Book Review - Windows 8 Plain & Simple, by Nancy Muir


Over the past few weeks, I have reviewed a comprehensive, in-depth, everything-you-need-to-know guide to Windows 8 (Windows 8 Step By Step) and a just-the-basics, bare-bones, beginners-only guide to Windows 8 (Teach Yourself Visually Windows 8.) Based on past experience, I thought that Windows 8 Plain & Simple, written by Nancy Muir, would be somewhere in the middle, not too detailed and not too simplified. Was I right to approach it this way? Let's find out.

Getting things in order

One look at the Table of Contents showed me that this book was off to a great start. The chapters are arranged in exactly the order I thought would be most logical for someone approaching Windows 8 for the first time. One of my complaints about the other books was that they didn't take a true step-by-step path from setting up the computer and getting it customized for one's individual preferences, to becoming familiar with the tiles, charms, and the Desktop, to managing files, and so on. Of course, there is no cosmic law that says my way is the only right way, but here's a list of chapters in Windows 8 Plain & Simple. See what you think:

  • About This Book
  • Meet the Windows 8 Interface
  • Providing Input
  • Working With Basic Windows Settings
  • Customizing the Appearance of Windows
  • Working with Users and Privacy
  • Working With Accessibility Settings
  • Searching
  • Working with Apps
  • File Management
  • Sharing Settings and Files
  • Going Online with Internet Explorer 10
  • Using Mail and Messaging
  • Buying Apps at the Windows Store
  • Managing People and Time
  • Using Maps
  • Getting Visual
  • Playing Music
  • Working with Devices and Networks
  • Maintaining and Troubleshooting Your Computer

The author assumes that the reader already has the essential computer skills, and has some experience with using software before, but does not assume that the reader has already used a touch screen, which is a good, common-sense approach. The book is lavishly illustrated in full color, with clear, step-by-step directions that are labeled on each illustration. The result is both visually pleasing and easy to understand. The book is also printed in landscape mode, which means there is more space for the illustrations with the text beside them.

Getting Acquainted With The New Approach

Since Windows 8 is the most radical change in the Windows interface since Windows 95 replaced Windows for Workgroups 3.11, it makes sense to ease the reader into the new way of doing things, in such a way that the differences won't cause confusion or frustration. Windows 8 Plain & Simple does a great job on this. I especially liked the chapter that gives an introduction to the Start screen (and its contents), the Desktop, and Microsoft accounts. There is enough detail to make everything easy to understand, along with illustrations that show exactly what the author is talking about, step by step. The chapter on Input says that most people will still be using conventional input devices, but also gives extensive instructions on how to use Windows 8 with a touchscreen. This ensures that the book will remain a valuable reference as time goes on and touchscreens become more common. The instructions for going back to recently used apps, something I'm sure many readers will do on a regular basis, were especially clear.

The chapter on Users and Privacy is excellent. It also flows the information in a logical manner, beginning with the firewall and app permissions, then going on to Windows Defender. Some of these concepts may be confusing to a newcomer at the beginning, but after looking carefully at the information the author includes here, I think that from then on all will become clear. Then there are guides to user accounts, passwords (including the new picture password and PIN), User Account Control and Family Safety. Some newcomers may not know about the way Windows 8 handles users, and this will walk them through understanding the concept and setting up whatever accounts and passwords they will need for their own situations. There's also a good explanation of accessibility settings. Not all such settings are for people with disabilities, by the way. My son would appreciate the instructions for setting up a left-handed mouse. 🙂 I also learned that using the computer with only the keyboard, not the mouse, is called "caret browsing." Until I read Windows 8 Plain & Simple I had no idea there was such a term.

Searching and finding

With Windows 8's new interface, even experienced users will have to learn new ways of searching. Windows 8 Plain & Simple makes this new approach a lot easier to understand. Since using the search tools on the Start screen will be unfamiliar territory, the explanation of how they work is especially detailed and thoroughly illustrated. I thought there could have been a little more about searching from the Desktop, since that will be more familiar for people who have used other versions of Windows, but that's a minor quibble. The default searches give quite a lot of detail, including searching the Windows Store. I think that for most of us that would qualify as Too Much Information, so the brief guide to customizing searches will be a welcome reference.

