Note: This is entirely based off of my own personal experiences with Windows 8 on a 2 year old laptop with no touch screen support.
Microsoft released its latest version of Windows, Windows 8, in late October and over the past couple of months, I’ve been using it as my 2 year old laptop’s main OS. Many of you have probably heard about how terrible the new OS is and how there is weak demand for Windows 8. Generally, I recommend Windows 8 for people already running Windows 7 because it brings the Windows 7 experience plus more – including a quicker boot, necessary improvements to dual monitors, and access to “Metro” (I don’t care if Microsoft doesn’t call it Metro anymore, it’s an easy way to describe Microsoft’s distinctive tile interface that is prevalent across its Windows products) apps (I use the term “app” for Windows 8 native Metro apps versus “program” for the pre-Windows 8 software we are used to today) – while stumbling over a few sore points brought about by Microsoft’s growing pains to unite desktop and mobile.
The Good – Windows 7 Improved
There’s actually a lot to like about Windows 8. Some of you probably heard about Microsoft’s Metro design, but Windows 8 also features a “desktop” mode that brings everything you remember from Windows 7 plus more. Even better is that most of your current Windows programs are still compatible with Windows 8.
So what are the additions to Windows 8 that makes it like Windows 7 +1? For starters, the OS boots much quicker and is not as much of a resource hog with the Aero “Window” glass design removed in favor of a minimalistic design. Not only that, but users can now pause file transfers and multiple file transfers are grouped into a single window, as seen in the above picture. However, probably the biggest improvement comes for users, who like myself, use two or more monitors. First of all, there’s an easy way to manage your displays (whether you want to extend your desktop, mirror, or only display on one) via the Windows Key + P. Users also have the ability to choose what wallpaper to use on each monitor by right clicking pictures when choosing the image. This is especially helpful when trying to figure out which monitor is which. In addition to being able to customize wallpapers, users are able to utilize a new taskbar setting that will only show programs open on an auxiliary monitor (screen 2, 3, 4, etc.) on that monitor’s taskbar. For example, if I have a Word document open on my second monitor, the taskbar for that monitor will only display the Word program. Similar to the customization of a monitor’s wallpaper, this is a great feature to figure out what program or file is open on which monitor.
The Missing Start Button and the Utility of Metro Apps
There is one thing quite different about the Windows 8 desktop mode versus Windows 7 and that’s the disappearance of the iconic Start button that typically appeared in the lower left corner. The Start button has been changed to a Start screen full of Microsot’s Metro live tile menu. Live tiles provide information quickly just by looking at the tile instead of having to launch the program or app. For example, the 2×1 Mail app tile will display a small number with how many e-mails are in your inbox, while also giving a small description of each e-mail. This is great because the Start menu is the first thing that greets you when you start up your computer, so you can easily find out how many e-mails you have, what calendar events are scheduled, as well as the weather for the day or the current stock market numbers. Windows 7 programs can also be pinned to this new Start menu for easy access to your favorite programs. On top of that, once the Start menu is opened, users can simply start typing on their keyboard to begin searching for an app, program, or file, similar to what Windows Vista and Windows 7 had.
How do I get to the Start menu if I don’t have an icon though? Well, hovering your mouse in the lower left corner of the screen where the Start button would be will show a small thumbnail of your Start menu, which you can then click to launch it. Others have created programs to bring back the Start button, which you can read more about here, but I find it easy to just hit the Windows key on my keyboard.
Metro apps also provide users with live notifications while using desktop mode, which is exceptionally helpful for certain things. My favorite example is the mail app. In Windows 7, I would leave a Gmail tab open and constantly look to see if I had new e-mails or navigate to Outlook.com to see if I have anything. However, now, I don’t need to do any of those things because if I am at my computer working on Photoshop or a blog entry, a quick notification will fly out from the right via the mail app when I have new e-mails. The same is true for calendar, which some of you won’t be unfamiliar to since Outlook does something similar with 10-15 minute reminder notifications. Future Windows 8 apps can make use of these live notifications and if you’re watching a movie and don’t want to be disturbed, you can easily turn off notifications for a certain duration via Windows + I or opening the “Settings” menu on the desktop in the upper or lower right corners.
The Ugly – Windows’ Metro Side
While I personally really enjoy the improvements made on top of the Windows 7 desktop with dual screen support and the utility of notifications from various Metro apps, the Metro side of Windows 8, which, in my opinion, was designed more for tablets (Windows RT) and phones (Windows Phone 8), is, for the most part horrible on the desktop. The apps aren’t sized optimally for desktop use, often poorly designed with limited selection, and simply leads to two different user experiences on one machine. Unfortunately, all of this is a necessary evil in an attempt by Microsoft to unify the desktop with the booming mobile platform.
First of all, these Metro apps take up the entire screen similar to how most of today’s smartphones handle their apps. On a PC, this means a lot of extra space, as you can see from the first image here. Note that the inbox would normally display every e-mail, but I edited the picture for privacy reasons. The Metro apps aren’t optimized for large screens at all and although it is possible to “snap” a second app, many apps simply aren’t designed well enough and the amount of space a second app uses is fixed.
