I’ve always been attracted to technical books that offer to get rid of annoyances or reveal secrets (or both). These are the kinds of books that begin with the notion that the reader’s got things pretty well in hand already, but is eager to find some (as one of my friends jokingly puts it) "sooper sekrit" information to make everything work even better. Thus, I was happy to get the chance to review Windows 8 Secrets, because with a title like that I thought it’d definitely be my kind of book. Did it meet my expectations? Let’s take a look.
Getting to know us
There are several things that I noticed right off the bat. The first is the easy, conversational style of the writing, which I liked immediately. The second was that the authors made a conscious choice to keep using the term "Metro Interface" even while acknowledging that Microsoft quit using it. And the third was that the book is unfortunately illustrated in grayscale only, which is not the greatest choice for a colorful system like Windows 8.
Most chapters follow the same structure. First the reference to something familiar, then a comparison to the new way of doing things, and then a discussion of why the new way is better than the old way, and how to use the new way of doing things to its best advantage. This is an excellent approach, giving the reader good reasons to realize that the change isn’t just for the sake of change and things are done for good reasons. Windows 8 Secrets, unlike the other Windows 8 books I have recently reviewed, starts by assuming the reader is considering upgrading a previous version of Windows (preferably Windows 7) to Windows 8. There’s a great explanation of the versions of Windows 8, which I especially appreciated since I had not quite been clear on the concept of Windows 8 RT before now. There are several graphs which explain all the features for each edition, a major plus. I also liked the thorough, detailed explanation of the differences between Intel-compatible and ARM hardware—and the explanation of why the software we’ve become familiar with over the years won’t run on an ARM chipset device.
The section on upgrading goes way beyond any I’ve seen before, beginning with a description of what hardware will work and what won’t. Since Windows 8 is designed to work well on less powerful hardware I had thought of doing a test installation on my netbook, but Windows 8 Secrets makes it clear that that would be an exercise in frustration if not futility (the screen resolution on the netbook is all wrong for apps and can’t be changed). The chapter that covers the actual upgrade process has extremely detailed instructions that cover just about anything anyone would want to know before diving into the procedure. I love this kind of in-depth description, because if I know what to expect I feel a lot more confident about doing it. Both the online installer and installation from a disk are described as thoroughly as anyone could wish. The same can be said about setting up a dual-boot system and about configuring Windows 8 after the installation is done. And there is even a section that describes how to install Windows 8 on a Mac, which is something I plan to try eventually. I put a good old-fashioned bookmark into this one. :)
Everything about everything
The rest of the book is just as detailed and easy to read as the beginning. And rather than being carefully neutral like many tech writers, the authors don’t hesitate to state their opinions. I found this both entertaining and refreshing and I thought it added to the appeal of the book. There are little marginal notes in a handwriting font that contain especially interesting details. I was less thrilled about the "highlighting" of text in dark blue, which makes it more noticeable but less readable. After the chapter on installation, there’s a good solid introduction to the multi-touch (formerly known as Metro) interface. I think anyone coming into Windows 8 from a previous version of Windows will find this chapter a must-read. As the authors keep pointing out, Windows 8 has been redesigned from the ground up, and although the Desktop interface will look reassuringly familiar, the touch-screen interface does things in entirely new ways and I think many people will need not only time but reassurance as they learn how it all works. Windows 8 Secrets will be a real asset during this learning process. The chapter on the Desktop interface does exactly the right thing by showing the ways in which the Desktop is similar to the familiar Desktop of previous versions, and then easing the reader into the ways in which it is different—and the reasons behind the changes. I thought the explanation of what they call "the Start experience" was especially useful (what DO you do when you want to click the Start button and there isn’t one to be found?)
Unfortunately, this is one of many areas where the book’s black and white illustrations really, really fail. It’s impossible to see what the screen looks like, because so many of the normal colors show up as nearly identical shades of grey. I wish the publishers had sprung for a few color pictures, even if the rest of the book had to be in monochrome. As someone who’s still using a lot of older desktop applications, I appreciated the overview of how those will install and display. And as someone who can never leave an operating system looking like it did when it was first installed, I really liked the chapter that explains the many ways that Windows 8 can be customized.
Apps and more
There are three chapters that deal with apps. Oddly, they are not grouped together as they should logically be. The chapter on the Windows Store is first, followed by a chapter about Internet Explorer 10, which is then followed by chapters that explain productivity apps and photo and entertainment apps. Since the latter two chapters go into a great deal of detail about the apps that come with Windows 8, I would have started with those and then continued to the Windows Store. While the concept of "apps" versus "desktop applications" is well explained in the introductory chapters, I think it would be easier for most people to get used to the apps that are already installed, and then move into browsing, choosing and installing what’s available from the Windows Store. The chapter on Internet Explorer 10 should come after all that (since you can get to the Windows Store by clicking or tapping a tile rather than understanding how to use the browser). The section that explains the rules for the Windows Store is extensive and well written. Newcomers to the whole idea of "apps" should have a solid understanding of why the offerings in the Windows Store have been standardized and why the Windows Store is the only place the apps are available. The following sections that explain how to find what you want in the store and how to go about adding those new apps to Windows 8 should give anyone confidence. But I must say that the black and white illustrations are a total failure here as well. The Windows Store is a very colorful place!
Since Windows 8 doesn’t include any of the games that came with previous Windows versions (Solitaire, Minesweeper, Pinball, etc) it was logical to include a chapter about the new Xbox LIVE Game Store that is included instead of the old familiar time-wasters. I’m not a gamer (because I have been hopelessly inept with video games from Day One) but after reading this chapter I can really see the potential appeal of the Xbox LIVE Game Store. The chapters that cover storage, backup, recovery and networking follow the established pattern of using a familiar example, then moving on to how Windows 8 does things better. Since some of these areas (especially backups) get neglected by a lot of people even with old familiar software, having the step by step walkthrough and the pep talk about how much better, faster and easier things will be with Windows 8 might get people motivated to do the right things. There is even a chapter called Windows 8 for Business that includes a description of Windows 8 Enterprise, which is something I haven’t seen in most how-to books so far.
So, what did I think?
Let’s not beat around the bush: I really liked Windows 8 Secrets, even though I didn’t see much in the way of "secrets" in the contents of the book. It’s not as hefty a book as some others, but it doesn’t need to be. The information is well written and easy to understand. Some other thoughts: Pro:
- Conversational writing style and the writers don’t hesitate to give their opinions.
- Structure of the chapters, moving from the familiar to the new and the reasons the new will be better.
- Written for people who already have some skill and experience and who don’t need the detailed instructions for basic tasks that beginners would find necessary.
- Inclusion of topics like business use, which are not commonly included in consumer how-to guides.
- Grayscale illustrations, which simply do not work to demonstrate colorful interfaces.
- Dark blue "highlighting" which obscures rather than emphasizes text.
If cosmetic issues are all I can find wrong with a book, that’s an indication that it is a keeper. :)
An outstanding guide that makes Windows 8 both easy to understand and appealing for just about anyone. Although it is not for absolute beginners, it should be perfect for everyone else. The way each chapter is set up to walk the reader from the familiar to the new is great (wish some other authors had adopted this approach) and it feels as though the authors are speaking personally to the reader with the comments in the margin, all of which are also worth reading. Use one of the links below to order your own copy; you won’t regret it!