Windows 8, Microsoft’s experimental new version of the world’s most popular operating system, has already been out for a few months, so it seems a little silly to just now come out for a review, especially when the Consumer Preview was out for several months before that. I disagree. I think that, having now spent several months with the final version on my working desktop and needing to replace some hardware in that time, it’s time to really get into how Windows 8 operates and whether it might be a good upgrade for you. On a technical basis, Windows 8 is a redress of the Windows 7 core, which hails from decades of solid advancement, allowing it to maintain backwards compatibility. On a usability basis, Windows 8 is a drastic change to the norm and requires some learning to get used to. Is it worth a shot? I think so.
The first thing you’ll notice with Windows 8 is how much different everything looks. Everything is clear with text arranged against stark backgrounds, a look that Microsoft has been working on for years. It’s responsive, clean and extremely usable. Your taskbars and endless rows of nested icons disappear in favor of custom interfaces and floating buttons. The Start menu of old has been replaced in its entirety by a full screen menu where you can manage all of your applications and, should the app provide it, live tiles that provide you with glanceable information without needing to drill into specific apps. The Start screen by itself is a bit of a marvel as it dances and loops and scrolls even as it idles. Applications flip around as they open with simple load screens and the scrolling experience has upset how a scroll bar should work. I thought I’d have issues adapting, I caught on immediately. This creates a whole new second half of Windows where light applications can thrive under the banner of their new Modern UI, but as I discuss below, it’s still a bit desolate in the selection.
Of course, losing that old Start menu was hardly a loss. It was clever in Windows 95, but over the years, I found myself relying on quick launch menus to get to the programs I needed. Later versions of Windows improved on it, but switching it to this new screen was a fantastic move. On top of that, you’re given the ability to group (and name!) your applications, allowing you easy, navigable access an unprecedented amount of applications at any time. This is something your phone’s been good at for a while, but for the sake of usability, desktop operating systems have always had them hidden aside. Another handy mobile-ish feature are global notifications that, again, few apps are taking advantage of. They’ll deploy in a corner on a regular basis and it’s a blast to have little notes when someone messages me or an app has finished downloading.
There are some quirks though, both fun and less so. While the interface is ideal for a tablet, getting used to the new gestures with a mouse is initially daunting and eventually pretty amazing. Hovering around the corners of the screen allows you to access parts of the operating system that are normally accessible via the old task bar. Click in the bottom left corner and you bring up the Start screen. The top left cycles through your open programs (while a drag down brings a thumbnailed version of them all) and the top right brings up the system “charms” which are general tasks that are context sensitive in each app, like search or options. It only took a week before before I was pawing the right side of my Windows 7-loaded laptop to bring them up, only for them to never appear. By default, each app goes full screen and while you can dock secondary apps (to varying result) into slots alongside, I preferred simply switching back and forth between them.
Since it was designed for tablets, you’ll also see cool things like a camera app on your desktop or a brightness setting in the options. These are interesting. What’s not so interesting is in the fact that in trying to keep things simple, the interface obscures a lot of features that would easily accessible on even a phone. For example, switching to 24-hour time on the system clock. Good luck. Windows Explorer is ugly and less useful than ever, obviously designed for some really light use, sending me over to the desktop version on a continual basis. The fact that you can’t change your Start screen background beyond the presets? Disappointing.
I’ve complained about the lack of Windows 8 apps before and weeks later, the situation still hasn’t improved. While I imagine it’ll still be another 12-18 months before the majors like Office or Adobe’s Creative Suite make their transition (if ever), the lack of content in the Windows Marketplace is discouraging considering Windows still owns 90%+ of the desktop market. There’s simply nothing in there taking advantage of everything new they’ve done. No, Star Wars Angry Birds isn’t enough.
What’s The Same
Despite all the new, crazy things Microsoft has done to Windows, it’s still Windows just like you remember it. Or really, like Windows 7 minus a start button in the corner. The desktop you’ve known and loved for years is available, funny enough, as an app in the Start screen and you can operate in it just as you always have and any apps that don’t have Windows 8 versions will run in there. In fact, operating between the two hemispheres can be jarring at times. Downloading and executing programs from a Windows 8 program like Chrome or even Internet Explorer (which will not display a Windows 8-friendly version if you have another browser set as default, perhaps in some spiteful rage), you’ll be prompted to activate it. In the desktop. And Windows has zero interest informing you that the MSI you just opened in Chrome is sitting there in the desktop view waiting for approval. Great.
It’s sort of a mindfuck to get over the fact that the Windows you know is just another application in the new Windows 8 universe and some people work it the other way around, but I’d honestly love it if everything worked seamlessly in the Windows 8/Start screen environment instead. Any new program you download or use, like Minecraft, can be easily pinned to the Start screen regardless to what it is so don’t think you’re stuck with just Windows 8 apps on that bar, they’ll simply open up in the desktop view. You’ll also have plenty of fun finding and tweaking system settings because most are only accessible via the desktop. It seems odd that the times you’ll be using them the most are when you’re setting up the system, which is exactly when first impressions are the most important.
Worth A Download?
Yeah, absolutely. This is everything you love about Windows 7, because it is Windows 7, with a whole new paradigm. You really have nothing to lose except for the time needed to get over the snappy Windows 8 interface, which you may fall in love with. This OS is here to stay and Microsoft has decided that faster updates than their usual Service Pack updates are on the schedule. It’s a little odd to use what amounts to a tablet-optimized interface on a desktop, but Microsoft has made it work as best they can and that’s admirable. We won’t see the full power of this battle station until people start developing for it and Microsoft can flush out the remaining quirks with the interface, but for being a more responsive version of its predecessor that boots incredibly fast, I’d say they’re on the right track.