Once you get past the initial stage of signing into Windows 8, you'd be greeted with what Microsoft calls the Start screen. The Start screen is based on Microsoft's Modern UI (formerly known as the Metro UI), a touch-friendly design philosophy that places heavy emphasis on simplicity and content interaction. By following this philosophy, Microsoft came up with a Start screen that comprises of colorful 'live' tiles. This tile-based Start screen will replace the previous Start menu, and is the first thing that you'll see after signing in. To set the record straight, this isn't the first time we're seeing the Modern UI. It first caught our attention in 2010 when Microsoft launched the Windows Phone 7 mobile OS (and recently, Windows Phone 8), and again in late 2011, when Microsoft pushed an update to the Xbox 360 gaming console.
In a nutshell, what Microsoft seeks to do with the new Start screen is to put all the information that matters to you front and center. Apps, websites, photo albums, contacts, weather - you name it. As the name implies, the live tiles update and serve up useful information in real time (applies to app tiles designed for Windows 8), and you can organize, group, and even resize them. For example, the Mail tile shows recent email messages, and the Calendar tile shows upcoming events. Compare this to the utter mess that is the Start menu, which for the most part serves as an app launcher, and you'll realize that the new implementation is about productivity as much as aesthetics. With the new Start screen, you see more things at a glance, and get more things done in fewer steps. And it cures our bad habit of cramming the taskbar or littering the desktop with shortcuts. If something is important, just pin it to the Start screen.
On the Start screen, tiles are bunched together automatically when you install new apps. And like most operating systems, installing apps would cause their tiles to be placed randomly, with the newest ones appearing all the way to the right. This means, your start screen grows in size horizontally. Herein lies one of our complaints and that is navigating the horizontal interface of the Start screen isn't as intuitive with a mouse when you continue to add more and more apps. For example, to scroll horizontally on the Start screen, we've to slam the mouse cursor to the edge of the screen, and 'push' it in the desired direction. Of course, it's a totally different matter on a PC or tablet with a touchscreen since all you need to do is swipe on the screen.
The size in which the tiles appear also depends on the app itself. Some would be a rectangle, while others a square. Some apps would allow you to make their tiles larger (or smaller) - whereby larger simply means twice the width of a square tile. To see what you can do to a tile, just right-click on it at the Start screen. Non Windows 8 designed apps will unfortunately not have any leeway in how they appear other than pinning and unpinning them from the Start screen.
Obviously, when you've tons of apps on the Start screen, there has to be a way to organize them. What you can do is to re-arrange them and place in groups. To move a tile, just touch it and drag it in one fluid motion. If you're using a mouse, just left-click on the tile and drag it. When you're done with grouping the apps (you can tell one group from another by the divider between them), it makes sense to name the groups. This is easily done by going to the zoomed out view, right-clicking on a group, and choose the 'Name group' command.
Speaking of the desktop, where did it go? Rest assured, Windows 8 still incorporates the PC desktop that Windows 7 users are familiar with. This also means that your favorite desktop apps that run on Windows 7 will continue to run on Windows 8. To enable the 'classic' desktop, just click on the Desktop tile on the Start screen. But like the Start screen, the classic desktop offers no Start button, and therefore no Start menu. To find and launch apps, you can either use the Search function on the Charms bar, right-click on the bottom left corner of the screen (Windows key + X on a keyboard) to bring up the Admin menu where the Run function resides, or use the File Explorer on the taskbar.
Beyond that, the classic desktop resembles, and works very much like the one in Windows 7. You can place shortcuts on the desktop, pin apps to the taskbar, and snap windows to the left and right hand sides of the screen.
The Control Panel, another crowd favorite among Windows users, is still present on Windows 8. We won't say that it's exactly the same as the one in Windows 7, but the look and feel, and the settings provided are similar enough that you should have no problems finding your way around. There are a few additions that we really like, and one of which is the automatic window borders and taskbar colors option. Simply put, Windows 8 provides an Automatic option that changes the window borders and taskbar colors automatically based on the color of the desktop background (that is, the wallpaper). For example, when we used a wallpaper with a predominately blue sky, the window borders and taskbar colors switched automatically to a shade of blue. When we switched to a wallpaper that featured a red flower, they took on a red hue. Yes, it's not a groundbreaking feature, but as they say, the devil is in the details.
Another new addition that we like is the ability to change the text size for specific items, from title bars and menus, to icons and tooltips. It's a great way to enhance readability, and yet not change the size of all items.