Late last week, I discussed Microsoft's revelations about the changes to Windows Explorer in Windows 8, noting that Rafael Rivera and I had previously and exclusively revealed that Explorer would include the ribbon UI that's also used in Office 2010 and Windows 7's Paint, WordPad applications, as well as several Windows Live Essentials applications. In that original look at Explorer, I noted that Microsoft has minimized the ribbon in its Explorer screen shots and the accompanying video, so there wasn't much to see beyond the existence of a Quick Access Toolbar. But this week, Microsoft opened the Explorer kimono a bit more and showed off the final design of the ribbon UI in Windows 8's Explorer.

Here it is.

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It's decidedly bulky-looking, confirming the fears of those who still haven't come around to the ribbon. I happen to like the ribbon, though I'd point out that it has a place in complex applications with lots of commands (like those in Office), while it should be left out of simpler applications. I'm currently on the fence about its inclusion in Explorer, though the fact that it can be minimized should help me (and most power users) cope with this decision.

A couple of points about the ribbon UI Microsoft is showing off this week...

It's big and heavy. Microsoft provides a screenshot that shows, among other things, that the new ribbon UI doesn't really take up too much on screen real estate compared to the Windows 7 version of Explorer, but this comparison is skewed. That's because the shot provided is of a Windows 7 Library window, which has its own weird empty space up top, empty space that isn't wasted in most Explorer windows.

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Here's what the difference really is between Windows 7's Explorer and Windows 8's. As you can see, the ribbon takes up a lot of space. About double the space of the Windows 7 Explorer's command bar.

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Again, you can hide the ribbon, and that does indeed create kind of a sleek new look. But compare Microsoft's busy ribbon-based UI with the elegant UI of the Finder window in Mac OS X "Lion". (Finder is OS X's version of Explorer.)

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Apple's file management UI is much cleaner and much less busy. (On the flipside, it's also perhaps more inscrutable.)

Wasting space with little-used commands. The Microsoft post describing the new ribbon UI goes into great detail about telemetry data, which provides the company with information about what users are really using in Explorer and elsewhere in Windows. And according to that data, the top 10 commands represent over 81 percent of all commands used in Explorer. The bottom 18 percent of commands (by usage) include such things as Open, Edit (Menu), View Toggle, Organize, New Folder, Send To, and Edit. And yet, looking at a Microsoft screenshot of the new ribbon, what do I see in the default first tab? A bunch of commands--including Open and Edit, by the way--that are not in the 81 percent most-frequently used commands. Huh?

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Up button. The Up button (which lets you navigate "up" one level in the Explorer folder hierarchy) is back, having been removed in Windows Vista and 7. That's neat, and overdue.

Keyboard shortcuts. As a writer, I hate to take my hands off the keyboard, and keyboard shortcuts is one of the areas that Windows has always beat out the Mac. Of course, knowing what these shortcuts are is the trick. But a nice feature of the ribbon UI is that you can easily learn them: Just tap the ALT key and keyboard shortcut pop-ups appear next to each command in the ribbon. Sweet.

But keyboard shortcuts get even better with that Quick Access Toolbar: Each item there is assigned its own keyboard shortcut (ALT + 1, ALT + 2, and so on down the list), so you can create your own easy to remember shortcuts for frequently used commands. Really sweet.

New features. On the good news front, there are hints of new features in the Windows 8 Explorer ribbon, or at least features that are being newly surfaced to the forefront. These include: Copy Path, Paste Shortcut, New Item (which I assume is like the New context menu choices), Easy Access (?), and History, among others.

Final thoughts

If you've been reading along with my Windows 8 coverage this year, you already knew the ribbon was coming to Windows 8's Explorer. Now we know what it's going to look like. As with past Explorer versions, it appears to be something of a mixed bag, but as with all things Windows 8 at this point, we won't know for sure until we get our hands on it.