Steve Ballmer breaks out in an excited sweat just thinking about it. Angry nerds foam at the mouth over it in forums and chatrooms. Average consumers are still sliding mice around wondering where the hell the Start menu went while they use it.
If you thought Microsoft ruffled feathers with Windows Vista, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Windows 8 will be, without a doubt, the most divisive update to the operating system Microsoft has ever released. While other updates have rearranged, reskinned and retooled the desktop, Windows 8 is the first to push it away entirely and challenge the notion that a mouse and keyboard are necessary at all.
We could write volumes about everything that’s new in Windows 8 — and we already have — but if you’re just looking for the final word on what’s new in a nutshell, what works, what doesn’t, and whether you’ll like it, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s our full review of Windows 8.
Rebirth of an OS
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Microsoft must have had a cement mixer churning with the stuff when it set out to design Windows 8. Rather than carrying its touch-centric Windows Phone operating system over to tablets — as Apple did with iOS and Google did with Android — Microsoft worked the other direction, converting its full desktop operating system to touch.
Crazy? Perhaps. Harebrained? Maybe. But the strategy also leverages Microsoft’s most valuable asset: decades’ worth of compatible software. Everything from Microsoft Office to Photoshop remains accessible on Windows 8 tablets and convertibles, just as you would use them on a desktop or laptop computer. Hell, you can run AutoCAD and design furniture on your Surface Pro, as long as you’re cool with sketching out table legs with your finger.
To make full use of this blended mobile and desktop operating system, manufacturers are blurring the lines with their hardware as well. An armada of convertibles and hybrids has emerged on the horizon: laptops with screens that lay flat to act like tablets, and tablets that plug into optional keyboard docks to act like laptops. Most notably, Microsoft’s own Surface illuminates just how flexible the ideal Windows 8 machine could really be. While Apple hopes consumers will buy both iPads and MacBooks, Microsoft seems certain that one device can fulfill both roles, with Windows 8 as the glue that binds them together.
Different strokes for different folks
Microsoft offers its latest OS in four flavors: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise, and Windows RT. The vanilla version should work fine for 90 percent of consumer needs, but Pro offers some business-savvy perks like BitLocker encryption for safeguarding data from prying eyes. The Enterprise version offers a unique feature called Windows To Go, which lets you actually boot a full, working version of Windows 8 off a thumb drive, but it’s only available through bulk licensing, effectively placing it out of the reach of consumers. Windows RT is only available when you buy a mobile device with it preinstalled. Because it runs on fundamentally different hardware (ARM processing chips instead of Intel x86 chips), Windows RT cannot run legacy Windows programs, only new software designed specifically for it. This lack of backward compatibility may be confusing to those shopping for Windows 8, because Microsoft isn’t advertising the differences. Keep it in mind.
Enter the age of ‘Modern UI’
Firing up Windows 8 for the first time, you’ll land on the Start screen, which is essentially a full-screen version of what used to be the Start menu. When fingers have to be accommodated alongside cursors, large icons are the order of the day, and Windows 8 has plenty. Various apps and functions are represented by colorful Live Tiles, which festoon the screen like colorful Chiclets. These are basically just shortcuts, but they have the ability to display information from within the app they represent, rather than just static icons. For instance, the Photos Live Tile will rotate through your photo collection, and the Weather Live Tile will show current conditions for your home location.
Microsoft refers to this supersized, colorful new computing environment as “Modern UI.” It extends beyond just the Start screen to apps that have been specifically built for it, which use the same giant text, squared-off edges and stark expanses of solid color.
Besides simply making everything bigger for fingers, Microsoft has cleaned up the interface with the same strategy you may have employed as a 10-year-old when you “cleaned” your room by bulldozing all your toys under the bed. None of the options you used to find under menus like File, Edit, View are visible at the top of the screen anymore; they’ve all been shoved off screen. You’ll need to summon them by right clicking, moving your mouse to the corners of the screen, or swiping in from the corners, if you’re using a touch interface. For instance, moving the mouse to the lower right-hand corner summons a “Charms bar,” where you can search within an app, share, interact with devices (think printing) and find more settings. Digging around within these takes place in a right-hand column that opens to show the various menus.
If you’re using a tablet device, a physical home button will always bring you back to the Start screen from whatever app or menu you’re in — a familiar gesture from anyone making the transition from iOS or Android. If you’re on a PC, the Windows button the keyboard will serve the same purpose.
What happened to “old Windows?” It’s still there, hiding under a Live Tile labeled desktop. Here, longtime Windows users will feel right at home: It looks almost identical to Windows 7, minus a few visual tweaks (like getting rid of Aero) and the missing Start menu. Mousing to where Start used to be will bring you to the Start screen instead, snapping you back to the Modern user interface.
When apps load on the desktop, they stay on the desktop, rather than loading fullscreen like a Modern UI app. The desktop is essentially treated as just another app within the larger Modern UI interface — a sandbox for you to run all the legacy software you need to run, but no longer “home.”
More than just a new face
The Modern UI overhaul represents the most dramatic and easily noticeable change to Windows 8, but there are other surprises beneath the surface (pun intended) for users who care more about how Windows runs than what it looks like. Streamlined code delivers boot speeds that Windows users could only dream of up until this point — it loads significantly faster than Windows 7. The task manager gets a visual overhaul that makes it easier to spot which programs are gobbling up precious RAM and which are benign. File Explorer (formerly Windows Explorer) now sports the same “ribbon” interface you’ve seen in the most recent versions of Microsoft Office, which changes on the fly to deliver the options that are most relevant to you. (You don’t need the option to rotate a picture, for instance, if you’re not clicking on a picture.) Antivirus protection now comes standard with Windows Defender, and you have more security options for locking your PC, like PIN numbers and picture passwords (which you tap and swipe in different spots to unlock).
