As you know by now, at last week’s BUILD conference, Microsoft released the Windows 8 Developer Preview and made it available to the world via the Windows DEV Center site. Of course, this version of the operating system is not fully complete (it’s not even at Beta) as the main focus of the preview is just to provide developers with an API and the development tools for building Metro style, touch-based apps. Even so, it does provide enough of the core operating system to allow us nondevelopers the opportunity to experiment with some of the new features that have already been announced, such as the new Windows Explorer.

Furthermore, since Microsoft has designed Windows 8 as an operating system for various hardware platforms, you do not need to have a tablet or touch-capable system to use Windows 8. You can use a keyboard and mouse just like you have always done. (You have to keep in mind that Microsoft specifically designed this preview version for developers to use on prototype touch-based tablet from Samsung, so there are a few rough edges when it comes to using the desktop UI and a keyboard and mouse.)

In this edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I will introduce you to the new Ribbon in Windows 8’s Windows Explorer. As I do, I’ll only touch on the Core tabs of the Windows Explorer Ribbon — there are just too many new features to cover everything in one blog. I’ll continue with additional details next week in Part II.

Note: Keep in mind that since this is such an early release of Windows 8, some of the features that I’ll describe in this article may change between now and the time the operating system is actually released.

For a comprehensive look at the Metro Interface, check out the First Look Photo Gallery or go even deeper in Greg’s Photo Gallery Examination of the Windows Explorer Ribbon.

Popularity poll

To begin with, I know that the Ribbon is not the most popular interface feature that Microsoft has added to their products. In fact, when I mentioned in last week’s Windows blog that the Ribbon was coming to Windows Explorer, the discussion forums lit up with a lot of flak aimed at the Ribbon.

I must admit that when I first encountered the Ribbon in Office 2007, I was disturbed by the big learning curve that it appeared to impose, but once I adapted to the Ribbon, I found that I really liked it. I must also admit that as I have become more adept at using the Ribbon in Office as well as in Windows 7 (WordPad, Paint, Movie Maker, and Photo Gallery), I have found myself stumbling around when using applications with menus and wishing for a Ribbon.

To the naysayers, I have to point out that it appears that the Ribbon is gaining momentum and not going away, so you really need to stop grumbling so much and embrace the advantages that it brings to the table. Really, once you learn your way around a Ribbon, you’ll definitely come to appreciate its design. This is especially true with the new Ribbon in Windows 8’s Windows Explorer — it’s truly a much more efficient navigational system.

Getting started

In Windows 8’s Windows Explorer, you’ll discover that the Ribbon contains one menu and a set of Core tabs that always appear in the Ribbon along with the Contextual tabs, which appear based on the type of object that you have selected, such as a location, a folder, or a file, and then provide related commands. This system is designed to expose close to 200 different file management commands in Windows Explorer without having them buried in numerous nested menus, popups, dialog boxes, or right-click context menus.

The Ribbon in Windows Explorer includes the File menu and three Core tabs titled Home, Share, and View, as shown in Figure A. Let’s take a closer look.

Figure A

Windows Explorer’s base Ribbon contains the File menu and three Core tabs.

File menu

The File menu, shown in Figure B, is designed to provide you with quick access to some of the more general commands in Windows Explorer. When you access the File menu, you’ll see a set of commands on the left side and Favorite places on the right side. The Favorite places show the most recently accessed folders and remains visible until you select a command that has a submenu. The submenu overlays the Favorite places space and provides you with related options.

For example, the Open command prompt submenu contains commands to open a regular or an administrator command prompt. Both open a Command Prompt window targeted on the currently selected folder.

Figure B

The File menu provides access to the general commands in Windows Explorer.

As you can see, other commands on the File menu allow you to open a new Explorer window, clear the history, change folder options, access the Help system, and close Windows Explorer.

Home tab

The first of the Core tabs is the Home tab, and as you can see in Figure C, it provides you with access to the most often used file management commands. The Clipboard group includes all the standard commands along with a very handy Copy Path command. Just select it and the current path is copied to the clipboard.

Figure C

The Home tab provides you with access to the main file management commands.

In the Organize group, you’ll find that the Move To and Copy To commands are readily accessible rather than being hidden away on the Edit menu as they were in Windows XP/Vista/7. You’ll also find that the Delete and Rename commands live in this group.

Moving down to the New group you can, of course, create new folders and files of various types. Using the Easy Access command allows you to make things easier to find by adding folders to a Library or to the Favorites as well as by mapping a drive letter to a network location.

In addition to the Open and Edit commands, which function just like before by launching the associated application and loading the selected file, the Open group also provides you with quick access to the Properties dialog box. The History command appears to be a new name for the Previous Versions feature.

The Select group provides you with a set of commands for selecting groups of files and folders.

Share tab

The Share tab, shown in Figure D, is your one-stop location for any command related to sharing files with others. For example, within the Send group, you can create a Zip file and email it. You can burn files to an optical disc as well as print or fax documents.

In the Share With group you’ll find a gallery that allows you to share files and folders with your Homegroup or with specific users. The Advanced Security command opens the Security tab where you can lock down sharing by setting specific permissions.

Figure D

The Share tab is your one-stop location for any command related to sharing files with others.

View tab

On the View tab, you’ll find a host of commands, as shown in Figure E, that you can use to configure the way you want Windows Explorer to display files. In the Panes group you can configure the Navigation pane as well as enable or disable the Preview pane or the Details pane — the latter now appears in the same space as the Preview pane.

Figure E

The View tab provides you with a host of commands for configuring Windows Explorer’s display.

The Layout group sports a live preview gallery for choosing your icon display — just hover over an option in the gallery and the file display changes accordingly. The Current View group exposes several great commands. First, the Group By and Sort By commands, which give you neat ways to narrow and organize the display of your files, are readily available. Second, when you are using the Details layout, the Add Columns and Size All Columns to Fit commands come in real handy for getting a better look at the available file and folder details in Windows Explorer’s display.

The Show/Hide group brings several valuable items that were previously hidden in the Folder Options dialog box to light. Now, when you want to show or hide file extensions on the fly, just select the File Name Extensions check box. When you need to quickly see hidden files, just select the Hidden Items check box. The Hide Selected Items command allows you to quickly set the Hidden attribute — no more going to the Properties dialog box.

While F5 still works, having the Refresh button on the far right of the View tab is a handy addition.

The Up button

Oh, and before I forget, the Up button is back! One of the mistakes that the Vista developers made was to remove the Up button from Windows Explorer. It remained MIA in Windows 7. However, in Windows 8 the developers heard your complaints and put the Up button back in Windows Explorer, as shown in Figure F. It appears right next to the Back and Forward buttons just like it did in Windows XP.

Figure F

The Up button is back!

What’s your take?

What do you think about Windows 8’s Windows Explorer? Are you ready to embrace the Ribbon or are you going to complain about it? It’s your choice! As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.