What’s the Deal with Windows 8?

Microsoft has released its latest version of Windows, and it’s been a while since an operating system upgrade has generated as much press – both positive and negative. So what’s the deal? Should you good upgrade, or not?

(The short answer: Probably not. Read on for details, if you care to.)

The main thing that makes it a “big deal” is that Microsoft has completely changed the main user interface. Instead of starting up to your Desktop, where you can see files and folders, you go to a Start Screen, which shows tiles that launch programs, open websites, and display information. For instance, one tile can have an icon for Microsoft Word, another for Gmail, another a picture for one of your contacts, another the weather conditions in your area. The tiles can be sized differently, so the weather tile can show a summary forecast with big enough text for you to read it, while the tile for an app just shows a familiar icon.

Of course, there are dozens of under-the-hood changes, changes in the various Control Panel windows, and even a new Internet Explorer. You can easily share pictures and links to Twitter, Facebook, and Windows Live Mail (and with some help, even Gmail or Yahoo Mail). The designers at Microsoft did a lot of research into how people use Windows in order to decide what changes to make. (Some interesting details and Explorer history are at http://blogs.msdn.com/b/b8/archive/2011/08/29/improvements-in-windows-explorer.aspx).

That all sounds kind of neat, doesn’t it? So what’s missing?

The Start Menu, for one. Well, it’s still there, but in Microsoft’s new design, the Start Menu and several other central features of the interface are hidden until you use key combinations or mouse gestures to reveal them. That really takes away from any intuitiveness in the interface. You can’t just go hunting through the Start Menu, and find things you’re looking for – like the option to shut down or restart your computer.

The Windows Explorer (where you see your files and folders) isn’t readily apparent, but you can get to it – but it has changed a bit, as well. The main difference you’ll see is the “Ribbon” across the top of each folder window, with some of the most commonly-used commands. If you’ve used Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010, you’ve seen the Ribbon interface there.

One other big change is the way in which Windows 8 displays the windows for multiple programs. Simply put, it doesn’t. Every app or web page or document always runs in full-screen. If you’re used to switching between windows using your mouse, you’ll have to get used to the Alt-Tab key combination for switching. (I’ve always found that easier, anyway, but others may find that it may take some getting used to.)

Why did Microsoft make these kinds of changes? Because they are trying to make one single operating system that runs on phones, tablets, and personal computers. (That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but its basically true.) The newest Windows smartphones run Windows 8, Microsoft’s new Surface tablet/laptop hybrid runs Windows 8 (or a variant called Windows RT), and other PC vendors are bringing Windows 8 tablets to market.

Microsoft is trying to position its operating system to survive in what has been called the “Post-PC” age. Tablets and smartphones are becoming many people’s primary computing and information-access devices. Apple’s iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) and Google’s Android on mobile devices are getting a lot more attention than “boring old computers.”

The problem that I see (and that others have commented on, as well) is that in trying to make a single interface for both a touchscreen device and a keyboard-and-mouse device, the interface is lacking when you don’t have BOTH a touchscreen and a keyboard-and-mouse setup. The tiles of the Start screen are great for tablets and smartphones, and the full-screen display of any app you’re on makes reasonable sense. But multitasking functionality, such as switching between apps and using copy-and-paste to move data between apps really is much better suited to the traditional desktop/laptop situation.

A touchscreen is great for a tablet that you’re using while carrying around, or using to read and web surf on the couch. Keyboard-and-mouse control is great for working with multiple windows and manipulating data between programs, or moving files around. However, trying to use a device that has both the traditional input and control method of keyboard-and-mouse AND a touchscreen has not caught on. Mostly because it’s awkward to do touchscreen operations on a screen that’s sitting up behind the keyboard you’re typing on. Moving your hands between mouse, keyboard, and screen isn’t comfortable to use.

So, the question is, should you upgrade?

If you’re a technically-savvy person, who can figure things out on your own… well, you’re probably not reading my opinion! You’ve probably already upgraded, or are planning to! Go for it!

If you’re someone who just wants your computer to do the things you need it to do, and you’re just wondering about Windows 8 because of all the buzz around it, then I’d say, “NO!” It won’t make you more productive, and it won’t gain you any real important functionality that you don’t have with Windows 7. If you’re used to Windows 7 (or even Windows XP or Vista), stick with it, until there is some real compelling reason to upgrade. If you get a new computer, make sure you can get it with Windows 7 before you buy.

That being said, Windows 8 is a compelling tablet operating system, for a device you use in addition to a computer. If you’re interested in using only a tablet for your primary computing device, a Windows 8 tablet is a compelling alternative to an iPad or Android tablet, though most Windows tablets are more expensive. (Pricing on these kinds of things will change over time, of course, and I expect pricing on all types of tablets to get a bit more competitive.)

As always, if you have questions, complaints, rebuttals, etc. click here to contact me.