Did you get a new Windows 8 computer this past holiday season? Did it come with instructions that answered your questions about this radically redesigned operating system, and explained everything to your satisfaction? Or will you need a little more information before you feel at ease? There are plenty of Windows 8 how-to books out there these days, and some are clearly better than others. I’ve reviewed both ends of the spectrum in recent months. Is Windows 8 for Dummies the kind of book that will explain everything and get nearly everyone up and running smoothly? Let’s take a look at it and find out.
Asking the Critical Questions
Windows 8 for Dummies caught my attention immediately by asking some of the most important questions of all, starting with "What is Windows 8, and Why are You Using It?" Like many recent books, this one is based on the premise that the reader has a computer with Windows 8 already installed (there are no instructions for upgrading, although there are instructions for transferring your information from an old computer to a new one). Keeping this in mind, the second most important question the book asks is "Should I Bother Switching to Windows 8?" Surprisingly, the author’s answer to that second question is no, stick with what you already have—acknowledging Windows 8’s steep learning curve and the inescapable fact that it’s designed to work best with touchscreens. Whoa! This kind of straight talk in a how-to book is downright unprecedented. However, to no one’s surprise, the book then goes merrily on its way explaining how Windows 8 works. It would have been a very short book otherwise. :)
Step by Step
Windows 8 for Dummies starts with one simple premise: most people who are new to Windows 8 in this time frame will not be using a touchscreen computer. The Start screen is optimized for use by touch, and not as friendly to mouse-and-keyboard users as it could be. So, the idea is to help people who are using Windows 8 on a non-touchscreen computer work better, faster, and more productively even though they may have to get past the Start screen to do it. To me, this makes perfect sense. Starting with the Lock screen and signing in, the book moves briskly along to explain user accounts and Microsoft accounts, both of which are essential for smooth Windows 8 operation. There’s a sidebar that fills up most of a page explaining what a first-time Windows 8 user who’s accustomed to previous versions of Windows will need to know immediately, and containing some very vital tips and tricks. The major downside to this book is that the illustrations are grayscale only. This was OK in books about previous versions of Windows, but not this time around. Windows 8 is very colorful, but unfortunately the color values are pretty much the same across the board, so printing them in grayscale just washes everything out and you can’t really tell what you’re looking at. I know color printing is expensive and would have added to the price of the book, but I still wish Wiley had at least sprung for a center section printed in color.
The chapter that covers the Start screen is full of useful details and everything a new user would need to know is explained clearly. After reading this, it should be easy to find whatever you want, customize the screen to suit your own preferences, and understand what the built-in apps are all about (most of the apps have more complete explanations in chapters later in the book). It also explains how to shutdown Windows 8, which seems to be the one function Microsoft (for some unknown reason) did its level best to hide.
On to the Desktop
After the introductory section that deals with the Start screen, much of the rest of Windows 8 for Dummies deals with the Desktop interface. Although the Desktop is similar to previous versions of Windows, there are quite a few things that don’t work the same way, and the book goes into satisfying detail about how to start working the new way. There are a lot of really good, practical suggestions. For example, they suggest adding icons on the Desktop for Computer, User’s Files, Network, Recycle Bin, and Control Panel, so you won’t have to go back to the Start screen to get access. There’s also a great section on customizing the taskbar, with common-sense instructions for making it much easier to work with. Much of the Desktop information will be familiar to anyone who’s used Windows before, but the section on burning data to CDs and DVDs should be required reading. It’s got one of the clearest explanations of the various types of media and how they work that I’ve seen. The same goes for the explanations of SD cards and flash drives. And there’s an excellent section that explains SkyDrive, which is something many people won’t have prior experience with.
Sorting out Apps and Programs
I think one of the things people might have a little trouble getting used to in Windows 8 is the new terminology of "apps" versus "applications" versus "programs." Most of us are used to seeing what we think of as programs and applications on our computers, and apps on our phones. Windows 8 has apps and applications, even though I suspect many of us will continue to think of them as programs while we get used to the new terminology. Windows 8 for Dummies explains how to find and launch what you’re looking for, especially on the often-crowded Start screen, and how to open and manage documents. Even if you think you know that stuff, this section might well be an eye opener. It’s not that Windows 8 does things radically differently, it’s that Windows 8 provides more and different choices than we’ve had before, and having good clear instructions will save a lot of frustration during the learning period. Since Windows 8 also includes the ability to find and buy apps in the Windows Store, something many people have only encountered on phones and Macintosh computers, the instructions for shopping will definitely be useful. This is another place where the grayscale illustrations in the book really fall down on the job, unfortunately.
Acknowledging that it’s a lot easier to lose track of things in Windows 8 (whether it’s not being able to find an app you were just using, or not being able to find the files or programs you want, for example) there is an entire chapter devoted to Finding the Lost that will be extremely useful to just about everyone. I hadn’t seen this kind of information gathered together in one place in the other books I’ve read so far, and it’s an excellent idea. There are sections that deal with the same kinds of issues anyone faces with any version of Windows—learning how to deal with media files, set up a network, and use Internet explorer—that spotlight Windows 8’s new features and explain how they’re similar to or different from what people might be accustomed to.
Help, Yes, Just Anybody
Where Windows 8 for Dummies really shines is in the section of the book titled Help! Here the reader will find out about what the author refers to as "New Magic Fixes in Window 8" and the meaning of a whole raft of strange error messages (and what to do when you see them). I really enjoyed reading this section and I learned a lot from it. I think just about everyone else will, too. This section also covers moving your data from an old computer to your new Windows 8 computer in satisfying detail, and explains how to get help for other problems you might encounter along the way, using Windows 8’s built-in help system or finding the answers on the Microsoft web site. And who could resist a final chapter titled "Ten Things You’ll Hate about Windows 8 (and How to Fix Them)?" It’s another good example of the author’s no-nonsense attitude, and it provides some of the most useful workarounds for common annoyances I’ve seen so far.
So, what did I think?
Windows 8 for Dummies is what a For Dummies book should be. It’s engagingly written by an author who doesn’t shrink from expressing his opinions. It explains everything clearly and in enough detail, without being a book the size of the Queen Mary. The author clearly understood that the people reading the book are definitely not dummies, and he doesn’t talk down to anyone or skimp over information designed for any level of computer expertise on the assumption that none of his readers will need it. I found it refreshing to read and I really liked the information that’s in it that I haven’t seen collected all in one space in other books. For Dummies books are usually illustrated with grayscale screenshots and this is not a good thing when it comes to Windows 8. The illustrations are not always easy to decipher, which is not the fault either of the author—it’s just that the colors in Window 8 are so much alike that it’s hard to pick out what you’re looking at when they’re all shown in shades of grey. This is the only real problem with the book, though, and if you’re looking at your own Windows 8 installation as you follow along with the book you should be able to figure out what’s going on.
Windows 8 for Dummies is a winner. It should be an excellent resource for just about everyone and should explain nearly everything necessary to feel confident with this new operating system. It is not designed to be a full-featured, everything-anyone-ever-wanted-to-know guide (for that, I would still recommend Windows 8 Step By Step) but it should get just about anyone up and running quickly and painlessly.