Windows 8, Fully Formed
The new Windows is here. Windows 8 is a dramatic departure from Windows 7, blowing up the Start menu into a vibrant Start Screen that's electric with activity and well suited for touch devices like tablets. Despite some inconsistencies (particularly with the traditional desktop, which still exists), the new interface is powerful, fast and convenient.
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Stop me if you've heard this one: Windows 8 is a radical change for Microsoft and Windows. It represents a revolution in how computers work. Windows 8 doesn't just alter what Windows is, but what a PC is, as well.
These kinds of bold statements are pretty standard now when people talk about Windows 8. I should know -- I've probably used them all at one point or another as I've written about various pre-release versions of the operating system for the past year. Now that Windows 8 is finally fully baked, available for anyone to download, they're no less true. However, it bears reflecting on why Microsoft chose to so boldly re-imagine Windows, and how effective it is at achieving that goal.
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The reason behind Windows' big makeover is simple: It was necessary to create PCs that can do what Microsoft thinks PC users want to do in 2012. Anyone who owns a computer, tablet or smartphone today leads a connected life, and wants to have access to that life from any device, and that access should be fast, convenient and if at all possible, fun.
For Windows, that translates into things like support for new form factors and touch screens, a much larger role for apps, and near-total integration with the Internet, particularly cloud services.
However, in crafting Windows for the connected world, Microsoft risks the inevitable danger in trying to be all things to all people. In contrast to that approach is Apple's, which reserves distinct software, iOS, for mobile form factors, leaving its OS X desktop software clearly optimized for the traditional keyboard and mouse.
Was Microsoft successful in creating an interface that works well with both kinds of hardware? And does Windows 8 really meet the needs of today's users? To explore those fundamental questions about the new OS, I used it extensively on both a Samsung Series 9 laptop (which doesn't have a touchscreen) and a Samsung Series 7 developer tablet, both loaded with the final build.
I also spoke to several people at Microsoft about Windows 8, and I've included their comments about specific aspects of the new OS where appropriate.
It's one thing for a device to support touch -- it's quite another to do it well. Anyone who has used an underpowered Android tablet (looking at you, Archos) knows what I'm talking about. For today's users, any lag or unresponsiveness simply won't be tolerated.
Of course, Windows 8 was designed with touch in mind from the start, and it shows. The app tiles are big and friendly to fingers of all sizes, and most apps follow the same minimalist design style as the system's user interface (formerly known as Metro, and now generally called the "modern UI"). The modern UI is all about keeping things visually simple, organizing content into clear columns along a horizontal scroll, with large headings and icons. When you swipe, motion is fast and fluid.
Most of the time, anyway. Any machine can get overwhelmed with processes, and the Samsung tablet sometimes had trouble reacting quickly after I'd left it on for a long time while running several apps (usually through the desktop). This issue is by no means unique to Windows 8, but device hanging on a touchscreen is inherently more jarring. If the screen isn't "alive" under your fingertips, it ruins the whole experience. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often.
Touch on a non-touchscreen device is handled through the touchpad, which is surprisingly not that awkward. When you're using a mouse pointer instead of touching the screen, you call up menus by navigating into the corners, as opposed to the sides, which is how it works with touch. I'm not a big fan of this disparity -- I think it confuses your gadget "muscle memory" and I'd bet new users take a while to figure out all the nuances of it (sliding the mouse pointer up from a corner to reveal apps running, for example).
"What we do know is that the corners are the easiest place for those who are using a mouse to actually hit," says Linda Averett, corporate vice president of program management in Windows. "When you're trying to provide functionality for this current customer base that's new, while still maintaining the ability to do what they do routinely, you need to balance these things out, and folks adjust over time."
Even though I found the corner solution a bit awkward, it is nice that you can call up charms and such with side swipes on the touchpad itself. However, this is totally dependent on whether your PC's manufacturer offers drivers for Windows 8 gestures. And then your mileage may still vary: With the Samsung Series 9 laptop, the two-finger scrolling was all over the map -- although those drivers specifically were pre-release software (Samsung has not provided final touchpad drivers for Windows 8 yet).
