The Start Screen in the Windows 8 Release Preview

By Andy Rathbone

Reviewers of early versions of Windows 8 were stunned to see that Microsoft did something unthinkable: It removed the Start button from the desktop. The Start button, the program launching pad used by a generation of computer users, had vanished. How could people cope with such a fundamental change?

But dropping the Start button wasn’t really the biggest change in Windows 8. Actually, the most drastic transformation happened with the Start menu itself. In the Windows 8 Release Preview, the Start menu consumes the entire screen. Much more than a menu, the Start screen could be called its own operating system. You can run Windows 8 without ever leaving the Start screen.

Windows 8’s new Start screen shows a colorful grid of square and rectangular tiles. Each tile represents an app, a mini program, much like the ones found on smart phones or the iPad. Touch or click a tile, and the app fills the screen.

The Start screen’s live tiles constantly update to show the latest information.
The Start screen’s live tiles constantly update to show the latest information.

Microsoft refers to many Start screen tiles as live tiles. Live tiles let you see your information without opening the app. As information flows into your computer, the tiles constantly update, showing the latest information on the tile itself. A glance at the Start screen lists your next appointment, for example, the current weather conditions, the first few words of your latest e-mail, and more.

Oddly enough for a program named “Windows,” the Start screen no longer uses windows. Instead, apps fill the entire screen, much as they do on a smart phone. You won’t find menu bars along an app’s edge or anywhere else, for that matter. Every app’s controls lie hidden from sight, letting you focus on the app itself. Open a website in the Internet Explorer app, for example, and the web page fills the entire screen. The same goes for any other app.

Perhaps the most striking things about Windows 8’s bundled apps is how Microsoft integrated them with non-Microsoft products, a refreshing change from a company known for using Windows as its own advertising vehicle. For example, the Start screen’s People app lets enter your username and passwords from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, and other social media accounts.

The People app syncs with your social media accounts, letting you see a friend’s updates dire
The People app syncs with your social media accounts, letting you see a friend’s updates directly from the app itself.

Once you’ve entered your account information, the People app syncs with every account, grabbing your friends’ names, photos, contact information, and status updates. Click on your friends’ names in the People app, and you see all the information they’ve shared, including their latest status updates.

Other apps constantly update with information you’ve posted online, too. Open Windows 8’s Pictures app, for example, and you see the photos stored on your own computer, as well as those you’ve uploaded to Facebook or Flickr.

Windows 8’s Start screen and apps mark a big change from the text-based Start menu of yesteryear. For some people, the Start screen’s new ecosystem will be all they need.

Note: At the time of this writing, Microsoft hadn’t yet completed Windows 8. Some of these details could change when Microsoft releases Windows 8 later this year.