It's what's inside that counts
C’mon, folks, cut Microsoft some slack. Whipping Windows 8 might be all the rage, but Windows didn’t grow to be, well, Windows—the all-encompassing king of the desktop—out of sheer luck. (No antitrust jokes, please.)
Beyond the vilified modern UI lies a bounty of basic desktop functions that blow the competition out of the water. Seriously. Remember how hard Windows 7 rocked? All that awesome is still there in Windows 8, just buried beneath Live Tiles. Speaking of which, while we were all busy whining about those shifty squares, Microsoft snuck some handy functionality into the modern UI—aspects of which have no peers among Windows’ rivals.
Can Windows 8 get better? Definitely--Windows 10 is already looking like a tremendous step forward. But in a lot of ways, it’s already the best desktop OS around.
Vast software library
Let’s get the low-hanging fruit out of the way. One of the biggest assets of Windows 8 is its vast, deep collection of available software. (I’m talking about desktop apps, not those on the Windows Store.) Sure, Mac apps are slick and streamlined, and, yeah, Linux can cover your basic needs fairly well. But neither holds a candle to the cornucopia of programs available for The OS That Bill Gates Built. Chrome OS? Pffft. I dig the vision and experience, but sometimes life goes beyond the browser.
A big part of Windows 8’s dominance in this category can be chalked up to its next triumph…
The entire modern UI was built to showcase the apps in Microsoft’s new Windows Store—but Windows 8 also runs the classic desktop software you know and love. Heck, you can still pop open the command line in Microsoft’s latest and greatest, so you still have the ability to run all those ancient DOS programs you probably should’ve forgotten about years ago.
Microsoft doesn’t leave programs behind, no matter how outdated they are. (Yet.) Compare that with Apple’s approach of ruthlessly killing off software the second it even starts to smell stale.
One last software topic before I stop beating this dead horse, I promise. How do you get the best gaming experience on Linux or Mac? Run Windows 8 games in Wine (on Linux) or in Parallels or Boot Camp (on Mac). ’Nuff said.
Steam on Linux is intriguing, but it’s still in the bush leagues when it comes to game support. As for Google’s operating system, my one wish is that someday, somehow, I’ll be able to play Bioshock Infinite on the otherwise glorious Chromebook Pixel.
But enough about third-party programs! Let’s shine some light on an excellent aspect of the modern UI. People love iCloud, but Windows 8’s syncing options exceed Apple’s in almost every respect. If you have an online Microsoft account, you can choose to sync a wide array of items to any Windows 8 computer you log in to, including Start-screen aesthetics, passwords, app settings, desktop preferences, browser particulars, and tons more. It’s wonderful, and nothing else compares.
Even better, Windows Blue is said to offer additional impressive syncing options, including the ability to transfer tethered Bluetooth hardware associations across multiple machines seamlessly. How cool is that?
Native Web browser
Bash Internet Explorer all you want, but it’s gotten a lot better ever since Firefox hit the scene, and it’s easily the best Web browser natively available on any major desktop operating system. Admit it: Safari ain’t great. Some Linux installs run Firefox or Chromium out of the box, and that’s excellent—except for the fact that many Linux installs run a lesser browser such as Midori or Konqueror. Luck of the draw, I guess.
Chrome OS ships with Google Chrome (duh), which is better than IE in almost every way, touch versions aside—but barely anybody uses Chrome OS. And then there’s the next embarrassing little tidbit…
Just look at that graph. It shows off the number of exploits Symantec discovered targeting each of the major browsers in 2011 and 2012. Ditch Opera—which doesn’t ship with any major desktop OS by default—and shockingly, IE is left as the most secure browser among the big dogs.
Sorry, Chrome. I still love you, but you need some help.
Widespread peripheral compatibility
Want your printer or gaming mouse to run on your Mac or Ubuntu box? It’ll probably work, but there’s some dice rolling involved, especially for you Linux lovers. A couple of Apple-branded pieces aside, virtually every hardware peripheral supports Windows PCs. Every peripheral. Did you know that Apple pretty much invented the FireWire and Thunderbolt connectors? It’s true—and those ports are still available on Windows computers.
Yup, it’s good to be the king.
While we’re on the topic of hardware, let’s talk monitors. More specifically, let’s talk lots of monitors.
Display die-hards love Windows 8’s deeply improved multi-monitor functionality—it’s a huge step up over Windows 7’s several-screen support. Is it perfect? Nope. But it’s pretty darned good, and an absolute cinch to set up.
Macs and Linux boxes have dead-simple multi-monitor software, too, but they can be a hassle to set up on the hardware side. Mac desktops drive video via Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt connectors. Both technologies are utterly awesome, don’t get me wrong—but neither is anywhere near as ubiquitous as HDMI, DVI, or VGA. Linux multiple-monitor support works great, except for when it doesn’t. Finding working monitor drivers can occasionally be a hassle, and Linux sometimes stutters while trying to drive multi-monitor setups in multi-GPU rigs.
This one’s close. Apple’s Spotlight—the search feature built into Macs—is handy indeed. But when you get down to brass tacks, Windows 8’s Search charm is better.
Again, Windows 8’s Search isn’t perfect. Unlike in previous versions of Windows, it isn't unified; the Search charm dredges up installed programs alone on the first pass, and you have to click separate listings to see the Settings and Files results. But, crucially, the Search charm also allows you to sift through specific apps to locate more-narrow results, seamlessly and quickly. It’s a wonderful feature. Plus, if your systemwide (or app-narrow) search comes up fruitless, you can select the Bing app within the Search charm to scour the Web for your precious item, lickety-split.
Between its superb multiple-monitor support, intelligent programming grouping in the taskbar, Jump Lists, the ever-handy Peek feature, Snap (it works on the desktop, too!), and good ol’ Alt-Tab, Windows 8 is the crème de la crème of multitasking—as long as you stay out of the modern UI, that is.
It may not be as gorgeous as OS X’s Mission Control, but Windows 8’s taskbar-based multitasking is gobs more effective from a workflow standpoint, especially if you have a plethora of programs open. All Windows 8 is missing is virtual-desktop support... which is coming in Windows 10.
The new-car smell
After a few trips around the block, Windows starts to feel a bit…worn. Installed programs add up, things slow down, and your computer simply doesn’t respond as well as it did fresh out of the box. In ye olden days, that was your cue to back up your data, wipe your hard drive, and completely reinstall the OS. Windows 8’s awesome new Refresh option takes the hassle out of the process, keeping your files, settings, and modern UI apps while otherwise reinstalling the entire operating system—and it does so in fairly brisk fashion.
If you want to go whole hog, Windows 8’s new Reset option returns your PC to its factory state. No other operating system makes clearing out the cobwebs so seamless.
Getting things done
Don’t get me wrong: I own two Linux machines and I find a lot to like in Macs, but when it’s time to roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and just plain get things done, nothing tops a Windows machine. Far-reaching hardware and software compatibility, along with Windows 8’s excellent syncing and multitasking options, is nothing to sneeze at. Other operating systems have their place, but when you look at the complete package, Windows 8 is still the one to beat.
Sure, it has some rough spots. What OS doesn’t? Look beyond the Live Tiles, though, and you’ll see that the grass isn’t just green, it’s glistening.