Windows 8 start screen, Desktop, and Touch

Windows 8 start screen, Desktop, and Touch

I have been running Windows 8 since about December 2012. Now it just seems easier to use than Windows 7 or Windows XP. There are many reasons I would not want to go back to either XP or 7.

I started upgrading to Windows 8 with a Q3 2007 Dell Precision M4300 laptop in early December. It was my primary mobile software development machine at the time. Then I thought I’d try the experiment on my family, by upgrading our Q2 2005 Gateway 840GM Windows XP machine. Then a few weeks later I upgraded my 2011 Intel Core i7 Desktop machine that I built from parts. Finally, in Q1 2013, I bought a new ASUS ZenBook UX51V with a touchpad and Windows 8 pre-installed.

The performance of Windows 8 on the older machines compared to Windows XP is amazing. If nothing else, the upgrade is worth it just for the performance improvement.

Touch: Pad or Screen

Initially, I thought I wanted a touch screen surface device. But then most reviews of devices with Windows 8 touchscreen show less battery life, hurting mobility. I also realized as a developer I don’t have many apps that would utilize the touch screen. I develop in Visual Studio 2012, SQL Server 2012, edit text on NotePad++, and browse othe internet with multiple browsers. None of those apps would use the touch screen. For me, only the occasional diversionary game would utilize touch. I can play Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope on my Smartphone, so it isn’t really important to me on a larger screen. The Start screen and Charms (right side menu) are about all I would use the touch screen for. If I primarily used my Windows 8 computer to consume content or play games, then the touch screen would be much more useful.

The touchpad has gestures for scrolling, opening Charms, and many other things; I don’t need a touch screen for those touch features. Traditionally I have always carried around a mouse for my laptops. I just haven’t liked mousepads for extended work sessions in the past. But the gesture enabled touchpad on my newer ZenBook has changed my viewpoint. The only time I use a mouse now is when I am playing the occasional 3D game, since it is hard to scroll and touch click with speed and at the same time. All the gestures in the touchpad are what made me decide to skip touch screen.

If I could get a touch screen at the cost of less than 1% in battery life reduction, then I’d take the extra feature; But at this time it wasn’t worth the mobility hit for my usage scenarios.

The Start Screen (Modern UI) versus Start Menu

I have read about many people complaining that the Start screen in Windows 8 is too big of a change. I just don’t have a problem with it.

My old Dell Precision laptop had an old style mouse pad that did not recognize any gestures; my old Gateway 840GM desktop used a mouse, which has no gestures. These computers were more cumbersome than a gesture enabled touchpad, but not too unweildy. I can see why some people with these older devices may want an option to re-enable the old start menu combined with boot to desktop. The ‘Blue’ update to Windows 8 may include that option; I respect that people want options. But I still probably wouldn’t use that option myself.

Each of my 3 kids had issues when they were young double clicking on icons on the Windows XP desktop to open applications. Then all the buttons on browser title bars made it difficult for them to use kid friendly websites on their own. When I installed Windows 8, my 4 year old immediately was able to click on her picture to login, and then click on tiles on the start screen to open her favorite sites.

Using and customizing the Start menu

You can organize the start screen tiles into categories, which makes it easy to find the application you want to open. I have tile groups for ‘.Net Development’, ‘Python Development’, ‘SQL Server’, along with the normal ‘People’, ‘Media/News’, and ‘Games’ type categories.



To create groups, just drag tiles between groups or to the right past any other groups and it pops it into a new group. Let go when it is where you want it. Moving app tiles around between or within groups is a simple drag and drop operation. If you want to rename a group, just zoom out using a gesture or with the minus icon in the lower right of the screen; then right click on a group and select the ‘rename group’ button. Enter a name, hit enter, and zoom back in.

Windows XP and 7 also allow you to move items around the start menu. It is a little difficult since flyout menus may close as you drag which can make it hard to hit your target. This is definitely easier to do with a mouse or a gesture in Windows 8.

You can also right click on an empty space to see the ‘all apps’ icon, which when pressed shows all applications whether or not they are on your start screen. Adding them from there is a simple click. Removing an item from your start screen is just as easy; right-click and then on the menu at the bottom of the screen click ‘unpin from start’.

When I want to run a program, I just click the Windows key to open the start screen. This is the same key to use in Windows XP and 7 to open the start menu. Then in Windows 8, I click on the app tile that I want to open. If I need to scroll then I use the two finger side to side drag/swipe gesture. It really isn’t much different in flow than the old start menu. However, Windows 8 gets even easier than 7 or XP, if the app is not on the start screen. In this case, I just type the first few letters of the app name and hit enter when the app appears.

To take this next screenshot (starting at the desktop while typing this blog entry) I typed ‘Windows key’, then ‘pa’. The start menu switched to a search screen automatically and pre-selected the most common application I open starting with those letters. Then I hit enter to open the selection. If I wanted an app further down the list I could use the arrow keys before hitting enter, or type more letters of the name to filter down to it.



You’ll notice the only thing missing from the Windows 8 desktop is the start menu. The taskbar shows all your current running apps just like in Windows 7; You can also pin applications to the taskbar just like in Windows 7. I pin the most common of my start screen desktop apps to my taskbar. You can do this with a running app by right clicking on the taskbar icon and clicking “Pin this program to taskbar”. You can also do it for a desktop enabled application from the start screen. Here is my desktop.



You can use Windows 8 with old computers along with the new ones. It has a lot to offer even without touch capable hardware; and that old hardware will run Windows 8 better than it ran Windows XP and Windows 7. The next ‘Blue’ update to Windows 8 in fall of 2013 is planned to respond to feedback about the Start button on the taskbar/desktop. But even without that, maybe a fresh take on the Start Screen being a full screen version and more of a Start menu will help you adjust to the change?

Further Reading

Wikipedia: Features New to Windows 8

Scott Hanselman: Windows 8 productivity: Who moved my cheese? Oh, there it is.

Review of ASUS ZenBook UX51

Asus ZenBook UX51 Developer Review

About the Author

Michael Lang

Co-Founder and CTO of Watchdog Creative, business development, technology vision, and more since 2013, Developer, and Mentor since 1999. See the about page for more details.

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