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Review: Microsoft Windows 8

18 Nov 2012

The Windows 8 Start Screen (aka Metro) interface

Windows 8 is seen by many to be Microsoft's make or break moment. One more Windows Vista (or ME, remember that!!), and some believe that Microsoft could start becoming less relevant. True, Microsoft have made far less money in recent years than they did at the height of their success, true, Apple is stealing their thunder hand over fist at the moment and yes, it's also true that their CEO, Steve Ballmer appears to be a coke-sniffing maniac, hell-bent on forcing bad idea after bad idea down the throats of the Microsoft loyal at the chance of making a quick buck. However, Microsoft, for all of their forays into good and bad, are also a bloody large company that have equally large pockets, and if there is one thing that Microsoft can do well, is come back from the brink. They're trying to right now with mobile phones - think of their recent acuqisition of Nokia for example. Those Lumia phones look and feel amazing. The 920 promises to be a lovely device by all accounts, and it'll run the Windows 8 mobile platform, so that might just propel both Microsoft and Nokia back into significance in the mobile market they tried to capture and failed to so spectacularly many moons ago with a device called the Zune. Going back even further, remember if you will Microsoft MS DOS, and it's hideously ugly shell, Windows 3.1. At the same time as Microsoft were throwing that at the market, Apple had a svelte GUI in Mac OS and plenty of other players out there also had similar environments. It took Microsoft to the brink and a deal-breaker with IBM to sort themselves out and deliver the most popular operating platform of the 90's: Windows 95.

So Microsoft can do it, especially if someone gets some gaffer tape and sticks it around Steve Ballmer's lips, come together and use their imagination (and wealth) to make something as revolutionary as Windows 95 once was. But let's not beat about the bush any longer, herein lie the good, bad and ugly parts of Microsoft's new operating system, let's find out if Microsoft have what it takes.

The Good

Firstly, let me start by providing an observation. It is clear from Microsoft's direction here, as too with Apple and Google alike that this may be the last in what we can definitively call an 'Operating System'. The term Operating System harks back to the bad old days of computing where some bright spark thought that it would be handy to operate perhiperals such as disks, tapes, screens and keyboards rather than flipping a sequence of switches or levers to make a computer do anything. The system would be written in a machine language that talked at the same level as the CPU or chip inside the computer so that it could run as optimally as possible. These days, people care less and less about such trivialities, any old computer company can control most perhiperals such as screens, printers and so forth but far more importantly, all of the operating systems these days support modern TCP/IP based networking which is a global standard. So, as long as your operating system can connect you to the Internet and display pretty pictures on the screen, the role of the operating system is becoming less and less relevant as time evolves. Looking back at the previous articles on this blog about BYOD, for example, quantifies just that: staff just want the apps to work, not operating systems. Microsoft can clearly be seen to make inroads to this future state with Windows 8 here. Just like Apple and Google, when you install Windows 8 you are asked for a Microsoft Live account. If you don't have one, you can set one up for free. You can still use Windows 8 without one, however you'll not get the fully integrated experience. Just as you can't download apps from the App Store in Mac OS X without an Apple ID. Your Live ID personalises your desktop to provide you widgets that make sense to you, for example, local weather updates, regional settings and access to the Microsoft Store (yep, it's the same thing as the App Store or the Google Play/Market Place) but for Windows. