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Windows 8 Review

Before I begin my review on Windows 8, I want to explain how I approached this review. I'm not going to review Windows 8 from the power user's perspective, I'm looking at this from the average, casual computer user. That is the user who is going to be most affected by this change from Windows 7 to Windows 8. To that end, I've been using Windows 8 for the past two months in the most traditional way, on my work PC and on my home PC, with no new touch or gesture enabled hardware, just a keyboard and a mouse.

Windows 8: A Bipolar Operating System

Windows 8 represents a monumental shift from Microsoft to combat Apple and Android devices that have been stealing mind and market-share away from Windows based devices. Unlike Google who has Chrome OS and Android or Apple who has OSX and iOS, Microsoft is opting to use Windows 8 across the board for phone, tablet and desktop. While this strategy allows for Microsoft to re-use thousands of lines of code across platforms, it also forces end users into using touch friendly interfaces with keyboards and mice and using their fingers with interfaces designed for the mouse.

Clearly Windows 8 shows a Microsoft in transition. A Microsoft that is trying to hedge it's bets for the future while keeping one foot firmly in the past to maintain compatibility. The real question is, how well does it work? Can Microsoft keep Windows 7 users satisfied while pushing forward their "don't call it Metro" interface?

The Start Screen
Windows 8 opens with the most basic of tutorials, telling the customer to push their mouse into any corner of the screen to see more options. This tutorial only shows the mouse moving to the upper-right hand corner of the screen to activate the Charms menu and never shows the customer the recent running apps on the left hand side of the screen. How the average user is supposed to remember going to the other corners of the screen when the new Start Screen pops up and they immediately feel in a foreign environment, is beyond me. This learning curve that stares a user in the face as soon as they boot their PC will be something that Microsoft is going to have to work hard to overcome, and hopefully their legions of PC fans will help their friends and family out, otherwise, I'm not sure how it will happen.

Learning curve aside, the new Start Screen, when paired with a Microsoft account, provides users with a lot of information without the need to launch any applications. The Live Tile push Microsoft has made, starting with Windows Phone 7, is fully realized on the start screen for Windows 8. One great addition to this new ecosystem is the way Microsoft has finally condensed all of it's accounts under one banner to simply become a Microsoft account. By being able to link services like Skydrive, Outlook.com, Facebook, Gmail, LinkedIn, and Twitter all to one account, when you log into a Windows 8 computer with a Microsoft account, it takes just a few seconds for it to go from a generic new computer to being "Your PC," as your settings quickly follow you from PC to PC.

The real question is, how many app developers will embrace the Live Tile mantra and enable their apps with that extra support? Live Tiles are not required of developers and as developers (hopefully) rush to fill the Windows Store with apps, many may opt for the simpler route, at least to begin with, to get their app out there. This brings up a sore point for the launch of Windows 8, App Availability, or lack thereof. Just days from launch, many heavy hitters are missing from the Windows Store. Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Pandora, Spotify, and Angry Birds are all no-shows currently in the store. Now hopefully this situation will change with time as developers see demand for Windows 8 apps pick up, but the fact that Microsoft hasn't been able to leverage the power of the Windows brand to pre-populate the store with these apps, speaks to the uncertainty that developers have about the general public's response to a radically changed Windows.

For the Windows 8 Apps that are in the store, using them right now shows where Microsoft sees the future of the Windows experience heading. All apps launched from the new Start Screen open in full-screen mode without the familiar maximize, minimize or close buttons. This allows for uninterrupted viewing of whatever content is on screen, but is a little unnerving at first as it's not readily apparent how to get out of the app and with Internet Explorer 10, even bringing up the address bar can be an exercise in frustration for the un-initiated. With touch-enabled hardware, swiping up from the bottom or top of the screen will bring up extra contextual menu options for each individual application, this same functionality is accomplished by right-clicking with the mouse if touch is not an option. The new apps do provide some unique ways to multitask as Microsoft allows two apps to run side-by-side, with one app taking up 75% of the screen and another taking up the remaining 25% which allows for some great usage scenarios where a chat session and a browsing session can happen at the same time, or an email inbox pinned to one side while watching a Netflix video on the remainder of the screen.

Overall, the new Start screen represents the largest change to Windows since the introduction of the Start Menu with Windows 95. This replacement represents a shift from Microsoft on where they see the future going, and this is a future that, while not fully realized due to app limitations, is promising and has great potential. I've yet to cash a check on my potential though, so the real question will be if Microsoft can build the excitement for this environment and educate current Windows 7 users to get them to switch over to 8 and stay.

The Start Screen is only half the story with Windows 8. Underneath all the new "I can't believe it's not Metro," interface, the classic Windows 7 desktop remains, just missing a Start button. This is where things start to get a little more complicated. As the desktop operates in almost the exact same way it would in Windows 7, minus a few new-UI changes. This is where Windows 8 shows it's bipolar nature the most, and where the touch friendly nature of the new start screen goes to die. The reason I say bipolar is because the desktop will sometimes throw you into new UI elements, for example when selecting a wireless network from the desktop, but other times, certain activities can only be accomplished from the classic Control Panel as the Settings app found on the new Start Screen only goes so far, but at the same time, controls some aspects that the classic control panel does not. This dual nature of Windows 8, sometimes can lead to a game of "Guess which interface you can find that setting in?" Sometimes the answer is classic, other times it's New Start Screen, and sometimes it's both.

All that being said, I find the performance levels to be on-par to slightly better than Windows 7 when running applications and the overall feel of the OS is one that is slightly faster. I have found boot times on both of my computers have improved over Windows 7 and the fact that Windows Defender is now a full blows anti-virus product that comes built into Windows 8, means I don't have to worry about downloading or buying anti-virus ever again. Beyond that, applications work as expected, some new-UI elements are possible in the desktop, as you can pin a Start Screen app to take up 25% of the screen and continue to work in the classic desktop as well. This allows for users to really live and work in both environments.

Wrap-Up

Microsoft is offering up the first step in it's vision for the future of the Windows ecosystem with Windows 8. The problem is that Microsoft has to worry about nearly 20 years of backwards compatibility in it's product. The new Start Screen interface works very well, but at times can feel like a fancy skin for the Windows we all know lurking just beneath the surface waiting to rear its ugly, non-touch friendly interface at the worst moment possible. At other times, using the classic desktop can make you forget you've even switched over to Windows 8 and you might as well be on Windows 7, that thought process is a very real possibility in the early days of Windows 8 and might cause users to forgo using the Start Screen apps at all leading to lackluster app sales and therefore lackluster app support from developers.

Windows 8 is a bold new future for Microsoft as they unify their phone, tablet, desktop and to an extent TV experience around one interface. I personally like the new styling, but I see a struggle for many users to adapt to the new interface and workflow within Windows. Coupled with the current app situation, the future for Microsoft's latest Windows isn't as clear as one might expect as Apple has continued to press it's combined ecosystem advantage. Windows 8 will have it's greatest advantage in the new form-factors that OEMs are shopping to consumers that will show them the versatility of the Windows 8 platform, but will it be enough? Personally I believe it's the right move for Microsoft, but time will tell if consumers agree.

Score: 8.5/10


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