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The Windows 8 Desktop And Task Manager

The Definitive Windows 8 Review And User Guide

One of the first realities that power users will need to accept is that everything about the traditional Windows experience, which we're all pretty familiar with, is now contained within an app. That is to say the Desktop and every application running on it is treated as one of the Windows 8 UI's apps. The Desktop can even be launched from the Start screen, just like any other app.

As bizarre as that sounds, there isn't much fundamentally different in the Windows 8 Desktop than there was under Windows 7. Aside from the missing Start menu, Windows 8 does away with the Aero theme, it adds a ribbon-style file menu to File Explorer, and it features an enhanced (and also simplified) Task Manager.

Start Menu

Alas, the Start button and its associated pop-up menu didn't make the cut for Windows 8. We know that the Start screen replaces the Start menu, but what about the Start button? Although there isn't a Start button attached to the taskbar in Windows 8, if you move your mouse cursor to the bottom-left corner, a sneaky auto-hide Start button appears.

The button is actually an accurate representation of your Start screen layout. If you move your tiles and groups around, the little squares on the hidden Start button change accordingly, too.


By ditching Aero, windows no longer appear to be made of translucent glass. Also missing are the drop shadows, which conveyed depth in Windows Vista and 7.

Instead, the Windows 8 taskbar and window borders are flat and square. Those borders now take on solid colors, while the taskbar transparency is toned-down to the point of being barely opaque.

Though the Aero theme is no more, Windows 8 retains its Snap, Peek, and Shake features, which were originally introduced as Aero Snap, Aero Peek, and Aero Shake.

Dragging a window by its title bar to either side of the screen still snaps it, maximizing it to one-half of the desktop.

Hovering the mouse cursor over any taskbar icon still generates a thumbnail preview of that application's windows and/or tabs, and shaking a window still minimizes all other windows.

File Explorer

File Explorer is Windows 8's reworked file manager, formerly known as Windows Explorer. The new file manager gains a ribbon-style file menu and new Quick Access Toolbar.

The Quick Access Toobar is essentially a set of small icons for common file manager operations. It sits right in the window title bar, directly to the right of the app icon. By default, the File Explorer's Quick Access Toolbar sports the Properties and New Folder icons, though Undo, Redo, Delete, and Rename can also be added.

The new file menu contains File, Home, Share, and View menus.

The File menu pops out, somewhat like an upside-down Start menu, to reveal the options to "Open new window", "Open command prompt", "Open Windows PowerShell", Delete History, Help, and Close. Other than Close, all menu items have sub-menus with additional options like opening the command prompt as an administrator.

The remaining menu labels, Home, Share, and View, pop-out a ribbon-style menu with their own options. Double-clicking on any of them causes the pop-out ribbon to dock and remain open. The far end of the file menu strip has an arrow button to expand or minimize the ribbon, next to a Help icon that launches Windows Help and Support.

The navigation bar still contains controls for stepping back, forward, and up a directory, as well as a location and search boxes. Likewise, the left-hand pane remains mostly the same as in Windows 7, containing links to Favorites, Libraries, Homegroup, Computer, and Network.

The status bar, which sits at the bottom of the File Manager window, lists the total number of files in a given directory on the far left side. The far right hosts buttons that switch items in the window to a Details view (a vertical list with file information) or large thumbnails. 

All told, we're putting Microsoft's new File Explorer in our column of pros favoring Windows 8. Unlike other areas of the operating system, this feature offers power users more control in a cleaner, high-customizable package.

Task Manager

The simplified default view in Windows 8's Task Manager only lists the name of currently-open applications. Simply highlight one and select End Task to kill it. The Task Manager lists desktop applications and Windows 8 UI apps, with nothing distinguishing one from the other.

Although the new Task Manager might look like major downgrade from the previous version, which relayed a lot more information, simply select More details (check the image above) to get all of the old functionality back, plus more.

Better still, Windows 8's Task Manager opens back up in whichever form it was in the last time you closed it. If you're a power user, you won't have to click More details every time you want to look at App history, Performance, or Services.

The Process tab details the resources consumed by each running application, along with background and Windows processes. Sort the list according to any of the horizontally-listed categories, allowing you to identify a piece of software chewing up your CPU cycles, your memory, hard drive space, or network throughput.

The next tab is labeled Performance, and it contains utilization over time graphs for your processor, memory, disk, Bluetooth connection, and Ethernet-based link. Select any of the graphs on the left side of the screen to make them larger on the right, adding more detailed information.

Although the first two tabs don't give you any information you couldn't find in Windows 7's Task Manager (just more, better-organized information), the next tab is completely new. The App history tab lists the total running CPU time, network usage, metered network usage, and the amount of data consumed in updating the live tiles of each Windows 8 UI app.

Next is the Startup tab, which lists all of the apps that launch when Windows 8 boots. This replaces the Startup tab in MSConfig (officially, System Configuration) in Windows Vista and 7. Simply select an item and click Disable to prevent that app from launching at startup.

The Users tab is similar to the Processes tab, but sorted by user account. The Details tab is essentially the old Processes tab from Windows 7's Task Manager, and the Services tab appears to be unchanged.

Microsoft's reworked Task Manager is another Windows 8 advantage, both for the casual Windows user and enthusiasts. Even though it initially launches in a simplified view, a more detailed view clearly surpasses the detail available from Windows 7.

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