I’ve been using Windows 8 for a couple of weeks now and without a doubt, it is the most radical change to an operating system that has ever been force fed to the public in recent times. I won’t bother explaining what’s new, I’m sure that you all know about the “Metro” interface by now: colorful quadrilaterals splattered across a blank slate. What’s more important to me in this blog post is whether or not Windows 8 works as an operating system.
You can probably tell from my word choice that I don’t think Windows 8 is a home run. But it does do a lot of things right. Most of these are under the hood improvements. Microsoft has made a bunch of changes that make Win 8 more secure, and even faster. Unlike the transition from XP to Vista, there is no increase in system requirements. You don’t need to upgrade your RAM or anything to accommodate the footprint of the new operating system. There is no additional bloat. In fact there’s less.
A couple of things have been given an overhaul, like the task manager. For a company that does information-presentation software like Powerpoint and Excel so well, it seems almost silly that it took them this long to come up with something so readable.
File transfer has similarly been retouched for your viewing pleasure.
Lockscreen widgets are a nice touch, as well as tight integration with online services. The native mail and messaging clients can be quite usable when snapped to a third of the screen on the left or right. Baked-in notifications (ex. for new Facebook messages) are a nice touch that improve the “normal use” experience on a PC, instead of relying on a program like Growl.
When asked to think of a totalitarian software maker that forces choices on the end user “for their own good,” who do you think of? As a happy iPhone and Macbook user, I have no problems raising my hand and blurting out “Apple!” They are the kings of “trust me, it’s better this way.” But with the introduction of Windows 8, Microsoft is making a serious play for that crown. By redefining the start menu to be a screen-commandeering experience filled with brightly colored tiles, Microsoft is forcing users to swallow an interface that is blatantly optimized for touchscreens. And for 90% of users, that’s simply not what they’re doing their computing on. Keyboard and mouse are the bread and butter of the work environment.
One might argue, “but Winston, if you want to get to an app, you hit the Windows key and type the name. How is that any different from Windows 7?” The answer is that the start screen is a fundamentally different “space” than the desktop. It doesn’t follow the traditional rules one might be accustomed to in Windows Explorer. Right-clicking doesn’t give you the same options. Rearranging tiles is cumbersome. And it’s visually jarring, it tears you away from your previous task.
The same is true for the full-screen Metro apps. They don’t follow the same rules. They’re truly tablet-optimized applications that would feel more at home on an iPad (… or Surface, I guess…) than on a desktop. They even have their own preferences and settings which aren’t accessible from the traditional control panel. For the average Joe who’s used to going to “File > Options” and ticking whatever check-boxes they want, that sucks.
Some of the apps you’re used to are also hijacked by Metro-fever. When I went to install Skype, the site by default tried to push me towards installing the Metro-app from the Windows 8 Store, absolutely NOT how I wanted to use it. With a little digging, I found the traditional Skype app and installed it.
One of them takes up less space, can be moved anywhere, and has more traditional options easily accessible, like configuring audio devices for calls. The choice is yours.
I’ve also run into a couple of uglier problems with Windows 8. While I’m sure it runs beautifully on a brand new system, I ran it as an upgrade over my pre-existing Windows 7 installation. In doing so, I encountered an issue with Windows Update, where installing a certain patch will cause the PC to enter a 10 minute restart loop to try and roll-back the update. The problem is so specific and widespread that it garnered it’s own news article, http://news.softpedia.com/news/Window-8-Update-Fails-on-KB2770917-307875.shtml. It reminds me a lot of a problem a few years ago where the C++ redistributable used by Visual Studio, or games like MS Flight Simulator became corrupted and un-uninstallable. Hundreds of forums ran threads by frustrated users and suggested fixes, none of them could provide a single quick solution.
While there is a lot of solid software engineering that went into Windows 8, there is also a lot of interface re-learning that has to be done if you lie down and accept what Microsoft has put on your plate. A lot of the useful features in Windows 8 could probably be implemented in a service pack for Windows 7, although you’d miss out on the performance enhancements in the driver stacks and whatnot.
If you’re willing to sit down and learn how to get along with this beast of an operating system, then you’ll probably get by okay. There will be a little bit of pain and aggravation, but you will get over it. If on the other hand you’re looking to buy your parents or even your grandparents a new PC or laptop, I have to recommend you steer well clear of Windows 8. As much as Apple is a giant control-freak, it’s also a smart control-freak. When people thought that OS X 10.8 was going to fuse OS X with iOS, Apple gave them a funny look and said “nope!” And while 10.8 might feel a little underwhelming, it’s also very safe. There are only subtle changes in the way the OS works compared to the previous incarnation, and that makes it much easier to swallow.
Windows 8 is a bold re-imagining of Windows, and it’s got a solid software foundation. But I think the user interface development group should be shot (10 paces, with paintballs of course…). Windows 8 would feel a lot better with some heavy tweaking, which might come in the first Service Pack. But for now, it’s just something for tech-enthusiasts to play with. The average consumer, and employee will be avoiding this OS for a looong time to come.