Microsoft, often accused of being unable to anticipate or respond to people's changing needs, has decided it's time to do something dramatic. Traditional desktop and notebook PC sales have stagnated over the past year or so, while over a hundred million iPads alone have sold in the same time. The threat is no longer OS X or Linux, but an entirely new category of devices. Faced with the prospect of becoming somewhat irrelevant, Microsoft has decided to prioritise touchscreens over mice and portability over power. Windows 8 could be the biggest risk the company has ever taken, and for better or for worse, there are no half measures anywhere.
We've spent the last six months using Microsoft's official previews as well as the final version of Windows 8, which was released to manufacturers in August. We've also been able to spend a few weeks with a Samsung XE700T1A tablet running Windows 8 to get an understanding of how it works on such a device.
The new Start screen with Modern UI elements
By now, the look of the "Modern" user interface (formerly named Metro) is quite familiar to us. The Start screen, with its big flashing tiles and stark colours, was first unveiled over a year ago. Members of the press and public have been able to use beta versions of the new OS for at least six months now. Even so, it takes a lot of time before it will feel natural. It's hard to give up on 17 years of learnt behaviour and habit, but we've tried not to hold this against Windows 8 for the purpose of evaluating it on its own merits.
When we previewed the Consumer Release version earlier this year, we were left with the impression that Microsoft was trying its hardest to do justice to its new ideas without the risk of alienating the massive Windows user base. It seemed as though users would be trapped between two worlds, primarily because the Modern UI and apps were just not enough to satisfy anyone who wanted to be productive or multitask the way they've been used to all along. Since that time, Microsoft has improved the quality and functionality of the built-in apps and many more viable ones have made appearances in the Windows Store.
We had to authorize our PC before automatic syncs happened
Installing Windows 8 is surprisingly quick and painless. Downloading it from Microsoft's website is the primary new method of distribution, which makes sense in an age of slim laptops without DVD drives. If you're installing on top of an existing version of Windows, you'll have to run through a compatibility checker which will let you know if any software or hardware might not work smoothly. One important thing to note is you'll need to type in your product key before the installation actually begins.
Windows 8 is designed to be tied to an online account. Any Microsoft account will do, including your Hotmail, Windows Live, Xbox Live, Passport or MSN which are all now known as Microsoft Accounts. Keep in mind that everything associated with that ID, most likely an email account but also possibly your links to Facebook, etc, will end up integrated into the Windows 8 environment. You'll also use this ID to access the Windows Store, which means saving your credit card details somewhere down the line. You'll also most likely end up using SkyDrive a lot more. For those reasons, you'll want to use a very strong, unique password even though it will make logging into your computer multiple times a day more annoying than it should be. If you're worried about privacy or the security of anything in your online accounts, it's probably a good idea to create a fresh ID.
All apps view and search bar
You can still choose to use Windows 8 offline, though apps will then constantly remind you to sign in or risk living without various features. You'll also have to use separate work and personal accounts if you use the same device everywhere.
Whether or not you use a Microsoft account, you have the option of signing in with a "Picture Password". This involves choosing any image and then defining taps, circles or sliding gestures over it. You have to create a sequence of three gestures and then repeat them each time to log in. A Picture Password could be great for many people, especially on a tablet or PC with a touchscreen and no physical keyboard. On the downside, watching someone perform these gestures and then repeating them to gain access to their computer is child's play.
As your account is being set up, you'll be led through a short animated sequence that attempts to explain some of Windows' new conventions, including the Start screen, gestures and the Charms bar. What confused us was that the instructions involved a mix of tapping, clicking, pointing, dragging and swiping but no direction as to when each action is appropriate. It would have been better if Windows had been able to detect the presence or absence of a touchscreen and then display appropriate tips.