Many of the apps for Windows 8, and by extension Windows RT and Windows Phone, are simply poorly designed. A quick look through the Windows app store shows poorly rated apps everywhere, many of them asking for money for users to have the pleasure of using them! Even the Metro Skype app offered less utility than the desktop program when it first released although I am happy to say the app has since been updated to add more functionality, particularly when snapped as a second app. Previously, when the app was snapped as seen above, I would be able to use it for a conversation with a single person, but as soon as I went back to see if I had other messages, I would be greeted with a blue screen reading “Skype”. I would have to enlarge the app just to check messages from other contacts – hardly a good design. Not only that, but the amount of information displayed on an app’s live tile on the Start menu is barely useful beyond telling me how many e-mails I have. The live tiles simply do not handle descriptions very well due to limited space and handles multiple descriptions even poorer.
To top it all off, the selection of apps in the Windows app store is completely atrocious with many key apps such as Twitter and Netflix still missing – probably most notable of all is the absence of Google’s platform of services. Besides Skype and Google Search, I only have what was pre-installed, which includes basics such as mail, calendar, and contacts. Hopefully as more people adopt Windows 8, RT, and Windows Phone 8, more developers will have incentive to create Windows apps. Unfortunately, Google is not very keen on developing their own app suite for Windows products besides what is already available – Google Search and Google Chrome – for the exact same reason. This isn’t a big deal for now since Gmail, Google Contacts, and Google Calendar can all be synced to their respective Metro apps. However, Google is planning to discontinue Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync on January 30, 2013, which may ruin this ability for new users (Google is allowing current users to continue the service). Microsoft was caught off guard with Google’s announcement and, instead of promising some sort of fix, used the opportunity to plug their new Outlook.com e-mail service while jabbing Google for not thinking about customers first.
Finally, and probably my biggest grumble, is the fact that the user has to deal with two very different user experiences in the form of Metro and the typical Windows 7 Desktop. Using Metro apps can be useful, but they live in a separate environment from where most users will probably do most of their work: the desktop. Multi-tasking between the Metro environment and the desktop environment can be difficult since users will have to rely on the notifications that I earlier praised. However, while I praise the use of notifications, I personally do not use the mail app for anything besides knowing when I have mail. For responding to mail, organizing it, and anything else, I open up my Chrome browser and navigate to the e-mail service. Also, while the idea of snapping a second app is very useful for a tablet or phone, it is not very useful for a desktop user; especially because the size of the second “window” cannot be adjusted. Many desktop users are used to having various window sizes to maximize their productivity. Some of my favorites are having two Word documents open side by side or having Photoshop open with the picture I am referencing in a separate window. While some of this can be solved with a second monitor, not everyone has such a luxury or has access to two monitors at all times.
However, all of this is part of Microsoft’s evolution. Today, people are increasingly embracing mobile through their phone or tablet and Microsoft needs an OS that can not only play in this field, but unite what a person is working on at home on the desktop to his or her mobile devices. Windows 8 provides a seamless experience between desktop and mobile for users through a shared app library and similar user interface. In addition, I feel it became necessary for Microsoft to unify its own platform of services (e-mail, contacts, calendar, messages) in one area (the Start menu) while providing users with the option to connect to their favorite services such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, creating a single hub for all contacts and messages. Indeed, Windows 8 is pushing to be a central hub that can display all the information you need – from your e-mails to your directory to your calendar – and by syncing this to its mobile platforms, Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT for tablets, Microsoft is hoping to create a unified experience that will invite users to buy into their mobile products instead of the competitors, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
Other Minor Issues
There are a few other issues I experienced personally. I have some hardware compatibility issues such as random reboots or failure to boot, but this is a 2 year old laptop we are talking about that wasn’t design specifically for Windows 8 and it happens very sparingly. Also, when using a second monitor and operating between Metro and Desktop mode, some visual artifacts from Metro mode may be left behind on either monitor. For example, sometimes when I open return to Desktop mode from the Start menu, the entire desktop is a bit darker and needs to be refreshed. The worse ones are when I open a Metro app and the second screen is “enlarged” because it was caught by Metro’s opening animation. A simple refresh fixes both issues although I’ve seen similar issues when snapping a Metro app to the desktop, similar to the Skype picture from earlier. Also, for anyone who is an artist and uses an Intuos 5 tablet, apparently Windows 8 installs its own stylus drivers that interfere with the tablet, so that may be a concern.
Recommendation: Pro Windows 8
While I spent much of the blog entry talking about the ugly Metro side, I am overall happy with Windows 8 because it improves on the success of Windows 7. The added functionality from the new Start menu and Metro apps, although not perfect yet, as well as the dual monitor support and under-the-hood improvements are welcome additions that push the desktop experience closer to what we are familiar with on our mobile devices with notifications and displayable information via live tiles. However, the Metro apps are, for the most part, poorly designed and many of the major apps, particularly Google, are missing. This is a glaring oversight for Microsoft’s mobile offerings that are competing with the robust and high quality app libraries of iOS and Android. This will be fixed in due time and I imagine further iterations of Windows to improve on the user interface to minimize the discordance created between the desktop environment and the Metro environment. Ideally, I would like to see Windows RT move away from having a “desktop” mode and Windows 8 to make further improvements to “desktop” mode by blurring the line between the desktop and where Metro apps play.
The problems associated with the Metro apps aren’t really problems for desktop users since most of the functionality comes from the desktop they are already using right now. However, the improvements to the desktop mode paired with the faster boot up are things current Windows 7 users will appreciate and future advances with Metro apps can still be utilized down the road once the app library increases. Overall, Windows 8 is a good operating system and not nearly as terrible as some reviews make it out to be. For people who use dual monitors, Windows 8 is a much needed upgrade. For the rest, there may be slightly less incentive to update, but the under-the-hood improvements are definitely nice additions to have with little to no trade-off.