Killing the desktop: Can you survive in Windows 8's modern UI alone?

Can Windows 8’s modern UI replace the traditional desktop? That’s the question everyone’s been asking since Microsoft released Windows 8 last October.

Thus far, the consensus theory has been a resounding NO! There aren’t enough modern apps in the Windows Store, critics point out. And the full-screen view of modern-style apps isn’t conducive to PC-style multitasking, they say. And hey, the control panel is still located on the desktop!

But so what?

For all the gripes, no complainers have yet to answer the basic question: Even with these limitations, is it conceivable to spend all of your time in the modern UI, and shun the desktop completely?

Despite being a desktop diehard, I decided to figure out the answer in the wake of the Windows Blue leak. The beefing up in Blue all occurs in the modern UI, strongly suggesting that the company considers the Start screen, not the desktop, to be the future of Windows.

With that possibility (or eventuality?) in mind, I spent the past week off the desktop grid, living a solely “modern” life. The UI was the only alteration to my normal routine—I continued using my trusty, touch-less Lenovo X220 laptop with an external mouse and built-in keyboard.

Getting around: Surprisingly easy

Windows 8’s modern Start screen.

The first surprise of my exile: The lack of a touchscreen never felt like a burden. Not once.

Before my little experiment, switching apps or using the Snap feature always felt like a chore. I had to consciously think about the navigation commands. Launching system menus from their hidden corners required a trying level of patience: If the cursor flickered just too much to the left or right while sliding upward to select an option, the bar would disappear, dropping me back at square one. It was so infuriating that I’d often opt for the trusty old Alt-Tab keyboard shortcut to switch apps.

But after just one day of dedicated use, I was navigating the modern UI like a pro. The mental hesitation while opening the apps bar? Gone. Ditto inaccurate mouse movements. I was switching between apps just as fast as I would on the desktop, maybe even a little bit faster.

Keyboard shortcuts are critical for a touch-less modern UI experience, though—specifically, the Windows key for getting back to the Start screen and Windows-C to open the Charms Bar. Even with ninja-level mouse navigation skills, the Charms Bar and the Start icon just open ... so … slowly.

You also get used to working only in full-screen apps in short order. Sure, the lack of the Windows taskbar and the desktop feels a bit confining at first. But you can only dedicate your full attention to a single program anyway. For my money, there’s very little difference between switching windows on the desktop and switching full-screen apps in the modern UI (though modern apps require more scrolling within the app due to their less-efficient use of space).

Multiscreen diehards may disagree with me on that, but more-casual multitaskers can scratch their itch with Windows 8’s nifty Snap feature.

Getting to work: Surprisingly hard

The first major hurdle was simply finding tools to do my job. I needed three simple applications: a text editor, a spreadsheet program, and a bare-bones photo editor.

windows store
The Windows Store’s Spotlight section.

The Windows Store carries more than 50,000 apps spanning a wide selection of genres, but there’s virtually nothing when it comes to useful productivity apps. The store is awash in so-called “distraction free” writing environments featuring minimal menu options, but those were next to useless. There were also a few Markdown editors, but I needed a word processor that could let you embed Web links in text without HTML tags staring you in the face.

After several hours of fruitlessly searching for a solid text editor and spreadsheet program, I gave up. The only app that even came close is TabularApp, which lets you create your own spreadsheets and even export them as Excel documents. Unfortunately, you can’t import an Excel file into TabularApp, killing its usefulness.

Microsoft Office is clearly to blame for the dearth of robust productivity apps in the Windows Store. In fact, PCWorld has heard as much from several productivity-focused developers. If you’re a small developer looking to create Windows 8 apps, the last thing you want to do is take on the maker of the world’s most popular productivity suite—especially when this maker controls the app store you’re competing in.

Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t offer a modern version of its Office suite. Windows RT systems ship with a desktop (read: non-finger-friendly) version of Office, but Windows 8 proper does not come with Office in any form. So, with no worthwhile text or spreadsheet apps available in the Windows Store, the only salvation lies in desktop programs or Web apps—Google Docs, in my case.

Clever Photo doesn’t do much. But what it does, it does well.

Finding a photo editor was much easier. All I needed was an app that could crop screenshots, and Clever Photo ($2.50) fit the bill perfectly.

