I’ve been trying out Windows 8 since the day the Developer Preview was released in 2011, but only ever on a desktop PC with a single monitor. Even though I haven’t tried it on a tablet computer at all, the paradigm for which it is surely best-suited, I’ve still been impressed with it from the outset as a desktop operating system.
This weekend I tried out Windows 8 Release Preview on a desktop with two monitors – a large, widescreen main monitor and a smaller side monitor with a 4:3 aspect ratio. This is the configuration that I am used to working with both at home and at the office, and I am very comfortable with it. However, after finding that I was not immediately able to figure out for myself how to bend Windows 8 to my dual-monitored-will, I also discovered something of a dearth of information on the subject online, beyond the basic ‘How To Set Up Dual Monitors In Windows 8’-type articles. So I thought I’d write my own.
First off, let me say that I find using Windows 8 with dual monitors to be slightly quirky and somewhat disconcerting. It should go without saying that, since I’m using the Release Preview, these foibles might be absent in the final release version, probably due this autumn.
Given that Windows 8 is all about the Metro-styled interface, and Microsoft seem adamant that this applies whether the operating system is running on a tablet or a desktop PC, it struck me as slightly odd that, with two monitors, whilst the primary monitor does indeed display the new Start screen, the other shows half of your old-school desktop, almost as if the Start screen were just laid on top. Launch a Metro app from the Start screen and it opens full-screen on the same monitor as the Start screen, leaving the desktop still visible on the other monitor. To get a full-width desktop, spanning both monitors, you need only launch the Desktop ‘app’ from the Start screen. And this is the first thing that niggles slightly – I already have half of my desktop visible, but to see the other half, rather than hiding the Start screen, as feels intuitive, you have to launch another app to make the Start screen go away.
The slightly grating dual monitor experience goes on. In a lot of ways, the Start screen behaves just like a giant, full-screen version of the Windows 7 Start menu, opening on top of everything to allow you to launch new applications. Fine. Once I realised that I thought I had cracked it. But it’s not quite that simple. Just as with the Windows 7 Start menu, you can make it disappear just by clicking away from it – on the other monitor, in this case. However, that doesn’t necessarily reveal your desktop again underneath. If you were previously running a Metro app, that will be uncovered instead.
By way of example: You boot Windows 8 and immediately click on the Desktop app to get a full desktop, spanning both windows. Then you decide that you want to look at a photograph you have saved in your Skydrive account (the Skydrive integration with Windows 8, as with many other ubiquitous cloud services, is one of Windows 8’s strongest and most impressive features), so you hit the Start key on your keyboard to reveal the Start screen, just as you might have done pre-Windows 8, and click the Pictures app , which will open, full-screen, on your primary monitor. Once that’s open, you can browse your pictures to your heart’s content. So far so good. But once you’re done with the pictures, how do you get back to your full-span desktop? You can’t just click on the half of the desktop that’s still visible on your other monitor. The Pictures app won’t go anywhere. I found myself instinctively hitting my keyboard’s Escape key, again to no avail. What you have to do is hit the Start key again and launch the Desktop app again. It’s circuitous and counter-intuitive.
Similar irritation results even if you don’t want a full, dual-screen desktop. For example, I quite like the idea of playing a game on my main monitor and having the Start screen idling away on my secondary monitor (I’ll come back to how to do that) so that I can glance across while I’m still playing and see any new tweets, emails, Facebook updates, etc. on the live tiles. This works really well. But then let’s say I launch an app from the Start screen – maybe I want to read that email that just popped up on my Mail live tile. When I’m finished, to get back to where I was, I hit the Start button and up pops the Start screen again. As soon as I click away from the Start screen, though, back to my game on the other monitor, the Start screen disappears and reverts back to the Metro app I just had open. Again, it’s as if the Start screen is working like the old Start menu, disappearing when you click away from it, except that instead of revealing the desktop, which is where I’m working, it reveals the last-used Metro app. So to return to my gaming set up, I’d have to launch the Desktop app from the Start menu, then hit the Start key again before going back to my game.
As for choosing which monitor the Start screen appears on, this nugget of information proved surprisingly difficult to come across! I even tried to launch Windows 8’s built-in Help, but couldn’t work out how, which doesn’t bode well. Maybe it’s not included in the Release Preview. Anyway, the way to do it is to use the same keyboard shortcut as to switch an open Metro app between monitors – Windows Key + Page Up/Page Down.
I’m excited about Windows 8 and I will almost certainly purchase a tablet computer running it when it is released. But unless the quirkiness of the operating system on a dual-monitor set up is ironed out, I’m unlikely to make the upgrade on my desktop computers simply because the small benefits I’ll receive by doing so aren’t really worth the trade-off.