Microsoft’s Windows 8 Reviewed

I’ve been playing around with the various builds of Windows 8 for some months, on a number of different devices ranging from a 10.6-inch Samsung Series 7 tablet to a Dell laptop. Some of these devices were touch enabled; others relied exclusively on a mouse and keyboard. As you may have heard, the Windows 8 experience is radically different depending on whether you can actually touch the screen and expect something to happen.

Windows 8 looks radically different from any version of Windows to come before. For starters, the Start screen is now a mosaic of colorful tiles, each of them linked to an application of some sort. There’s still a desktop interface, but it’s accessible only by clicking or tapping one of those tiles. Microsoft went with this bifurcated interface in order to be all things to all people: the new interface (once known as “Metro,” a perfectly fine moniker that Microsoft nonetheless had to chuck as part of a copyright issue) is meant for tablets and touch-sensitive devices, while the underlying desktop is there for traditionalists and power users.

Start Me Up

Windows 8 offers a short instructional video immediately after installation, but even the most tech-savvy savant is going to need to play around for a few minutes or hours before fully grasping the system’s functionality. On a touch screen, swiping the right-hand side of the Start menu brings up a set of widget-like “Charms” (including “Settings,” “Search,” and “Share”); swiping from the bottom produces an icon for “all apps”; pinching the Start screen zooms out the interface to a bird’s eye view of all your apps—useful once you’ve assembled a lot of them. Tapping the “Desktop” tile sends you to, well, the desktop.

During setup, Windows 8 will prompt you to set up your various social networking and email accounts on the device. Henceforth, your Start screen tiles will constantly display bits of information about your life. Click or tap on the “People” tile, for example, and you’re offered a directory of your friends and contacts; click or tap on the individual entries, and you see rather handsome pages that consolidate that friend’s Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and contact info. It looks good, but it also buries those friends’ individual accounts a couple of layers deep—you need to tap three or four times if you want to take a look at someone’s latest Facebook missive, for example.

One neat new feature: the lock screen, which allows the user to set up a “picture password” to access the system. In place of entering a traditional password (which you can still do), you click or tap three different points on a preselected image. Does a picture password make your system easier to hack? Good question—an Oct. 18 Ars Technica article suggested that corporate and government IT managers had disabled the feature in pre-release Windows 8 versions out of security concerns, even as official Microsoft blog postings have held it up as an example of a strong security system.

It does take some time to get used to the new interface. I’ve been using a Windows 8 tablet as a secondary device for at least two months, and I still need to stop and think about how to perform certain basic functions such as accessing the date and time (a swipe on the right-hand side to bring it up, along with the Charms) or even shutdown—things that were beyond intuitive after decades of using “traditional” Windows interfaces.

The Desktop

When it comes to the desktop portion of Windows 8, there’s a high probability that the lack of a Start button will drive you insane at first. At least, that’s what happened to me: I was so used to clicking on that little glowing ball that its absence felt positively criminal. But you grumble and get used to it.

Just-added desktop features include File History, which replaces the old Backup and Restore function, and Storage Spaces, which lets the user to take any disks and merge them into a larger storage “pool.” Those aren’t the only new elements, of course; if nothing else, Microsoft managed to tweak, adjust, and add all sorts of things to the Windows 8 desktop without harming the familiar core experience—a delicate balancing job that one suspects took a lot of engineering hours to pull off.

Microsoft made the decision to port its ribbon interface to Windows Explorer (which has been renamed “File Explorer”), layering each window with a set of tabs and icons. If you’re one of those people who disliked the ribbon as a part of later versions of Office, its spread to the larger desktop could raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels. As detailed by Microsoft’s Building Windows 8 blog, the company collected enormous amounts of extremely detailed data about users’ interactions with Windows, and built much of Windows 8 accordingly; while I found the ribbon unfamiliar at first, I quickly grew used to it. I suspect many other users will do the same.

Duality

But I never really got used to the existence of two separate interfaces on the same operating system. When I used Windows 8 on a tablet, I spent the vast majority of my time in tile-land, with trips to the desktop an annoying chore (in a certain way, this is a big step up from Windows 7 on tablets, in which every second was an exercise in frustration). When I used Windows 8 on a laptop without touch capability, I barreled as fast as possible past the Start screen to the desktop, where my keyboard and desktop felt much more at home. It’s been months, but I still can’t see Windows 8 as a cohesive “whole”?

Does that really matter? For some people, I suspect the answer is “No.” They’ll learn to live with both interfaces, performing respective tasks in each. But I also believe a certain subset of potential users will take a look at Windows 8 and decide to stick with Windows 7 and the familiarity it represents.

As pointed out by many publications over the past few days and weeks, the biggest hurdle for Windows 8 (and Windows RT, its sibling built for mobile devices based on ARM architecture) is the Windows Store. Right now, that apps storefront doesn’t necessarily feel barren—there are a few thousand offerings, and counting—but it does seem small in comparison to the Apple and Google app stores. If Microsoft’s third-party developer community doesn’t stock the Windows Store with tons of apps that people want to use, then Windows 8 is going to be a very pretty but empty place.

Windows 8 is a “bet the company” risk. If it succeeds, the company will have successfully entered the mobile arena while maintaining its dominant position in “traditional” operating systems. If it fails, and its rivals crush its ambitions in mobility, then Windows will be stuck in the citadel of the desktop-and-laptop market—even as more and more users shift the center of their computing lives from PCs to tablets and smartphones.

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