What is it?
A mess. The latest operating system that the majority of computers will be running. All new PCs from the hardware manufacturers will ship with it. It’s a big deal and it seems half baked.
Most of the computers in use in the world today run Microsoft’s Windows Operating System (OS). I won’t go in to the rise of computing and how this came to be over the late 80’s and the 90’s as that’s a long story. It’s safe to say though that if you have used a computer at any time chances are it was running Windows. The OS is everywhere, from homes and offices to window displays and nuclear submarines. Yes, no matter how many times you see action movies with the cool, sleek, well designed interfaces, they are just as much a fabrication as the rest of the props. The rusty and unsecure old Windows 2000 and Windows XP run the show.
So when the company that makes the OS that the world knows, it’s a big deal. A few years ago Microsoft released Windows 7 to atone for the sins of Windows Vista which had ruined Microsoft’s reputation. Many PC vendors offered to take new computers back from customers and put Windows XP on them.
Over a year ago, Microsoft announced that they were going to release a new OS that would be a huge shift for the company. Windows 8, the touch based future of the Microsoft Corporation. The past and the present for Apple and Google. Over the development time, the company kept an excruciatingly detailed blog, updating the world on their progress and issuing development builds. I was impressed. Many of us were. Were we more impressed out of state of desperation for something new and better? Probably.
Here we are with the released OS, so what have we been left with. (Said version of the final build received updates after it was released to the manufacturers, so customer will have updates to do the first time they use their new computers.)
Why all the fuss?
As mentioned above, the crux of the fuss is that this is the world’s operating system, so changes to it are important. So what has happened? Well Microsoft dragged the design aesthetic using their Windows Mobile 7 interface. During the development, it was called Metro UI. A legal threat put the end to that and it’s now known as Modern UI.
What’s this new user interface business?
The Modern UI is radical. It really is. Visually is a breath of fresh air. The clean lines, the vibrant colours the flowing rectangles and live updating information, really do make it feel like you’re using a ‘connected device’. But to navigate around these tiles you can only really use touch screen. While, the interface does work with a keyboard and mouse in theory, in practice, it’s dreadful and clumsy.
There are some changes with how to navigate the computer (something that is not made clear to the user when they first use the OS), the ‘Windows Key’ on the keyboard now returns you to the home screen from any app you might be in. A swipe from the right or a mouse over and awkward click the right side of the screen brings up the ‘Charms Bar’ where you can access Search, Settings (only one set of settings mind you), Devices and and on screen Windows Key. This is really only handy when you’re viewing your pictures from SkyDrive and other social networks as you can share immediately with our ruining them with filters.
There’s also a Windows App Store, that is your gateway to applications designed for this new full screen OS. It’s baron in there at the moment, but this is due to increase rapidly as the OS is hopefully adopted world-wide.
But the world is not all Modern UI. The classic desktop still exists and has been revised.
Now that the Start screen is your main access hub, Microsoft have chosen to remove the Start button, first introduced in Windows 95. Yes, the Start button has gone. It can’t be that important, surely? I mean it’s not like some manufacturers are offering software to replace that basic function (lots of sarcasm in that statement. Samsung for one are releasing an application to replace the start button among others.). Like in Windows 7, programmes can be pinned to the task bar for fast access and for the standard Windows workflow that so many people are used too.
Inside the classic desktop mode, the operating system as received a lot of beating up. Gone is the bling of Vista and 7. It’s like the desktop has been mugged. There is a lovely inconstancy with the left over task bar that has a transparent hue. The rest of the windows are in block colours. This makes it harder to see which window is actually active. There’s no shadows to help either, all the visual cues to depth have been removed.
The Explorer windows have been slapped with the ribbon that was introduced with Microsoft Office 2007. This was panned critically and by users but Microsoft chose not to listen. Why have drop down menus when you can have menus that go sideways! There’s a wealth of options available to the user from the ribbon and there is one small but major change with Explorer’s file manager. Copying. Yes, the copying & moving dialogue has been completely engineered and now works and gives accurate information on the time left. No longer does copying a 50Mb file to a thumb drive take 30 seconds – 1 hour – 10 mins – 120 seconds – 1 day – complete.
Included with Windows 8 is Internet Explorer 10. Well strictly, two versions of Internet Explorer 10. It has a version in the ‘Tablet Mode’ that allows for every website to be full screen and hides the URL bar off at the bottom of the screen, only visible when needed and a bugger to get on screen using a keyboard and mouse setup. When in the classic desktop mode, IE 10 resembles IE9. Not a bad thing, but it now looks out of place with the rest of the OS. The new version of IE will be available to computers using Windows 7 in the future. If you are a web designer or developer for instance, you’re going to need to be testing IE 10 in both Windows 8 and 7 as well as IE 9 in Windows 7 and Vista and if you’re unlucky IE 8 in Windows 7, Vista and XP.