The Start screen
Nevertheless, you get your first glimpse of the Start screen only a short while later, and there are no further instructions. You might notice a few of the tiles are "alive", since your email, Facebook contacts, SkyDrive photos, Xbox Live details, etc will automatically become associated with their respective apps. Most of the tiles, however, are deceptively static. They'll spring to life after the first time you use their apps, which means your Start screen could soon become overwhelming with constant animations announcing the latest news, sports scores, stock market levels, and weather. As you add more apps from the Windows store, things get much more cluttered and distracting—often too distracting. Again, those with privacy concerns should be warned that their personal information could be splashed across the screen at any moment—including many things that you have no control over, such as your friends' potentially raunchy contact photos, unsolicited email attachments, and the contents of chat messages. Games, including Microsoft's own, display cheery little messages about achievements you should try to unlock and new levels you can purchase, which borders on advertising and is especially annoying. You can't turn this behaviour off entirely and you can't choose certain photos, email accounts or contacts to suppress, but you can right-click (or tap and hold) on each tile individually to bring up the option to disable animation.
Can't sign into apps because of location trouble
But tiles aren't just for launching programs. You can "pin" lots of things to the Start screen—individual people's contacts, individual stages of games, individual photos, a news channel, etc. We initially found this handy, in the sense that frequently used items could be reached right from our Start screen. However as our collection of apps grew, the tiles just got lost in a crowd. Typing anything on the keyboard begins a very quick search, so you can also get to apps, documents or preference panes by typing the first few letters of their names.
App tiles on the Start screen can be dragged and dropped around, and you can give each chunk a name. You can't, however, sort tiles by name, date, group, etc., and you can't rearrange groups as a whole. It quickly becomes difficult to locate an app when you have dozens of animated tiles which rarely look the same. And although this screen replaces the Start menu, you won't find shortcuts to Windows' built-in accessories such as Paint and Notepad, or even a shortcut to the Control Panel. For those, you'll have to right-click (or swipe in from the bottom or top) to see a hidden "All apps" button. The screen that pops up has an alphabetical listing of your app tiles as well as a folder-wise list of the phantom Start menu's contents. You can pin any of these shortcuts to the Start screen if you like, or begin typing to search.
Here, one of the main differences between Windows 8 on a desktop and Windows 8 on a tablet manifests itself. It felt quite natural and smooth to flick the tablet screen horizontally to jump to a particular tile, but scrolling vertically with the mouse wheel made little sense and the repetitive motion got tiresome quickly. Our tablet's 11-inch 1388x768 16:9 screen showed tiles in three long rows, whereas our desktop's 18.5-inch screen at the same resolution and aspect ratio displayed four rows. Swapping in a 24-inch high-def 16:10 monitor yielded six short rows, which made things easier (but brought with it a fresh set of problems, which we'll get to).
Keyboard hides half the screen
If all new app tiles weren't pinned to the Start screen by default and if this menu was more easily accessible (much like the home screens and full menus on many smartphones), Windows 8's Modern UI would be much easier to deal with.
We didn't realise it at first, but the account name in the upper-right corner is clickable. Most likely inspired by many of today's websites, this is where you go to change account details or "sign out" (the new terminology for logging out or switching users). Incidentally, there's no clock or notification area for common controls such as checking network status or ejecting a USB device. Live tiles are meant to show you what you need to know, and pop-up notifications display alerts and transient information, but then they're gone.
After the Start screen, the next big change in Windows 8 is the use of Charms. Swiping in from the right edge of a touchscreen, flicking your cursor to the top- or bottom-right corners, or hitting [Win]+[C] on your keyboard brings up the Charms bar on the right (plus a huge clock and a few notification icons in a non-intuitive patch on the bottom left—so that's where they've been moved to!). Bang in the middle is a Windows button which brings up the Start screen, just like the one on your keyboard or tablet bezel. Charms are mostly context-dependent, so their function will vary depending on what you're doing. 'Search' on the Start screen will default to showing apps as results, while within apps it will default to whatever they specify. This is also the new system-wide Find function, and can be called up from anywhere using [Win]+[F]. The second Charm, called 'Share', is completely new to Windows 8. App developers can build sharing capabilities, known internally as "contracts" into apps which never even see each other. For example, this will let you post something to Twitter or Facebook, send it as an email, or anything else an app developer might think of. Sharing options are a bit sparse at the moment, but traction will grow. The 'Devices' Charm is where you'll find entries for your printers, projectors and potentially other peripherals. Last, the 'Settings' Charm contains system-wide controls for brightness, volume, Wi-Fi and shutting down or restarting your PC. This is also where you're supposed to go to for app-specific settings, but many apps still just simply have an 'Options' button or something similar and those that don't rarely point you to the Charms bar. There isn't much consistency in this behaviour, at least not yet.