Perhaps most dramatically, Microsoft now offers the Windows Store as a central place to buy software over the Internet. Like the App Store on iOS or Google Play store in Android, apps have been neatly categorized with screenshots, system requirements, reviews, and installation is as easy as clicking one button. Your purchases — if you decide to stray from the many free apps — will be billed through a Microsoft account.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
So what is it like to actually use this new machination? It depends a lot on what kind of device you’re using.
On a touchscreen tablet, the Modern UI is actually a remarkably clean, intuitive way to get around Windows. The large fonts make text easily legible on small screens, the giant tiles are easy to tap, and dragging a finger in from the side of the screen is a smart way to bring up options you wouldn’t want cluttering up precious screen real estate. Despite the relative paucity of new Modern UI-style apps, the ones we have had a chance to try so far feel solid, though a bit clunky on early Windows 8 touch devices. Most developers have done a good job sticking to Microsoft’s design templates, giving the apps a tightly integrated, unified feel that was missing from the desktop version of Windows, where designers seem to simply do whatever they want. The downside to these new, structured Modern UI apps is that they are more limited in scope. You can find apps for things like Netflix and the Weather, but feature-rich software like Adobe Photoshop is still missing. If you want to use software like that, you need to use it in the legacy Windows desktop.
On a touchscreen, this is a mobile operating system every bit as competitive as iOS or Android, though still in its infancy. If Microsoft can lure over enough developers to build a robust library of Modern UI apps, there’s no good reason you wouldn’t choose a Windows 8 tablet over an Android or iOS tablet, and in fact, many good reasons why you would. It’s more flexible than iOS, sleeker than Android, and supports legacy Windows applications, making it more capable than either of them.
But about those legacy applications. While the allure of “old Windows” hanging out beneath a desktop tile is intriguing, in practice it feels like a strange antiquity. The classic Windows interface is no more pleasant to use with touch than it used to be, but you’ll still be forced to poke through it if you want to actually take advantage of apps that weren’t designed for Modern UI. Even if you don’t, many of the deepest levels of Windows configuration are still buried there, so you’ll find yourself popping into the Control Panel and other legacy Windows features when you need to troubleshoot or configure new hardware.
With a mouse and keyboard, or even touchpad and keyboard, Modern UI feels less like something sleek and new, and more like eyecandy shoehorned into what used to be a useful product. PC users never needed monolithic icons that force you to mouse across the Great Plains to reach them. PC users never needed a library of apps that insist on dominating your full screen — or working in a hobbled splitscreen capacity. PC users never needed picture passwords, or virtual keyboards, or any of the other touch-centric features that Windows 8 piles on.
What PC users did need — a cohesive user interface well adapted for the mouse and keyboard — Windows 8 destroys. While Microsoft would have you believe that you can simply retreat into the old desktop, hole up there, and pretend Modern UI doesn’t exist, that’s far from the case. It intrudes into every aspect of the Windows experience. You can’t view all your apps without returning to the full-screen Start screen, formerly the compact and unobtrusive Start menu. You can’t start up without wading through the same menu, or shut down without summoning the obnoxious Charms bar, clicking settings, then “Shut down” — an unintuitive and unnecessarily lengthy process to perform a simple ask that used to be easy. The Charms bar loves to creep out at other inappropriate times, too, leaping out from the edge of the screen when you get too close to the right side, blocking the function you really wanted to click, like the scroll bar in a browser. If you didn’t know better, you might assume it was an old-school prank app or preinstalled bloatware on a cheap Gateway, but no, this is how Windows works now.
While tablet owners at least gain something useful when they stray outside the Modern UI by visiting the desktop, Modern UI offers desktop and laptop owners almost no reason to embrace it. Colors aside, it just isn’t practical with a cursor and large monitor, and offers zero reward for the patience you’ll expend learning to deal with it. It’s like relearning to use your PC with your non-dominant hand. You could probably rewire your brain to do it, but why? Windows 8 offers the same pointless exercise in inconvenience.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is simultaneously pandering to a new generation of mobile computing users who already see it as late to the game, and spraying mace in the eyes of a content PC user base it has spent the last 20 years building.
The truth is, Windows 8 could have been two excellent operating systems. Instead, Microsoft mashed them both together into one that reeks of compromise on both ends. While it offers PC users a few perks like faster boot times and a revamped task manager, they hardly justify the pain of learning Modern UI, not to mention the actual purchase price. Tablet users should be pleased with the slick new user interface, but probably won’t find as much use as anticipated for the inclusion of old-school Windows underneath. On a tablet, classic Windows is just slow and difficult to use, especially for those on Windows RT, who won’t have the benefit of being able to install things like Web plugins and old Windows software.
Is this the end of Windows dominance? Likely not. If Microsoft could sink that ship with one bad launch, it would already be at the bottom of the sea from Vista. But it still doesn’t bode well for a company teetering on the brink of irrelevance in the coming decade. With Apple continuing to make the right moves and Google edging toward PCs with its ever-improving Chrome OS and Android operating systems, Microsoft doesn’t have the leeway it once had. We may end up having to use Windows 8, but we can’t say we’re happy about it.
- Sleek-looking Modern UI interface
- Much faster booting
- Small improvements to desktop
- Modern UI interferes with mouse-and-keyboard use
- Very limited selection of Modern-UI apps
- Graphically disjointed
- Windows RT users can’t install legacy software