Apps on the periphery

Picking the right browser is essential for anyone planning to spend considerable time in the modern UI. The same holds true for any operating system, of course, but modern UI browsers are either built for touch or built to work like a traditional PC browser. The right interface for you depends greatly on your device and input method.

The modern version of Internet Explorer 10 proved frustrating without a touchscreen. The focus on full-screen viewing forces frequent right-clicks to reveal any open tabs or the address bar. The modern version of Google Chrome trumps IE for mouse users, because its interface emulates the desktop version almost perfectly. Also, Chrome’s extensions have made the jump to the modern interface, a key point when all your passwords are locked up in LastPass and you’re partial to using Vimium for browser navigation.

Twitter’s Windows 8 app, a recent entry to the Windows Store, sated my thirst for microblogging, but Facebook has yet to make an official appearance on Windows 8. So I stuck to the website. I found a few Facebook apps in the Windows Store, but meh.

The same goes for the social features in the People app. Meh. Windows 8’s Calendar and Mail apps are functional enough, if a bit clunky and bare-bones. The Calendar app doesn’t play nice with Google Calendar and is missing functionality you can find in Microsoft’s own Outlook.com calendar, while the Mail app won’t work with POP3 email accounts. Stick to online services if you can, as the communications options in the Windows Store are as bleak as the productivity selection.

But enough productivity talk! The workday isn’t complete without a little music.

Xbox Music follows the standard Windows 8 design aesthetic.

Spotify handles my tunage needs on the desktop, but with no modern UI version in sight, a hunt for alternatives began. Many top streaming services are no-shows in the Windows Store, but Windows 8’s baked-in, ad-supported Xbox Music service (there’s also an ad-free premium version for $10 per month) fit the bill well enough. Part of the larger Windows 8 Music app, Xbox Music streams millions of songs on demand, and it includes the Smart DJ feature that plays an uninterrupted radio-esque stream of music related to a particular artist.

The lack of a YouTube app stung, though. Back to the Web!

The annoyances: Surprisingly few

A large part of an operating system’s overall ease has to do with the little things. Unfortunately, some of Windows 8’s finer details became annoying after a week of solid use.

Many of the modern UI’s controls are hidden behind a right-click or swipe, which—as some UI experts have pointed out—makes the learning curve overly steep. When I first started using the Windows Store, for example, I had no idea you could get back to the Store’s homepage by right-clicking to get a Home link. Even when I did remember this, it took me a long time to resist the impulse to constantly hit the Store’s back button to get back to the front page.

Moving forward, Microsoft’s Snap feature is wonderful, but it’s irritating that the screen real estate is limited to a 75-25 split. A 50-50 split would be a huge boon for multitasking. Windows Blue will allegedly add that option, but for now, it’s a serious annoyance since many apps lose navigational abilities sitting in the smaller Snap panel.

Notice the Twitter app Snapped to the left of the screen.

Windows 8 also has a long way to go in terms of overall system integration. When I wanted to add some Android APK files to SkyDrive, for example, I hit the app’s upload button and navigated to the Downloads folder, where the files were located. But my Downloads folder is massive, and I knew finding the APKs was going to be a hassle.

At first I thought I’d search for them, but when selected the Search icon in the Charms Bar, Windows kicked me out of the file-picking dialog box and back into SkyDrive—exactly where my files weren’t.

Next, I tried to search for the files from the Start screen, hoping to then use the Share charm to move my files into SkyDrive. That didn’t work either. In the end, I had to scroll through my entire downloads folder to find the APKs I wanted—not a huge deal, but one of those little annoyances that can really waste time when you have to repeat the action several times during the day.

Can you live in Metro alone?

After spending a week in modern UI exile, I can conclusively say that you can survive without the traditional desktop. In fact, the modern UI is downright efficient once you get used to it, even with a mouse and a nontouch display.

Living a modern life isn’t always easy, though.

Right now, today, the Windows Store simply doesn’t have the apps you need to support a full-time workload. That means you’ll need to rely on Web apps more often than not: For social networking, basic productivity, communications, read-it-later lists, IMDb, YouTube, and much more.

Which begs the question: Is living a Web-centric life in the premium-priced modern UI all that different from living life in the budget-priced Chrome OS?

On second thought, maybe that’s a discussion for another day.

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