Wasted space on a large monitor
Which brings us to Windows 8's biggest consistency problem: Settings. The Charms bar lets you see and adjust some things, but it's painfully limited. There's also a shortcut to a PC Settings app which contains a small set of preferences, some of which are specific to the Modern UI and some of which are system-wide in scope. This does not replace or even supplement the usual Windows Control Panel; in fact you often have to jump back and forth between the two worlds. For example, it's easy enough to connect to a Wi-Fi network through the Charms bar, but if the network happens to require a static IP address, you need to fire up the old Network and Sharing Center. You can change some user preferences, but administrative tools are only in the Control Panel. This is incredibly fidgety and completely shatters any impression we had that the Modern UI was a self-sufficient environment capable of providing an iPad-like experience for beginners or casual users. As tablet users, we were frustrated by the need to use dialogue boxes that haven't changed since Windows 95 with a touchscreen and soft keyboard. This is also where the "Classic desktop as an app" metaphor gets smashed—you have to dive in there to make system-wide settings, which should not make sense.
Life with apps
So what exactly are apps, and why do we need them anyway? "Apps" isn't just the fashionable new name for software applications, but almost defines a class of applications that are less capable and more gimmicky than traditional software. Apps sit somewhere between desktop widgets—those amusing, single-purpose things that used to float around on our desktops till we got bored of them—and full-fledged software. Apps could be individual websites, such as a news or weather service, which are nothing but wrappers around fresh content streamed from the Web. They could also be little games and utilities, such as currency converters and stopwatches. More likely than that, they serve individual purposes such as chatting, social networking, streaming audio or video, or looking something up. Many of today's apps are like websites at best and like multimedia CD-ROMs (remember those?) at worst. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since a huge proportion of our time in front of a computer these days is spent within a Web browser.
People app showing status updates
Apps in Windows 8 are also defined by their look and behaviour. For one, they all run full-screen. There's no title bar, no menu bar, no border, and no layout convention. Most interface elements are hidden till you right-click or swipe in from the top or bottom of your touchscreen, at which point bars along the top and/or bottom appear with options. Windows 8 encourages horizontal scrolling, and you'll see this used gratuitously within apps. There's a lot of oversized text, and yes, there are bland squares everywhere.
Microsoft bundles a number of apps with Windows 8 which are not equivalent to anything found in previous versions of the OS. For starters there are the News, Sports and Business apps which are fairly self-explanatory in purpose and function. Search pulls up a huge Bing interface, and the Maps and Travel apps are also unsurprisingly powered by Microsoft's in-house online service. Music and Video are tied into the new Xbox services which aren't available in India yet, so users here will have to do with adding their own locally stored files (our test PC allowed us to browse through music and video selections but then choked if we tried to stream or purchase anything). Games is tied to your Xbox Live profile, and lets you browse through games you can play on your PC. A separate standalone app called SmartGlass, which is far more interesting, lets you control an Xbox via your home network, with the tantalizing promise of using a tablet as a game controller and playing cross-platform in the future.
The most interesting and useful built-in apps are Mail, Messaging, Contacts and Calendar. Mail is a rather stripped-down client which looks much like the recently launched Outlook.com. It's light on features for sorting and managing mail, but should suffice for most casual users. In comparison to a bloated, complicated beast like Microsoft Outlook, this might actually be a good thing. Calendar syncs to your online service of choice. Contacts and Messaging are highly intertwined and socially integrated. Contacts is the center of activity, with a huge list of all your friends from synced services including Facebook, Twitter, your email accounts, and most likely your phone, if it's synced to any of these. Like most apps that attempt to combine services, you end up with a huge list of people, many of whom you don't necessarily need to keep in touch with. You also end up mixing contacts from work and your personal life; some of which are only email addresses and some of which are only phone numbers. The Contacts app further integrates Facebook and Twitter updates, so you can click on a contact to see their profile, photos and updates. Messaging isn't your typical chat program with a contact list. Instead, you need to dip into the Contacts app to find a person, and can then chat with them. You won't know whether you're chatting via Facebook or MSN unless you choose the contact carefully. The downside to this is that you're permanently signed in to Facebook chat, even if you don't want to be. Incoming messages might come to you through the app, your phone, and/or Facebook in your browser.