Touch can get even more awkward when you're in the desktop environment. Targeting things like the little x's for closing windows is a bit tougher. That becomes less of a factor when you're on a Windows RT device, since although that OS is virtually identical to Windows 8, it doesn't run old apps, which were never designed for touch. RT devices still have a desktop, though, which is used to, among other things, run Office 2013.
A word about the onscreen keyboard: It's different from the virtual keyboards on Android and iOS devices. While it's nice and full-size, when it's time to type some numbers, they keyboard changes to a smaller keyboard of symbols and a number pad to the right. While this mimics a regular full Windows keyboard (complete with NumPad), I would have preferred the option to switch to something more "conventional," with numbers across the top.
"We studied a whole bunch of configurations for this," says Sam Moreau, Microsoft's director of design and research for Windows. "That ended up as one of those 50-50 things. There's a bunch of people who do dedicated number-type stuff -- they're doing Excel-type stuff, and this is actually how they use [the keyboard] since it optimizes for that one-hand usage.
"[Numbers across the top] is more for when you're hunting and pecking and trying to put in an address or something. But for being great at numbers, [a number pad] tends to be the structure. We wanted to be great at something."
Overall, Windows 8 provides a great touch experience, but for most setups I'd recommend getting a separate mouse and keyboard if you opt for a tablet device. Even if you intend to use your PC mainly for "consumption," Windows just naturally lends itself to hunkering down and getting some work done -- no matter what the device's form factor is.
Live Tiles: A New Start
One of the most powerful new features in Windows is the idea of a "live tile," which is an app icon that actually conveys information -- be it a photo, headline, number or something else -- and updates the information at regular intervals. The effect is a Start screen that's exploding with information, immersing you in your digital life even before you've touched a single key.
Anyone who likes push alerts on their smartphone will love live tiles, which takes that experience to the next level. If the prospect of a screen full of dynamically changing icons is scary to you, you can turn the live updates off, although only tile by tile -- there's no setting to turn them all off at once.
I don't know why you'd want to, though. The tiles are a big part of what makes Windows 8 (and Windows Phone 8) so compelling. Tiles, more than any other design element, embody what Windows 8 is all about. Our lives are fully connected now, and that extends to our apps, the information they provide and the people they connect us with.
"Computing has evolved to a communication means," says Moreau. "We had to make people a native object of the experience. And you can't do that with desktop metaphors. People should be everywhere in your experience."
Live tiles could use some improvement, though. While you can change the size of some of them, others stubbornly stick to the small, square size, with no option to enlarge. And it would be nice to have a third, "extra-large" size like the new Windows Phone home screen has. Finally, for some apps, it would be great to have more flexibility about what data is pushed to the tile -- for example, I'd rather have the Photos tile display only pics from Facebook, but there isn't an option for this.
For power users, live tiles require a little rethinking about how you organize. You can't put a whole bunch of Windows Apps into a folder called, say, "social apps." That may not satisfy the left-brained, but Windows 8 actually renders a lot of that hierarchical organization redundant.
From the Start screen, if you want to find a specific app without hunting for it, just start typing its name -- you don't even have to hunt for a search icon. It doesn't get much easier than that. The search ability of Windows 8 is remarkably fast and flexible, returning results almost instantaneously and presenting you with several different ways to search. If you begin a search from an app, for example, the default is to search just within that app. From the Start screen, the main options are searching for apps, files and settings, but there are many others.
"[In previous Windows releases], as soon as folks turned on the system or go to the system, they launched the Start menu," says Averett. "We've known for years that the old Start menu has very limited real estate, and as you added more and more applications to your system that it became difficult -- not the greatest piece of UI to interact with. So what we did is just drop people into the Start screen, where they can immediately click or touch on the thing that they want to do."
Charms and Sharing
Charms are the universal functions that slide in from the right side, always accessible no matter what app you're running. Given their top-level nature, the charms are few, but powerful. They consist of a fairly self-explanatory set of commands: Start, Search, Share, Devices (which is how you connect to peripherals like printers) and Settings.
The most novel charm by far is Share. The others' functions have existed in one way or another on systems for well over a decade, but Share is new. Share could be the most revolutionary aspect of Windows 8, since it acknowledges how important our digital connections are.
