Microsoft has created a very confused and confusing operating system. Windows 8 has two personalities, and they don't seem to like each other very much.
The main one, Metro, is entirely new (at least for PC users). Designed for a touchscreen device such as a tablet, it presents your installed programs (otherwise known as apps) as big, rectangular "tiles" on a flat background called the Start Screen. Tiles act more like Android widgets than traditional Windows shortcuts; you can use them to launch a program, but they can also display live information.
Metro may prove quick, convenient, and intuitive to tablet users--especially novices. But experienced Windows users will have to learn everything from scratch. For instance, you can't shut it down by clicking the Start button because there is no Start button.
And even when they learn Metro, they won't like the limitations. For instance, it's not hierarchical. You can choose what programs appear on the Start screen (another view shows you all programs), but you can't organize your programs into subgroups for accessories, photo programs, and so on.
Another problem: This version of Windows has no windows. Metro can't display more than two programs at a time--and it can't even display that many if your screen's resolution is less than 1366 x 768. When you do display two programs, they're tiled, not overlapped.
Windows 8's other personality, Desktop, is merely a Metro app. Meant to run "legacy" programs, it looks like Windows 7, except…once again, no Start button--or Start menu. I can't believe that Microsoft failed to realize what a serious omission this is. Convenient and intuitive from its Windows 95 birth, the Start menu has grown and improved until, in Windows 7, it's a work of functional beauty. With Windows 8, Microsoft has neither kept it, improved on it, or replaced it with something equally useful. Instead, they've simply dumped it.
The Desktop's legacy programs and Metro's new apps are entirely different beasts, and not meant to cooperate with each other. For instance, Windows 8 comes with separate Metro and Desktop versions of Internet Explorer. And when I say separate, I mean separate. Save a favorite URL in one of them and it will not show up in the other.
My only hope: That market forces compel Microsoft to keep Windows 7 on the market until they either restore the Start button or come up with something better.
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Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at email@example.com, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter, or subscribe to the Answer Line newsletter, e-mailed weekly.