App with poorly designed navigation
Finally, the Photos app combines views of photos in your Facebook account, SkyDrive, Flickr, and hard drive. You'll have to turn each service off if you don't want it. Photos is the default viewer for all image formats, so even if you're in the Desktop environment, opening a file will throw you into the Metro app. Windows Picture Viewer is still around though, and you can re-associate it with image files. Similarly, there's a PDF viewer called Reader (which isn't pinned to the Start screen) which takes over PDF duties. It's nice to have a built-in app, but Reader lays pages and spreads out in—what else—horizontal rows, which is extremely disconcerting.
Multitasking and managing both worlds
One intentional side effect of Windows 8 apps running fullscreen is that you can't have several of them on screen at the same time. Yes, there are no windows in Windows anymore—at least outside of the Desktop environment. It's all in the name of simplicity, but especially considering the single-purpose nature of these apps, it feels like a huge step backwards for us. Once again, what works on a tablet feels idiotic on a large desktop.
Multitasking works with Modern UI apps, but the Desktop is useless when docked to the side
Worse than this is the crippled concept of multitasking. Microsoft would like you to believe that you can use two apps side by side for the first time, but hang on just a minute. We’ve been able to do this since pretty much the beginning of Windows. What we have now is a way for apps to scale themselves back so that two of them can share the screen in an awkward 1:3 ratio. To achieve this, you drag in off the edge of a touchscreen (or "grab" with a mouse) and "move" the app to either side. Moving it to the bottom edge terminates it. The docked app must run in a 320-pixel-wide column, no more and no less, and many of them just can't do that well. Desktop users will find this is a tragic and meaningless waste of screen space. You can dock an app while the desktop runs in the larger space, but not the other way around. Simple things like typing an email while referring to past messages in your inbox become unbelievably cumbersome processes. It's a crude, highly limiting way to work. Microsoft points out that it's better than what you can do on an iPad, which is great if that's your benchmark. We're used to full multitasking and arranging windows on our desktops, thank you very much.
Just like you'll eventually need the Control Panel, you'll also need Windows Explorer. While the former is a pain to use on a small tablet touchscreen, Explorer has been overhauled with a Ribbon toolbar and full touch support, making it quite pleasant to use. We hated the file open/save dialogues in Modern apps: they occupy the full screen, display only text on a black background, and don't let you sort files and folders. There's also no way to jump to favourite locations and no way to create a new folder, which is ridiculous. Similarly, Print dialogues are far less useful than their Desktop counterparts—it's impossible to choose a range of pages to print, for example.
This brings us to the Desktop environment, which is treated as an app itself. You can do whatever you like with traditional software within the desktop, but it can't interact with Modern apps at all. The Share charm doesn't work, and you can't have a Desktop program run side-by-side with a Modern app (only the Desktop itself). Your security suite running in the Desktop environment can’t touch anything happening outside it, so browser-level protection doesn’t work in Modern IE, for example. Task switching also becomes a pain—the [Alt]-[Tab] menu shows apps and programs as equal, but the main Windows 8 task switcher ([Win]+[Tab] or swipe in and out from the left edge) shows only apps (with the Desktop counted as an app). A massive source of frustration is that formerly universal shortcuts such as [Win]+[E] for Windows Explorer and [Win]+[R] for the Run... dialogue box don't work unless you're already in the Desktop environment.
Choosing default actions for file types
One of Microsoft's more confusing decisions was to include two versions of Internet Explorer; one for the Modern UI and one for the Desktop. The Modern version ditches all interface elements until you right-click (or swipe in), at which point you see tabs across the top and navigation control on the bottom. It works well enough, though you can switch to IE on the desktop if things look wrong. The desktop version is a lot more familiar and handles most modern websites perfectly. It's a far cry from IE just a few years ago, which we would use only once, to download another browser, and then promptly discard.
