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May 26, 2017

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Windows 8 trades in icons, Start button for tiles

MUNICH--Since Windows 95 hit the market, PC users have become used to seeing an empty desktop, a toolbar and a Start button for calling up programs when turning on their computers.

With Windows 8 there are tiles instead of icons, apps alongside well-known programs and no Start button. There's no cause for panic however, says Windows expert Wolfram Gieseke.

"In terms of control, the new start screen is really just a facade over Windows 7," he says.

The old desktop lies underneath the new tiles, accessible by pressing the key-combination of Windows-D. "I can do a lot of things just the way I used to," says Gieseke.

The growing popularity of tablets is the main reason for the changes, he says. "In a few years, it's possible that more tablets than PCs will be sold. Microsoft had to react to that."

Windows 8 is an attempt to create a seamless operating system for tablet and desktop machines. The first smartphones with Windows Phone 8 are not too far off.

That would give users the same interface on all their gadgets. Using the same system everywhere creates security risks though, says Harald Goerl, a professor of operating systems and computer architecture at the German Bundeswehr University in Munich.

"Since the basic technology is the same, it creates a larger area for malware to attack," Goerl says. Theoretically, that increases the risk that a cleverly designed virus or other harmful program could access all the devices belonging to a single user.

Since all Windows versions will use the same interface, it means PCs will now be optimized for touch controls. Gieseke says anyone using a touch screen device such as a monitor or an all-in-one PC or a notebook will want to consider an update. "This is really a quantum leap."

Windows 8 can also be controlled the old-fashioned way, with a mouse and keyboard. "Of course, that means less of an adjustment," Gieseke says.

The tiles require some practice — it takes a while to get used to switching between programs. Additionally, many key functions don't even make themselves known until the user puts the mouse in a certain spot.

The mouse controls have received some low grades in tests, with some calling it impractical and not intuitive enough.

"Things have merged here that don't belong together," says Axel Vahldiek of German computer magazine c't. "It's confusing if you can't precisely see where you have to click."

He says many other changes in Windows 8 will interest only the more advanced users, though almost everyone should be interested in the speech package add-ons and improved support for USB 3.0.

Computers boot up faster with Windows 8. "If that's not so important for you, there's no reason to switch to Windows 8," says Vahldiek.

Windows 8 is pre-installed on Windows-based computers sold after Oct. 26. The software on its own can be downloaded for US$40. Those who purchased a Windows 7 PC between June 2, 2012 and Jan. 31, 2013 can upgrade to Windows 8 for a reduced fee.

The elaborate version, Windows 8 Pro, includes some network functions and data encryption, with Windows Media Centre available as an add-on.

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