Reviewing an operating system is an odd endeavor, because people don’t really use operating systems; they use applications. The OS should be as transparent as possible, acting as a platform for applications. In today’s cloud-driven world, however, the notion that your application will run in a single OS is tenuous at best. Toss in the increasing use of smart devices, whether phones or tablets, and the idea of a single-platform operating system is less relevant now than it was just a few years ago. These days we have “ecosystems”—Microsoft, Apple, or Google, take your pick.
That said, PC users still expect their Windows applications to run as before, and they want to have the same control over their laptop and desktop computers as they’ve always had. New software features should enable users to do more. And as the reaction to the late, unlamented Windows Vista illustrated, all the shiny new bells and whistles should not harm performance or require new hardware.
Can Windows 8 meet its goal of being one aspect of a new Microsoft ecosystem while maintaining its roots in the PC? Can existing computers run Windows 8 without the need for expensive new touch displays? Will the revamped Windows 8 user interface turn off existing Windows users or pull them into the ecosystem? I’ll try to answer those questions and others as I dive deeply into Windows 8.
This review is based on the Windows 8 final release—what Microsoft calls the “release to manufacturing,” or RTM, version. The final release is available to Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers. Desktop PCs, laptops, and tablets ship with Windows 8 preinstalled on the official launch day, October 26.
We ran Windows 8 on a moderately high-end desktop system along with a standard (nontouch) monitor, mouse, and keyboard. We also used a Samsung Series 9 laptop with an Elan touchpad supporting full multitouch gestures.
The Windows 8 user interface
Windows 8 tries to get you to tie your Windows login to your Microsoft account; it’s optional, but if you do link the two, the Windows login and password serve as your Microsoft account login and password. Enabling this link allows tighter integration with the remote and cloud-based features of the new OS.
As mentioned previously, Windows 8 is designed to be part of an ecosystem, alongside Windows Phone and Windows RT. Microsoft believes in this idea so strongly that it has made the Windows 8 user interface (formerly called Metro) the primary interface for Windows users. PCs with the new OS installed will boot into the Windows 8 interface; the OS offers no built-in way to set it to boot to the traditional Windows desktop.
The Windows 8 interface acts as the Start menu now. Instead of appearing as columns of small icons that pop up when you click the Start button, all your applications show up as tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen. You can also search for an application by typing its name when you’re in the Start screen; the results list autosorts as you type more characters.
It’s important to realize that the Start screen is no more Windows 8 than the Start menu was Windows 7 or Windows XP. The screen exists as a launchpad for applications, not as a desktop replacement. That concept is easy to forget, since the Start screen occupies the entire display. Even so, Windows 8 apps consume the entire screen, whereas desktop applications can still run in a window on the desktop.
However, not all desktop applications appear on the Start screen by default. Some accessory apps, such as Paint, live in the Apps screen. You can force these programs to appear in the Start screen by right-clicking them to select them and then clicking Pin to Start at the bottom of the screen. Nevertheless, getting to the Apps screen is simple: Right-click a blank area in the Start screen and then click the All apps icon at the lower right.
This is where you’ll run into a fundamental change in how you interact with Windows. Previously, right-clicking an object on the desktop always brought up a context menu, giving you a choice of actions to take. In the Windows 8 interface (but not the desktop), right-clicking now produces a bar at the bottom of the screen containing assorted context-sensitive items. It’s a jarring change, but the arrangement makes sense within the context (no pun intended) of a touch-based display such as a tablet’s. (Context-clicking still works the same way when you’re in the Windows desktop.)
Live tiles are among the key features of the Windows 8 Start screen. While normal (non-live) tiles measure 150 by 150 pixels, most live tiles are double-wide (310 by 150 pixels) and display dynamic information. The People tile, for instance, shows you tweets and Facebook posts from your feeds, assuming that you’ve set them up. As you install apps from the Microsoft Store, more dynamic tiles may appear. Live tiles first appeared in a broad fashion in Windows Phone 7 and Xbox 360 updates, but will exist across all Microsoft platforms going forward.
Navigating the Start screen is easy. If you’re using a mouse with a wheel, moving the wheel scrolls left and right. If you’re using a touchpad, swiping left and right (with one finger) scrolls the tile list. You can drag individual tiles to any location.
Navigating the desktop
Microsoft now partitions applications into “Windows 8” apps (formerly known as “Metro” apps) and desktop applications. The latter are those programs we all know and love from previous versions of Windows, including Microsoft Office.
You cannot boot directly into the desktop, since Microsoft wants the Start screen to be users’ initial experience with Windows 8. For most people, this restriction may not be an issue, but certain vertical applications (specialized programs, such as those for point-of-sale PCs) need to boot directly into a desktop environment. Until Windows 8 versions of such programs become available, users requiring vertical applications should stick with earlier versions of Windows.
If all you need to do is launch an application, you can simply click its tile in the Start screen. If you need robust file management and navigation features, you have to access the desktop. After you boot the machine, pressing the Windows key sends you to the desktop. Unfortunately, the Windows key isn’t consistent in this behavior: If you’re in an app, pressing the Windows key always returns you to the Start screen. Press it again, and you’re in the most recent Windows 8 app. Instead, to move to the desktop consistently, you need to be in the habit of pressing Windows-D. Another option is to move the pointer to the lower left of the screen and click there (though this method works only if you have used no other app recently).
Except for the omission of a Start menu, the desktop mostly behaves the same in Windows 8 as it did in Windows 7. So how do you reach commonly used features such as the Control Panel, the file explorer, and the Run command? Move your pointer to the lower-left corner and right-click, ignoring the Start-screen peek that pops up. This is the simplified Start menu; you can also bring it up by pressing Windows-X. Or you might prefer to use the search function, entering “Control Panel” or “Run” as the search terms.
Microsoft has chosen to leave the Windows 8 desktop bare, as it did with Windows 7. Given the absence of the old-style Start menu, you may wish to add the system and user-file icons by right-clicking the desktop and selecting the Personalize menu. After you have added those two icons, you can pin them to the Windows 8 Start screen.
Connecting to networks is easier than ever, once you have installed the right drivers. Windows 8 enumerates and displays all of your networked devices—including DLNA devices, network folders you’ve set up, and other computers residing on the network—in any file manager window.
The appearance of individual windows has changed. Gone are the faux transparency and the fake beveled edges, replaced by a completely flat appearance. If you click one of the menu items (such as ‘File’), each window will show a Ribbon similar to the Office 2010 Ribbon. (The Ribbon isn’t sticky, though; it shows up only when you click one of the top-menu items.) The Ribbon contains, in one location, all the information that previous versions displayed in a series of menus and submenus.
Ultimately, navigating the new desktop is similar to getting around the old version, but the absence of a full Start menu may throw you off at first. Using hotkeys, and customizing the desktop and Start screen, might help you become more comfortable in the short run. Once you get used to navigating the system, it’s as transparent as the old one—just different.
Windows 8 isn't for everyone. If you're mostly a desktop PC user comfortable with Windows 7, upgrading to Windows 8 is probably not worthwhile. If you're a mobile user who needs easy access to the complete Microsoft ecosystem, including SkyDrive, Windows 8 is definitely a good fit. If your needs lie somewhere between those two extremes, give Windows 8 a close look; the cost is low, but you'll need to learn your way around the new Start screen and make sure that your existing software runs well in the new OS.
- New, improved file system
- Easier recovery from system problems
- Better integration with the cloud
- The missing Start menu will drive some people nuts
- Overly aggressive when it comes to selling apps and content
- Some aspects of the OS are unnecessarily confusing