On the other hand, while there's a SkyDrive app on the Start screen, there's no equivalent for the Desktop. In fact, you have to download the old SkyDrive utility to add a shared folder to Windows Explorer.
Microsoft is keen to push its “best of both worlds” marketing line, but the truth is that while apps are convenient on a tablet, they bring absolutely nothing useful to the desktop. This is even more apparent when you move towards the high end, as our experiments with a 24-inch monitor showed. Perhaps children will be amused by a painting app or you’ll enjoy swiping Solitaire cards with your fingers, but that’s about it. There just isn’t any scenario in which Modern apps do things better than a Windows program would, save for the fact that they’re easier to use on a touchscreen.
The Windows Store and third-party apps
The Windows app store has a few thousand apps at launch time—Microsoft declines to provide even an estimated figure—and Indian users will see familiar brands including news organisations and entertainment websites. There are some interesting paid and "freemium" ones for mapping, education and productivity.
Most of the free apps are rather crude, giving the impression that their creators were just playing or practicing. Many of them are simple utilities such as calculators, alarm clocks and unit converters, which have no business filling up an 11-inch tablet screen, let alone the 24-inch desktop monitor on our test bed. Two of the choices in the ‘Top Free’ spotlight section are Ping, which does nothing but send out network pings, and Metro.nomo, a shockingly simple metronome that can’t even change time signatures. Many of the news-related apps are simple wrappers for Web content; in some cases feeling like RSS readers with a little branding and some unnecessary animation and horizontal scrolling slapped on. Gaana, which Microsoft is touting heavily for Indian users, doesn't recognise a mouse scroll wheel or a keyboard [Backspace] which triggers the 'Back' button in built-in apps. It also refuses to scale up beyond a certain point, which is a shame considering many of its genre labels are too small, and therefore unhelpful. We hope that they improve over the next few months, if they aren’t buried by superior alternatives.
App wastes space for no purpose
That said, there are lots of good apps, including familiar names such as Evernote, Kindle, eBay, Newegg, TuneIn Radio, Engadget and YouCam. The games stand out, especially Microsoft’s own offerings. Not many have tried to fit in with the Modern UI style or even apply it in creative ways—only a few Twitter clients, feed readers and entertainment apps impressed us. The most notable missing names are Facebook and Twitter. The lack of these major names is surprising, given the demand for them on tablets and mobile devices. You'll also come across listings for desktop apps, which only redirect you to the developers' websites from where you have to download them yourself.
Surviving Windows 8
We experienced Windows 8 very differently on a touchscreen tablet and a desktop PC, and came away with different impressions of its positive and negative attributes depending on the device.
We found Metro hard to digest when we first encountered it a year ago. That impression was not helped by the earlier Windows 8 previews. Finally, having spent hands-on time with a Windows 8 tablet (both on its own and docked on a desk), it all makes sense. Scrolling and flicking are buttery smooth, edge gestures work surprisingly well, and there’s a constant thrill to realizing that you’re running full PC hardware and software. Peripherals plugged into the tablet’s USB port just work, you can download any common program from the Web and run it in the Desktop environment, and you can browse though all the files on your SSD and do whatever you like with them. Compared to an iPad, it’s blissfully liberating.
New Explorer with Ribbon
On the downside, Windows 8 tablets will be heavy and bulky, and our impressions with a prototype tablet powered by an Core i5 CPU will be very different to those on Atom-powered ones which will be more common in the market. The 16:9 screen makes the device ungainly to hold, and nothing really looks good or works well in portrait mode. The on-screen keyboard is definitely not suited for typing entire documents, and a huge portion of the screen feels wasted when it’s in use.
It will be interesting to use Windows 8 on touch-enabled ultrabooks and hybrid folding or swiveling laptops—which might be the only way to get the “best of both worlds” experience. Then there’s the added complication of Windows RT, which will look identical to Windows 8 and come on cheaper devices, but will not allow desktop software to run and is heavily limited in other ways as well. It isn't yet clear how Microsoft plans to explain the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT to consumers, many of whom, we fear, will end up learning them the hard way.
