogers, demonstrated Windows 8 on a range of devices from smart phones to ultrabooks.

The first device I tried was a Lenovo IdeaPad, a slim and cool convertible laptop/tablet combination (the keyboard can fold right behind the screen to give the feel of a tablet). When you bring up Windows 8, you see Microsoft’s new “Live Tiles” view, which is essentially the new Start Menu for Windows 8. If you’ve used an iPad or Android tablet you’ll be right at home – the screen is filled with square or rectangular tiles, representing the apps you’ve chosen to “Pin to Start”.

Some of the tiles are “live”, meaning they show content right on the tile. For example, the Weather tile flips through the weather in the various cities you’ve chosen, while the TSN app scrolls today’s sports headlines. I found this interesting because you don’t necessarily have to navigate right into the app in order to get the content you’re looking for.

The Microsoft 8 Start menu – live tiles view. As you can see, the weather tile shows the temperature in Seattle without having to click on the App.

If you flip the keyboard around to the front, you might want to switch to a more traditional Windows look and feel, which you can access by selecting the “Desktop” tile. This brings up a familiar Windows desktop with taskbar at the bottom. You can display or minimize your Excel spreadsheets, Word docs or Explorer windows just as you did in Windows 7. Swipe from the right hand side of the screen to select “Start” again, and you’re back to the tablet view. It’s much like two devices in one – imagine switching from a Win7 laptop to a tablet and back on one device and you’re pretty much there.

Next I tried a Microsoft Surface tablet. This 10” tablet has a nice detachable rubber keypad that doubles as a screen cover. You can also choose to use a QWERTY-style onscreen keypad, a split QWERTY meant to be used with your two thumbs on either side of the tablet, or a fairly accurate handwriting recognition mode.

Microsoft Surface with the detachable rubber keypad.

The new Start menu was made for this kind of device and I liked how it worked. Microsoft now has a Windows Store (similar to App Store) where you can download apps like Netflix or games like Angry Birds, along with music and video. I doubt their store has all the variety of Apple’s App Store or Android Marketplace, but it certainly has all of the typical apps you’d expect to be there.

After having used Windows 8 on the Surface tablet, the phone version of Windows 8 was a breeze. Making phone calls with the onscreen keypad was familiar to me as an iPhone user, and the contacts view can be set to connect with a Windows Live account. Another new feature of Windows 8 is Kids Corner, in which you can choose a subset of apps you want available when you hand your phone over to your kid. I could also see setting this up as a sort of “guest account” for adults.

Microsoft 8 on a smart phone. Notice the kid’s corner pictured on the bottom right.

Windows 8 also shows its family focus in its multi-account operation. Switch from your account to the kids’ account (it took around 20 seconds on the Lenovo Yoga) and your child can log in using a “picture password” – basically a set of swipes, circles or touches in pre-configured spots on the background wallpaper.

Example of the picture password screen.

This is a nice and quick way to access an account, but it also makes account switching very accessible to the preschool set. Once logged in, your child’s account is subject to optional and configurable parental controls, which can log or limit time spent online, set Bing or Google to “strict” in order to filter results, or block access to certain sites.

I’m sure I’ve missed a number of new features – that’s what I saw in an hour. Overall, I found Windows 8 both refreshing and familiar. In the more traditional Windows desktop mode, users of previous Windows versions will have no trouble adjusting to the layout. In the tablet-style Start mode, users of iPads or Android devices will find Windows 8 different but comparable. I don’t think my 4-year-old would find it as simple as my iPhone, but on the other hand the Kids Corner mode would be a welcome addition for me. I liked Windows 8 on the Yoga but I’m not sure what my experience would have been on a laptop with no touch-screen.

This new edition brings Windows into the tablet and smartphone era while remaining accessible to traditional laptop users. Windows 8 helps differentiate Microsoft among the modern mobile platforms, showing us some new features we haven’t seen before. Live Tiles are a neat new innovation that I assume we’ll see copied by other platforms eventually, but the real difference for Microsoft is the fact that they now have one operating system for laptops, tablets and phones. If you’re a multi-platform user who likes consistency, Windows 8 might be a good choice.

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