Today’s the big day. Microsoft’s Surface tablet should already be on doorsteps, and retail shelves across the country. The virtual Windows Store is officially open for business. We’re about to be awash in laptop-tablet convertibles, and somewhere, Steve Ballmer is smiling.
Windows 8 is finally here.
Few operating systems have sparked as much divisiveness as Windows 8 and its shift to a mobile-first focus, however. I’ve spent a year playing with Windows 8 in its various preview iterations, and the final release. Is it perfect? Nope. Is it an absolute terror? Far from it. As is always the case, the true answer lies somewhere in the middle, and your level of pleasure directly relates to the type of machine you’re using.
Sticking with that yin and yang approach, here are five things I love about Windows 8, balanced out by five Windows 8 quirks that drive me absolutely bonkers. Momma always said sweet comes before sour, so let’s start with the good news first.
5 things I love about Windows 8
1. Blink and you’ll miss it boot times. There’s a lengthy technical explanation detailing why Windows 8 hits the floor running faster than an over-caffeinated recruit at boot camp, but the nuts-and-bolts don’t really matter; the important part is this thing is fast. Windows 8 starts twice as fast as Windows 7 on my laptop, which has a mechanical hard drive.
Slap this puppy on a solid state drive and it really shines. I’ve been playing with a Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook with an SSD and it only takes 7 seconds to hit the login screen from complete shutdown. Shut down and wake times are virtually instantaneous. It’s amazing, and it’s excruciating to log on to a pokey Windows 7 PC after you’re used to it.
2. Syncing in the rain. Microsoft’s shift to a unified, cloud-touched Windows Account login was a stroke of genius. It’s wonderful signing into a completely new Windows 8 PC and finding your desktop, contacts, email accounts and SkyDrive contents sitting there waiting for you, identical to the setup on your home computer.
3. Improved multi-monitor support. Okay, most people might not care about this, but for geeks like me, the vastly improved multi-monitor support in Windows 8 is nothing short of heaven. Taskbars everywhere, simple multi-screen picture spanning, and the ability to run separate Modern-style apps and desktop programs on side-by-side displays? Yes, please!
4. Type to search. I still wish Windows 8’s desktop mode had a proper Start button, but Windows 8’s new search function has grown into one of my favorite parts of the operating system. It’s superbly simple: Head to the Start screen and just start typing the name of the file you’re looking for. No extra button pushes; no superfluous Live Tile selections. Just start typing. Windows 8’s automatic filter handles the rest.
5. True PC power in portable tablet form. I’ve never been a big tablet guy, partly because I already spend a lot of time on my phone and my laptop, and partly because tablets just never had enough oomph for me. Even top-of-the-line tablets with quad-core mobile CPUs seem to chug when I push them hard enough. Windows 8 devices bring true Intel Core processor to the tablet form factor, and the extra horsepower shows. Check out this impressive speed test clip at Maximum PC, which shows an Acer Windows tablet running a lowly Intel Atom processor. Upper-end convertibles bring even beefier Core i5 and i7 CPUs to the table, albeit for a truckload of cash.
5 Things I hate about Windows 8
Unfortunately, I can’t keep babbling on about Windows 8’s baked-in security features and the awesome additions in the file manager, version histories, virtualized storage and more. It’s time to talk some smack.
1. No Start button. Really, Microsoft? Protip for PC users: in Desktop mode, slide the cursor down into the lower-left corner. A picture of the Modern Start screen will pop up. Ignore it, and right-click instead to bring up a big list of desktop options, including Run and Control Panel options that help you avoid the Modern Start screen as much as possible. It’s no Start button replacement, but it’ll get you by.
2. Jarring Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interface. Despite my extensive Windows 8 use I’m still not completely comfortable with its “two operating systems in one” interface. Classic-style Windows programs run in desktop mode; new apps stick to the Modern interface. Swapping between the two depending on which app you’re using just kinda makes your brain hurt, though the ache slowly starts to dull after time. It’s so… inelegant, compounded by the fact that Windows 8 apps and Desktop apps sport totally different control schemes. More annoyingly, Windows 8 treats the Desktop as a singular entity, no matter how many programs you have open inside of it, and classic programs don’t enjoy the same auto-update feature offered for Windows 8 apps.
3. Windows 8 sucks with a mouse. This is a big one. Navigating around Windows 8 with a mouse flat-out sucks, and it’s compounded by the operating system’s less-than-streamlined design. The far-ranging Live Tiles on the Start screen require much more scrolling than Windows 7’s neat and compact Start button (See: Number 1). Right-click options suck too, appearing at the bottom of Windows 8 apps rather than where you’ve clicked. Closing an app requires clicking at its top, then dragging it down to the bottom of the screen; easy on a tablet, an annoyance with a mouse. I could go on.
Using a touchscreen or a multi-touch touchpad makes some of those qualms go away, but it’s irritating that Windows 8’s mouse controls and gesture controls are slightly different; finger finaglers can swipe in the Charm bar from anywhere along the right edge, while mouse jockeys need to hit what feels like a specific pixel in the lower-right hand corner. The poor mouse controls alone pretty much ensure I won’t upgrade my desktop to Windows 8 anytime soon. Keyboard commands work well, though.
4. Crappy multitasking. Android and iPad owners will love Windows 8’s Snap feature, which docks a Windows 8 app to one side of the screen and allows you to run a second app in the remaining 75 percent of the display. Computer users engrained in having a half-dozen windows open at once will hate it. Fortunately, you can still resized open windows to your heart’s content in desktop mode.
5. Where are the apps? Microsoft bet the farm on its move to a mobile-friendly interface, and all of it — snapping apps, Live Tiles, the Modern interface — critically depends on having a robust Windows 8 app ecosystem. That ecosystem just isn’t there yet. The Windows Store only has around 5,000 apps available. A few standouts aside, the vast majority of those apps are trivial time wasters or Web apps shoehorned into a Windows app shell. Microsoft’s working hard to lure developers to their walled Windows Store garden, but as it stands, Windows 8 is the virtual equivalent of a Kardashian: beautiful, but with no value beneath the pretty veneer.
The lack of apps forces you to mainly stay in desktop mode, which feels a lot like Windows 7, missing Start button aside. But that begs the billion dollar question for Microsoft: If desktop users spend most of their time trying to get Windows 8 to behave like Windows 7, why shouldn’t they just stick with Windows 7?
I tried to keep the pros and cons balanced here, but equal numbers alone don’t tell the whole tale: for traditional desktop users, those five cons vastly outweigh the multiple pros Windows 8 brings to the table. The nuts-and-bolts improvements are a pleasure, to be sure, but there just isn’t a compelling reason for most PC users to upgrade from Windows 7.
Mobile mavens need to look long and deep at Microsoft’s new operating system, on the other hand; the speed enhancements and powerful account syncing makes Windows 8 a much more intriguing proposition for on-the-go computing, especially if you’re already tied into Microsoft’s ecosystem.
For what it’s worth, I plan on picking up a touchscreen convertible and upgrading my multi-touch enabled notebooks to Windows 8 ASAP — but my desktop’s staying Windows 7 for the foreseeable future.