The desktop was another matter altogether. We fully expect that millions of elderly people, office workers and first-time users will struggle to cope with the changes in Windows 8, especially the relationship between the Desktop and Modern environments. Using a mouse to replicate edge gestures is annoying at best, and app switching is a huge pain. We’re also used to feeling more productive with large monitors, so it hurts to see all the space wasted by running a single app fullscreen. Even with a touch-enabled desktop monitor, reaching up from the keyboard to jab at the screen would be too awkward.
Considering all these frustrations, we decided to try a few utilities which claim to replace Start menu. We tried both Classic Shell (free, classicshell.sourceforge.net) and Start8 (US$ 4.99, stardock.com/products/start8). Classic Shell looks a bit cheesy and feels like a third-party utility strapped on to Windows, whereas Start8 feels so slick and well integrated that we quickly forgot it wasn’t a natural part of Windows 8. It not only replicates a Start menu in the new boxy opaque Windows style, but also lets you bypass the Start screen and boot straight into the Desktop environment. You can choose to tap back into the Modern UI at any time, and you can stay within it undisturbed for as long as you like.
Start8 offers roughly 95 percent of the functionality of Windows 7’s Start menu. You’ll still be thrown into the Modern UI when you want to search for anything, or when an app is the default choice for opening files. If you like using any of the hundreds of apps in the Windows Store or even the built-in Mail, People and Messaging apps, you’ll want to jump back in as well. On the other hand, what this means is that it is entirely possible and easy to stay within the Desktop environment for extended periods of time—often several days at a stretch—without noticing or needing the Modern UI.
Explorer file copy conflict resolution
Windows 8 with Start8 on a desktop PC used for daily work was a joy to use, and we can easily imagine many people mentally reconciling the $5 price with the cost of the OS itself and calling it a bundle—as long as Microsoft doesn’t somehow prevent it from working in the future. This is great news for users who don’t want to break from their old habits, but potentially disastrous for Microsoft’s bold new vision of computing. Herein lies Microsoft’s biggest fear: If Modern was optional, it could easily end up like their previous specialised interface, Windows Media Center, which the majority of users ignored. Without an environment to work in, the Windows Store would become useless, and all Microsoft's cross-platform ambitions—including SkyDrive, Windows Phone and Windows RT—would fail to come together in a unified ecosystem, and Microsoft’s competitors would traction over it. That said, we didn’t find any benefit at all in using Start8 on the tablet.
Let’s be honest. As brave and forward-looking a move it is to prioritise the Modern UI, a lot of people are going to hate it, and they’re perfectly justified in feeling that way. As far as tablets go, the Modern UI and its multitouch gestures work really well together but you still do have to dip into the Desktop on occasion. The whole point of the Modern UI is to put everyone on a common platform regardless of the kind of device they use, and ultimately, it doesn't quite achieve that.
People app showing Facebook and Twitter
Windows 8 will feel natural on emerging devices that don’t quite fit into the tablet or laptop mould, but as traditional power users, we’re left somewhat wanting. Microsoft hasn’t done enough yet to make the Modern UI familiar to people, or to reach out to those who will go out to buy a new laptop in the coming weeks or months and be surprised by the new OS. We expect a lot of confusion and plenty of knee-jerk demands for Windows 7 downgrades based on uncertainty alone.
Microsoft deserves praise for innovating and taking such a huge risk. The world is changing and computers are now much more than the sum of their hardware components. Microsoft is doing what it needs to take on the likes of Apple and Google, with users along for the ride whether they like it or not. There's a lot to learn about Windows 8 and we look forward to getting to know it more as the platform and all its apps evolve. We're also optimistic about the prospect of integration with Xbox, SkyDrive and Windows Phone 8. Windows 8 is proof that Microsoft is committed to its new vision, and the Modern UI is the shape of things to come.
Published Date: Oct 26, 2012 09:35 am | Updated Date: Oct 26, 2012 09:35 am