Almost 5 months after Windows 8 was released to manufacturing, and 3 months after general availability, Microsoft is being battered by the media for supposedly poor Windows 8 sales figures which have sold slowly compared to Windows 7 and are said to have disappointed Microsoft internally.
Plenty of blame is directed at the gamble that Microsoft took with Windows 8 – a significant re-imagining of the user interface to focus on touch in order to be able to better support tablets, and to provide a ‘no comprise’ experience regardless of computing device.
Having used Windows 8 since the early Beta’s across a multitude of machines, I can now safely say that Windows 8 is significant improvement over prior versions in nearly all aspects, with a confusing user interface that only starts to makes sense with touch enabled hardware.
While touch support is where Windows 8 really shines, it is certainly a worthy upgrade for older hardware. My three year old Lenovo T420 laptop had it’s boot times improved from 1~2 minutes with Windows 7 down to an average boot time of 10-20 seconds under Windows 8. In addition, the OS certainly feels snappier, and once you get past the user interface and start relying on the built-in (and vastly improved) settings, application and file search then you’ll find it difficult to go back.
But understanding the new user interface is still the largest hurdle. The most publicized change is of course the new start menu, replaced with a full page start screen. Microsoft touts the Live tiles as workflow improvements, allowing you to see at a glance your latest email or next calendar appointment. However, while this dashboard makes sense on a tablet or phone, not so much on a desktop PC or laptop as you will spend very little time in this view, merely using it as a springboard to your next application.
Further confusing the situation is that the Live tiles are all from applications that have been downloaded from the Windows Store, and entirely separate from the traditional desktop applications that you can still install. While you can add a shortcut to legacy applications on the start screen, they open in the traditional desktop mode, and use different user interface principles. For example, Windows Store applications are influenced by the formally-known-as-Metro design language and are full screen, don’t have a menu bar, and aim to hide as many options as possible in favour of a clean interface. This makes task switching and application navigation both confusing and inconsistent.
And unfortunately the built-in metro apps are shockingly bad. There are a number of Bing apps (News, Weather, Travel etc) and four core ‘productivity’ Apps that Microsoft includes, Mail, Messaging, Calendar, and a glorified contacts manager known as the “People” app. Hopefully they will improve, but at this stage they offer very little value.
In the Mail App for example, you cannot drag mails to a folder and there is no unified inbox view for multiple accounts. You cannot flag messages or mark them as Junk mail. Most frustratingly though, there is no integration between the Mail App and the Desktop – if you try to send a file using the right click context menu in Windows Explorer, you’ll be told that there are no applications installed that can do that if you have not installed a desktop mail application.
The Calendar App is just as poor – for starters it only shows notifications for meetings briefly in the new notification area, so if you’re not at your desktop during those seconds, then good luck remembering your next appointment. You can create appointments, but not invite people to them, Oh, and you can’t snooze reminders. All these Apps further suffer from the full screen Metro design paradigm, which may make sense on a tablet, but not on a desktop with a large widescreen display. Simple tasks, like copying and pasting between Metro applications becomes harder, as you need to switch back and forth between full screen Apps. (You can also pin a Metro app to the side of your screen, but you are limited in the size of the new window).
If you stick to legacy desktop applications though, there is much to like – this is the second consecutive Windows version that Microsoft has made that requires less resources than it’s predecessor, and the OS just flies. Start-up and Shutdown – assuming you work out how to – are crazy fast, file copying is vastly improved (even using the same drivers, file copying was significantly faster than Windows 7, especially across wireless networks), multi-monitor support is great, and I’m a big fan of the new flattened design for windows that replaces Aero for desktop applications.
Windows 8 is really caught in a transition between the PC and post PC era. In trying to make a single operating system, Microsoft has created a confusing mixture of tablet and desktop metaphors that doesn’t quite gel well together. Full screen metro apps don’t really make sense on desktops, and on tablets the space taken to support legacy applications means that you can lose almost 40GB of your storage space. However if the App store gathers enough developer support, and the desktop mode truly becomes only for ‘legacy’ applications, then by the time Windows 9 comes around, this painful journey will be just a distant memory.