Why Windows 8 means goodbye Start orb, hello Windows key

Why Windows 8 means goodbye Start orb, hello Windows key

Summary: User interface isn't just about pixels on a screen, it also depends on PC hardware - just look at what happened to the Windows 8 Start orb. And that's just the start.

TOPICS: Windows

Windows 8 is even more reliant on PC hardware than earlier versions, and proud of it, too.

Take one of the most common complaints about Windows 8, the removal of the Start button from the desktop taskbar. Microsoft says that's because it's rarely used, and most users pin the apps they always use to the taskbar or launch them from desktop icons.

But there's another reason why the glowing start orb is gone: it's just not necessary any more, thanks to modern PC hardware.

Take a look at your keyboard. If it's been manufactured in the last few years there's a Windows key on the left bottom row. Tap it, and in Windows XP, in Vista, and in Windows 7, up pops the start menu. In fact, it'll even do it in Windows 95 and Windows ME…

Windows Key

It turns out it's a lot easier to tap that key than to move the mouse into the bottom left corner and then click. You don't lose the context of your application, or your place in a document.

Windows 8 is much the same. Tap the Windows key and you get the start screen. Tap it again, and you're back into the application you just left. There's no need for a Windows button on screen when it's built into the PC.

That button is also the one physical button mandated for Windows 8 tablets, and it is right there in the centre of the Surface's bezel. The Windows key is also the launch key for a whole range of keyboard shortcuts, keystrokes that make it easier to control your PC – no matter what version of Windows you're running.

User interface isn't just about icons and buttons on screen. It's about the ways we interact with our PCs – even down to the keyboards we use. And the modern keyboard defines another big user interface change in Windows 8: the relegation of the power button to the settings charm.

Take another look at your keyboard. The odds are it's got a power button. Not for a wireless connection, or any other keyboard specific function. It's for your PC, hooking into the ACPI features of the system. It's also configurable: you can control just what it does from the PC's power settings control panel or from the keyboard's control panel – so my desktop PC's keyboard power button will shut it down. Similarly laptop power buttons are software controllers, and my laptop's puts the device to sleep (and closing its lid drops it into hibernation).

Logitech keyboard control panel

Technologies like ACPI mean that software and hardware are more deeply intertwined than they were when Microsoft developed the familiar Windows user interface. We're also using laptops far more than we were – so physical power buttons are just that much easier to get to. So why shouldn't Microsoft migrate functions that took up screen real estate to the keyboard? It makes them easier to use, and easier to find.

From UI perspective this is a change that makes sense. Yes there will be a learning curve, but the results will be beneficial: the change from clicking on a screen icon to pressing a button will break us out of bad habits, remove unnecessary wrist strain, and help us handle context changes more effectively. And it's not just Start and power that will be a keystroke away. If the Surface's TouchCover and TypeCover are anything to go by, it looks like the Windows 8 charms will also be appearing on a wide range of keyboards in the near future.

Surface TouchCover

If Windows was a Facebook profile, its relationship with the PC hardware manufacturers would most definitely be "It's complicated". The two are so closely entwined it's hard to see where one begins and the other ends.

But they're also so far apart that Microsoft sees the OEMs as holding back innovation, leading to the arrival of Microsoft's own Surface tablet family.

With Surface it's clear that the future of Windows as one of ever tighter integration between software and hardware – but it's a future that's not just dependent on Microsoft's own hardware.

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • wrong

    you have to take your eyes miles off screen, or even move your neck while you were using a graphics
    UI meant to be used graphically.
    the metro ui`s internet explorer is even worse. type in the bottom of the screen , see quick results at the top.
    • Do you look at your fingers when typing?

      ..even my Dad (the eternal finger-pecker) has figured out how to hit the key he wants on the keyboard without looking.
    • You need to learn

      I suppose you are in the category of people that Mavis Beacon was meant for
    • gotcha!

      If you can't press windows key without looking, that means you can't type which in turn means you probably have to look at the keyboard for every keystroke which means your argument is pointless as you can also hit the windows key easily since you are always looking at the keyboard.

      wwoooaahhhhh! That was some serious run-on sentence.
    • "...remove unnecessary wrist strain."

      From the pro-Win8 comments by the many trolls on here, it looks like they are already suffering from excessive and unnecessary wrist strain.
  • problem

    I never used the Windows Key to take me to the start menu. I always used it to show the task bar. Whether it was hidden by fullscreen programs, put in the background by attention grabbing windows, or because I had autohide turned on.

    Now, hitting the windows key takes me to tiles? how do I get the taskbar to pop up? alt-tab? yuck.
    • Try it before you think about knocking it

      Try installing Windows 8 Release Preview on a VM on your current machine. It is actually quite intuitive and very easy to use. If you go to the desktop "tile" you have a taskbar.
    • Start key

      Same here.
  • Physical Keyboard still necessary for getting a lot of real work done...