There is one saving grace of IE 10 though, it actually works as a standards compliant browser.
What’s the difference between Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT?
Moronically, Microsoft have released two main version of the Windows 8 operating system to confuse customers. Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT.
The difference is easy to explain, Windows 8 is for computers that we know and recognise, using Intel and AMD processors, in regular laptops, desktops and all in ones.
Windows 8 RT is only for tablets and tablet hybrids. Devices that are built using ARM processors, similar to the type in side iPads and Android Tablets. These are generally lower cost than the full machines, meaning that you can buy a Windows 8 RT tablet but you would need to buy a computer with Windows 8 to use software that you already have. Applications that have not been rewritten to work on the Windows 8 RT and then submitted for distribution through Microsoft’s Windows App Store will not work on a Windows 8 RT tablet.
Clear? Clear as mud.
Microsoft have a habit of releasing gimped versions of its operating system, Vista was poster child for this. This time though, the versions are hardware limited. It makes harder for customers to understand. When they walk in to their local computer store they will be faced with a bevy of new machines to choose from. Presented with two hybrid tablets, one at £600 and one at £1100, is the user going to care about the ‘RT’ thing? No of course not. They will go with the £600 machine, go home and try to install iTunes and fail. Then they will try other pieces of software and it will all keep failing. Back to the shops it goes. Customer leaves with a Mac as a replacement.
Microsoft have a tablet operating system, it’s the one that is in their Windows Mobiles. This should have been the OS for the tablets and the pure Windows 8 kept for high power machines that can install all applications. This would mean that Microsoft’s tablets would come with over 100k apps at launch and help generate the ecosystem. It’s what I would have done, but then again, I don’t work for Microsoft.
Why is this better than Windows 7?
It’s the future! The future of Windows moves us away from the same structure of desktop computing that we have been locked in to for the last two decades. The warm blanket of efficient computing used by a billion people that in Microsoft’s opinion needs changing. The Modern UI is enough for the majority of home computer users. Pictures, Social, Email, Internet and Apps. That is where personal computing is heading. Apple saw this a few years ago with Lion and enabled full screen apps and the ability to swipe through them. Microsoft have taken this idea and added the ability to split screen apps. Not really useful on 10 inch screen.
On my test machine, it works quicker than Windows 7 and really feels lighter and more nimble operating system. This is most likely comes from the removal of the Areo style from the user interface.
What kind of computer should I buy?
The market for new computers ruining Windows 8 is exploding! PC manufactures had held back new machines till Windows 8 came out. Mostly, they were annoyed that Microsoft were going to launch their own devices. To get the best out of the new operating system, the only choice is a device with a touch screen.
A number of hybrid tablet laptops are coming on to the scene. Some will be typical tablets coming with Windows 8 RT and some will be tablets that are more like fully fledged laptops, cut in half. These come with Windows 8 and will have a wealth of expandability (USB drives, camera, anything you can think to plug in) to them like no tablet devices ever launched.
For the first time, Microsoft have jumped in to the hardware game (well, computers, they have made peripherals for eons) with their Surface tablets. These devices are great pieces of design and are likely to emulate Google’s Nexus line, signalling to manufactures what the operating system can be when combined with the right hardware. But this will bread the same issues in the hardware world that we have with smartphones, where manufacturers try very hard to differentiated themselves by having mad screen sizes, ripped off designed and low quality materials.
There are two versions of the Surface, the RT and the ‘Pro’. The Surface RT comes running Windows 8 RT and the ‘Pro’ comes running full Windows 8. There is no launch date for the ‘Pro’ version as of yet.
Windows 8, as the future of Microsoft. A unified style that is carried over the Microsoft family. PC, Tablet, Mobile, Xbox all sharing the same grid based layout. This really helps build the ecosystem that Microsoft have been so desperately needing to combat Google and Apple. But they have damaged the potential of the ecosystem by releasing two versions, one of which is heavily compromised for regular users.
There are other very annoying issues with the usability. For example some application bounce you out of the Modern UI in to the classic desktop mode without warning. This is very jarring for a user. The flow of using the computer has been hampered by speed bumps like this. Matted to the issues of using this system with a keyboard and mouse renders the OS almost unusable.
This is deeply disappointing. There was so much potential and there are some great features but the fact that there are major faults with the OS expose some of the issues still with in Microsoft. There are smart and passionate people working for the monolith and that shines through the good bits, but the old Microsoft lingers around the new system like weeds in a beautiful garden.
For an alternate take on this review, click here.