To make those connections as seamless as possible, Microsoft had to re-write how apps interact with each other, and make it consistent. Now if an app has some kind of shareable content (say, a photo), the developer can easily make that clear to other apps designed to share (say, a Twitter client like Rowi) via a "contract." Then when the user selects Share from the charms menu, a list of sharing apps appears, with the ones you use the most at the top.
"Your system can get better with the more applications that you have." says Averett. "And so what you see in the Share and Search is a model we came up with called contracts, a brokered and secure way for app-to-app communication. So the words that we featured in the charms menu are the ones that are the most meaningful to fulfill the promise that, as you add these applications, your overall experience just gets better."
Microsoft's approach to sharing is inherently more powerful than sharing on an iPad, for example. In iOS, only the major social networks (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) are integrated at the OS level. On Windows 8, the sky's the limit, letting users theoretically have as many sharing apps as they want -- available anytime, in any app. It's like getting a "Pin It" option in all your other apps the minute you install Pinterest (though there is as yet no Pinterest app for Windows 8).
It all sounds good on paper, but in practice it's not 100% perfect. Microsoft's Photos app, for example, doesn't call up a complete list of sharing apps for some reason. It's a very strange omission, since photos are far more shareable than, say, anything in Bing Weather. And, of course, the major social networks need to get on board with Windows 8 for the feature to be truly useful.
Despite some wrinkles Microsoft needs to iron out, Share is a great step forward for Windows. It builds how we interact with content today right into the OS. While Apple OS X introduced similar functionality with Mountain Lion, the integration is more subtle and app-specific. With Windows 8, sharing is always front and center for both users and developers, and the emphasis is welcome.
Yes, the familiar Windows desktop still exists in Windows 8. It had to. The traditional strength of Windows has been organization with clear files, folders and detailed settings. Much of that is absent in the new UI environment, and if there wasn't an "escape hatch" to ground yourself, I suspect many users would abandon the OS pretty quickly.
However, the desktop interacts with the new UI in occasionally unexpected ways. Many apps -- Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Skype and others -- can exist in both places, and those apps are more or less "siloed" from one another, with their own bookmarks and settings. The app may have cloud services that sync between to two versions of the app, but Windows treats them as distinct.
"With Internet Explorer, there's a lot more shared than you might think," says Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's corporate vice president of IE. "Right now cookies aren't shared, but everything else is, including history. The separateness has more to do with the mindset and the way the human is interacting with them."
While some apps appear to live in two different worlds, the desktop itself operates within the Windows 8 environment. You still call up the same charms (although most, like Share, become useless), and there's no old-school Start menu, which will probably throw new users. While Microsoft has been clear that the Start screen is the Start menu, just supercharged, I can't help but think those third-party approaches to bringing the Start menu back to the desktop (like Samsung's S Launcher) are a good idea, if only for curbing panic.
At this point, Windows 8 users will be spending a lot of time in the desktop environment, and its schizophrenic nature will likely throw people. Desktop apps, for example, don't appear in the list of running apps in the left margin, although they are mixed in when you switch via the Alt+Tab desktop shortcut. Certain desktop icons, such as Wi-Fi, look just like they do in Windows 7, but clicking on them calls up a menu in the new UI style. Others, like the time/date, activate a retro dialog.
It all smacks of inconsistency, and it probably stems from Microsoft wanting to steer users toward the new UI as much as possible, even on the desktop. While it's an understandable approach, it doesn't serve the user well here. If someone's choosing to use the desktop, chances are they want as little of the new UI as possible.
Exacerbating the problem: Only one browser can be the main browser in the new UI. For now, your options are Internet Explorer or Chrome, but others (including Firefox) are said to be coming. If, say, you decide to opt for Chrome, you'll suddenly find you can't run IE in the new UI -- that if you launch it, you'll be kicked to the desktop. This is odd and unexpected, to say the least.
The desktop isn't just a necessary evil in Windows 8 -- it's the place for users to go when they want to organize a dive deep into their systems. Furthermore, many feature-rich apps that require precision are more suited to the desktop environment (probably why Microsoft opted to create Office 2013 as a desktop app), so many users will be spending a lot of time here. Microsoft still has some work to do before the desktop works in the most intuitive way possible.
