by Tim Walker
Windows 8 is the biggest change to Microsoft’s iconic operating system since it added the start bar to Windows 95. This change has been met with praise and loathing alike. I can explain both responses by saying that Windows 8 is built for the future more than the present.
The Necessity of Change
Windows has a problem. The computing landscape is changing as smartphones and tablets are growing in both popularity and usefulness for tasks formerly only achievable with a traditional PC. The need for PCs is decreasing and with it the need for the most popular PC operating system, Windows. In face of this dilemma Microsoft had two options; deny the problem exists or change its business model and products. Microsoft wisely chose the latter, but with change inevitably comes resistance, new unforeseen problems, and at least a few mistakes.
So what exactly is Microsoft trying to do with Windows 8? The answer is that Microsoft is trying to create a product that gives users a continuity of experience on its phones, tablets, and PCs. In comparison, Apple gives its iPhone and iPad users a nearly identical experience while its Mac computers are very different. So the reason Windows 8 is built more for the future than the present is because it has been built to look and feel the same on a multitude of devices rather than improve the experience on a desktop with a mouse and keyboard.
With this review I hope to answer the following questions; does Windows 8 give users a uniform and enjoyable experience across devices, what is new, and should you get or avoid Windows 8?
The New Look
As many commentators have noted the change from Windows 7 to 8 can be a jarring experience. No longer are users greeted by the familiar taskbar, start button, and a desktop riddled with static icons. Now when a user starts up their computer it is to a continuous page of what Microsoft calls “live tiles”. These live tiles are essentially shortcuts to apps and programs except they have the ability to display continually updated information. For example, the Windows Mail app Live Tile will display the number of new emails waiting to be read and a news app might display a rotating set of news snippets. I personally enjoy the live tiles and the ability to have basic information from my apps displayed at a glance. I should also note that every live tile can optionally be shut off to not show any information.
There is also a live tile called “Desktop” that users can click to bring up a desktop that is very similar to Windows 7 except that there is no start button on the bottom left corner. Instead, users can click in the bottom left corner which brings them back to the live tile filled start screen. The transition from “start bar” to the “start screen” may be a little confusing at first but overall it gives users a slightly greater level of functionality. The biggest advantage of live tiles of course is on a touch enabled device where it is very difficult to use the standard start bar with its icons that are smaller than the average person’s fingertip. Of the changes made to Windows 8 the start screen will be easier to adjust to.
Older applications made for previous versions of Windows will continue to operate as normal on the desktop. The confusion sets in when using an app specifically designed for the Windows 8 metro environment. The difference is that these apps are designed to run in one of three sizes; full screen, 2/3 screen, or 1/3 screen. The 1/3 and 2/3 modes allow users to run two apps simultaneously with one taking up the majority of the screen real-estate and the other a small 1/3. On a desktop this is a strange limitation as most desktop programs are designed to be resized and moved wherever and however the user wants. In the tablet world, however, this is a major improvement as apps made for the iPad or android are exclusively full screen. This gives Windows 8 tablets a multi-tasking ability that is not found on its competitors. Although the change would seem strange if Windows 8 was only for desktops it has the advantage of allowing developers to make apps that are equally at home on a desktop or tablet.
The New Feel
The 5 icons on the right make up the “charm bar”
The most difficult adjustment to be made in Windows 8 will be learning how to use the gestures and “charms” for its new metro apps. The first shock that I ran into using a Windows 8 without any prior instructions was that I didn’t know how to close apps. Typically I would click the little X on the top right of a program to close it but since metro apps always run in full screen no such button exists. In fairness to Microsoft, Windows 8 includes a tutorial that I skipped because I didn’t think I needed it. It turns out closing apps is a simple gesture of grabbing from the top of the screen (with mouse or finger) and dragging down to the bottom. It is one of several new gestures that have already become second nature but initially seemed very odd.
The “Charms” that Microsoft has added are a set of five icons that can be accessed from any app. The charms are accessed by either swiping left from the far right of the screen or by moving the mouse to the bottom right or top right corner. The five icons in the charm bar are Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. According to Microsoft these five options should provide users with easy access to the most common tasks the same way throughout all apps rather than using in app methods that would differ in every app. The benefit is that users will not have to learn how to access these options in each new app downloaded as it will be common among all Windows 8 apps. Any additional app options can be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen or right clicking near the bottom.
Changes Everyone will Appreciate
Some of the best upgrades to Windows 8 are “under the hood” and won’t necessarily require users to learn anything new. In general Windows 8 performs better than windows 7 since it is designed to run on compact and often less powerful systems. That means that most computers still running Windows XP and Vista can be upgraded and may even run quicker with Windows 8. This is especially good news since Microsoft will be ending support for XP in 2014. Users will also notice that Windows 8 boots up much quicker than previous iterations. On a security side Microsoft has greatly improved things by adding features such as secure boot, bundled anti-virus, and the very nature of its new apps is also deceases vulnerability.
Other optional features that users can take advantage of include Microsoft accounts (formerly live profiles), built in synchronization, and Windows to go. All of these new features center on the ability to take your own personal settings and files with you on multiple computers ad devices. The Microsoft account allows users to have a single login id for all Windows 8 devices and phones and synchronizes settings between them. This is especially useful when switching between devices so you do not have to set each up each individually. Your Microsoft account also gives you access to a SkyDrive account that can store your files in the cloud and locally on each device. This allows uses to work on a single document from multiple devices without the need for a thumb drive or emailing it.
Windows to go and Business
Windows to go, on the other hand, is a somewhat different way to transport files and settings. Windows to go allows users to install a mobile version of their computer onto a thumb drive. Take the thumb drive with you and plug it into another Windows 8 computer and you can run the computer entirely off your own thumb drive without any cross contamination. Unplug the thumb drive and and none of your own files or settings are left behind. This feature is not only useful for people that are constantly borrowing computers, it also has major advantages for businesses. The trend of employees bringing their own devices to work has created a security issue for many businesses. Businesses are unable to enforce the same stringent policy restrictions on employees PCs as those owned by the company thus leaving sensitive company files and documents vulnerable. With Windows to go businesses can supply their employees with a company thumb drive running Windows 8 with full encryption and policy restrictions in place. The employee runs his/her computer off the company thumb drive while working and can simply remove the thumb drive to have full access to access the internet, download apps, or any other questionable activity without endangering the company data.
For users considering buying new tablet or computer there are a few things to consider when thinking about Windows 8. On the negative side there is a learning curve to using the interface and for desktops it doesn’t necessarily improve the experience. Also, Windows 8 is still very new and untested so there is a very real possibility of running into bugs. The biggest advantages for the OS that it offers a great experience on touch enabled devices and effortless synchronization between a user’s multiple PCs, Windows 8 tablets, and Windows phone. There are also improvements in performance and security.
Who should consider upgrading to Windows 8?
- If you are looking for a new computer you will probably be getting a Windows 8 PC. It is worthwhile to look for a computer with a touch enabled screen if you are going to be using Windows 8.
- Considering getting a second computer? It may be useful to upgrade your old computer to Windows 8 also to benefit from the synchronization between computers.
- Need a tablet sized computer for work? Consider a Windows 8 tablet but make sure you understand the difference between Windows 8 pro and Windows 8 RT. Once you’ve used Windows 8 on a tablet it will be easy to transition to a desktop.
- You want the latest and greatest before your friends get it.
I will also be writing a review for the new Windows Surface and Windows 8 RT for the next newsletter. If you have additional questions about Windows 8 please feel free to contact me.