    I know too many folks who need to get real work done, who have added keyboards to their iPads. In the workplace, the added integration of a smartkeyboard could be very beneficial. Hopefully Microsoft (or a 3rd Party) gets the keyboard functionality right to where it ADDS to the user experience of touch/mouse/ to make an overall excellent UI. The good thing is that this could be significantly customizable so that even if it wasn't perfect out of the box it could be adapted later.
  • I want my "Most used apps" list

    In Windows 7, the left column of the Start menu is a list of most used applications, the top one being the most used, I use this all the time instead of pinning apps to the taskbar which gets overcrowded if too much is pinned.

    Can't find anywhere in Win8 the "Most used apps" list or a "Recently used apps" list. Can't even find "Recent documents" list which I use all the time...

    You even have on Windows7 in the most used apps list a popup for apps like Excel and Word with its own recent document list right in the start menu.

    I'm gonna miss so much these features in Win8 if I have to upgrade...
    • Pin them to the Start Screen

      On the Windows 8 start screen or "Menu" you can create a separate page and pin recently used apps there yourself. It's actually very smart and easy to use.
      • That's not what I want

        I want a list automatically updated with the recent lists, not something I build myself.

        And flipping over to start screen is horrible, almost traumatizing. I think Classic Shell and/or vStart are going to be my best friends if I have to switch to Win8.
        • Oh my...

          Good thing you don't work here.... I disable that horrible feature. My users are happy because I pin all their office shortcuts and the intranet and the help desk icon there. Takes me 1minute and I have not had 1 user complain about the "Most used list".

          You are the 1st person that I have EVER heard of that actually use it... Sorry, If you don't like it, don't get/use/buy it...

          It is like people complaining about the violence in movies... if it so bad... stop watching movies... :)
          • Come on get real ...

            How would you hear of people using recent items, jump lists etc - its not something people talk about! I use them all the time and from what I read Windows 8 would be a definite retrograde step for me. Yes, I don't have to buy it - but does that mean I'll be stuck on and old OS that is no longer supported for the rest of my life?

            You are probably talking about users that only use a few apps (maybe MS Office) - I use dozens of apps and need quick access to them through start menu - along with jump lists for the various documents and media I create. There will be MANY users like that.

            What about the power button? Yes using the hardware power button and lid close actions is fine if you want the default actions you have chosen for them - but what happens if I don't want the default option - I don't want to sleep or hibernate, but want to shutdown or restart?
          • RE: Oh my...

            You sound just like an a..hole IT manager that was fired several years ago because he took it upon himself to disable "windows explorer" when Win XP came out, and made the whole company try to use only the "search" bar. A few weeks after "roll out", the CEO needed to find a little used file, and having not been able to use the "I might know it when I see it" functionality of Windows Explorer, he came down REAL hard on the IT manager. To say the least, after having been made to enable explorer, he was fired!
          • They both sound like A**hole

            your CEO sounds like a jerk if he fired the IT guy for that. (unless their were other reasons also and I'm guessing there were)
            Where I work he would have said "Turn it back on" and been done with it.

            I have to wonder why he thought it was a good idea to turn it off in the first place though...
          • I miss it...

            That was a big feature of Windows 7 that I loved, and miss in Windows 8. Instead of opening the program, doing file>open, going through a list of documents, and finding it, you can just click the arrow.
    • recent documents

      I miss the recent documents in MS Office, I know it is there when you go to the file button, but it takes you to another screen, not just a drop down menu.
      As for the desktop, I do not use it at all, all of my frequently used files/programs are in a taksbar set. I have a nice background picture and keep it clear for viewing. I don't like the clutter of shortcuts all over the screen.
      I don't know that upgrading my WXP to W8 would benefit me any, especially since Media Center is separate. The price is right at $40, that seems to be the only benefit. I don't even have all of the proposed web pages in my browser, actually I don't know how to put them there.
      As for typing, I use a combinationof looking at my keyboard and not, I usually end up with words like hte or th e, as it is. Or as above words run together, or in th ecase of the the e in many cases ends up beginning the next word. I usually correct these mistypings, if I find them.
      I may be 64 (this week) but I do know quite a bit about computers and Office...not an expert by any means.
      • Use the Quick Access Toolbar

        I "pinned" the Open Recent File icon to the Quick Access Toolbar. This is so much better because you can also "pin" the files and folders that you use the most so you do not have to go searching for them.

        As for Media Center, this is included in the Windows 8 Pro upgrade.
    • tile sets

      Depending on the size of your screen you will have 24 or more of your most used applications in the first tile set. Really the way to use it is to hit the Win key and type the first few characters of what you want. There is nothing else that you need to learn. It will really make you feel like a drudge when you try to find things in XP after using 8.