Apps and the Windows Store
Any platform needs good apps to thrive, and for many years this wasn't a problem for Windows. Well, it is now. The selection of big-name Windows 8 apps is pretty slim, though to Microsoft's credit they've signed on a few no-brainers for the launch: Netflix, Hulu Plus and eBay are there, but forget about Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, CNN, Bejeweled, Pandora... I could go on.
Many of those are probably in the works (Twitter has already announced plans to do a Windows 8 app), but until the selection gets better, Windows 8 will feel a little skeletal. In the meantime, Microsoft has created a suite of default apps that fill in many of those gaps.
I've talked about the many of these Microsoft apps when I reviewed the Consumer and Release Previews of Windows 8, and there's not a lot new, though there's more polish. The People app has morphed from afterthought to a nice contacts hub, even displaying updates from social media. The Calendar feels a little too minimalist -- I often wanted to have the buttons for changing from week to month to day views visible without right-clicking -- though it works well enough.
Microsoft's News, Sports, Finance and Travel apps, which all have the same horizontal-news-scroll format, look beautiful and serve as great models for how news apps should be. The New York Times' Windows 8 app is a decent imitation, though it doesn't make good enough use of full-screen photos for my liking.
In general, the apps most suited to the new UI are relatively straightforward apps that excel at one or two main tasks. Skype is a great example -- the Windows 8 version of the app is a paragon of efficiency, which makes it the most inviting and usable version of the app ever. Complicated apps stuffed with features will have a more difficult time.
"One of the things we talk about in the developer world is they should be great at something, not mediocre at a bunch of things," says Moreau. "We want the developers to focus in. The templates, the model, the overall user experience focuses the apps on being great at something."
The Final Mark
I haven't directly spoken about what may be the most powerful aspect of Windows 8: its device independence. Microsoft strongly steers any new user toward creating a Microsoft account -- it's almost a requirement to use Windows 8. Once you do, you'll be able to log into other Windows 8 PCs, bringing your settings with you.
The feature is another example of Microsoft's willingness to rethink the PC itself with Windows 8. It doesn't just have a new UI -- that's just the most obvious aspect of creating an experience that's connected from top to bottom, portable from device to device, and minimalist to the extreme: Give me what I want, and nothing else.
If only Microsoft were able to hold all Windows devices to that standard, but other parties have a say. Bloatware, the blight of PCs for decades, still exists, with manufacturers including their own apps for redundant services. There's also the danger of "experimental" form factors like Sony's latest Vaios, which take risks with design that may fall flat, leaving buyers holding onto a machine that has no place in the future.
Early adopters of Windows 8, however, take no such risk. It's new, it's kind of scary, and it's even inconsistent sometimes, but it is definitely the future. From the first time you fire up the Start screen, you feel immersed. It's fast and it's gorgeous. Yes, if you upgrade, you're going to be spending a lot of time in the desktop for the next several months, but the more time you spend in the new UI, the more you "get" it. With touch -- which works better as a supplement to a mouse-and-keyboard setup than as your only mode of input -- the experience is excellent.
"Windows is still everything you've known Windows to be," says Moreau. "But we've changed some things to make it better for you and your modern life. And it's more intuitive to use than ever. Touching something is much more direct than grabbing a remote control to move a disembodied pointer at a thing. It's natural and intuitive and actually fun to use. One of the things we've tried to bake into it is fun."
A lot has been said about how Windows 8 is a bold step, but it's really just following trends that have been ongoing for years -- mainly touch, visual media, social networks and the cloud. What's bold about it is that it's from Microsoft, which has, for the past three decades, designed software primarily for geeks and corporate IT departments, while others -- notably Google, Apple and even smaller players like Flipboard -- created user experiences that seduced legions of gadget-carrying consumers.
To create a truly consumer-friendly PC, Microsoft had to be bold. Windows 8 may look unorthodox and a bit frightening at first, but so did the Aeron chair, and that product went on to redefine a category. Windows 8 has the tools to persuade everyday people that their PC is more than just PowerPoint and Internet Explorer. With a little patience and a lot more apps, Windows can now be their friend, too.
Now it's your turn. You've downloaded and installed Windows 8. Share your review in the comments below.
This story originally published on Mashable here.