Apps are more than you think

Many of us have become familiar with the concept of an "app" as a small program that's either free or costs only a small amount, that one installs on a phone. In Windows 8, all programs, large or small, free or expensive, are called apps. Thus, the tile you click or tap to get a weather report is an app— and familiar software like Microsoft Office is now referred to as a "desktop application." The book doesn't really get into the distinctions between the two kinds of "apps," and I think many people may be confused by this (I must admit I was). Since this change in terminology may take some getting used to if one's used a previous version of Windows, Windows 8 Plain & Simple devotes a lot of time to both the concept and the use of apps. They use WordPad to demonstrate the concepts, an excellent idea. By using WordPad they can demonstrate features like the ribbon that are available in more complex software like Microsoft Office, and also the concepts of menus, toolbars, the Clipboard, working with graphics, formatting text, and the basics of working with files (a subject explored in much more detail in the next chapter). Since WordPad is one of Windows 8's built-in apps, everyone will have it available to experiment with, and it's a tried-and-true program that's pretty hard to mess up (believe me, I've had plenty of opportunities to test that out over the years). There's also a brief introduction to playing games, although Windows 8 does not actually come with any games (the Games tile takes you to the Store from where you can get both Microsoft and Xbox games). I think there could have been a better explanation of the Games Store, because again the brief reference was confusing. As I mentioned, the chapter that deals with file management is well-illustrated and extensive. Each important concept is explained and explored. The next chapter covers the basics of sharing settings, syncing with other devices, and the ins and outs of SkyDrive. Between those chapters, nearly everyone will have a good foundation for working with data and files.

Exploring the world, in a limited way

I was very disappointed by the chapter that deals with Internet Explorer 10. It gave reasonably detailed instructions for using the browser from the Start screen, but just a one-page overview of the Desktop version of the browser. Since the Desktop version will be more familiar to previous Windows users and has more features than the Start screen version, both browsers should have been given equal space. Likewise, while the chapter on Mail and Messaging acknowledges that one can create email accounts with many different services, it only illustrates using Hotmail. Granted that the book can't cover every email service under the sun, I think that at least a sample screen from services like Gmail and Yahoo Mail should have been included. Likewise, the description of instant messaging was far too perfunctory to help a beginner understand the concept. The chapter dealing with the Store was much better and walks the reader through searching the store, finding apps, researching ratings and installing both free and paid apps. For anyone who hasn't yet encountered the concept of an app store through using a smartphone, this chapter should make the process easy to figure out.

The chapters that cover Working with Devices and Networks and Maintaining and Troubleshooting Your Computer are also perfunctory and don't offer enough detail to give a beginner confidence. For example, in the section on installing a printer, there's just a brief mention that if your printer isn't on the list, you have to click Advanced Printer Setup and go on to add your printer manually. Based on my experiences in years of doing tech support, this supposedly simple procedure might well stop a beginner cold. The section on creating a Homegroup doesn't really explain what a Homegroup is, and since it's possible that a home network might not even include a Homegroup, I think a more detailed explanation would have been helpful. The Troubleshooting chapter talks about setting up Windows Update, which I don't consider a Troubleshooting procedure, and gives one-page instructions for resetting the computer to factory settings (not really recommended for beginners who might not understand that everything they've ever created on that computer will be irretrievably lost) before it gives instructions on how to refresh the computer instead. This is really a bad decision on the author's part. The chapter on upgrading to Windows 8 only deals with the versions of Windows 8 and with finding out if your equipment will run Windows 8 properly. There are no instructions for actually upgrading to Windows 8. I can understand those being left out of a book designed for beginners, but the chapter title is misleading if that's all it covers.

So what did I think?

Windows 8 Plain & Simple got off to a great start and I had high hopes that, after reading it, I could recommend it without qualifications to people who are past the absolute beginner stage but not quite into the intermediate stage. However, as the book went along, the explanations seemed to get more and more perfunctory, which is a real failing when it comes to important but more complex subjects like networking, and some of the instructions (like a factory reset) would be downright catastrophic if the person who attempts it doesn't really understand what's going to happen. I liked the illustrations very much and the book's layout made each set of picture-plus-text easy to follow. The author clearly knows her subject but made some assumptions about what her audience would need to have explained that might or might not be true.

Product rating 3/5


This is another one of those books that each individual reader will have to look over and decide whether Windows 8 Plain & Simple is the reference text to buy. Much of it is very well done indeed, but it has enough shortcomings that I could not wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. There is enough detail to be useful, but not quite enough to be a complete guide for the beginner. I'd definitely recommend checking it out of the library and browsing through some of its chapters to see whether it's right for you.

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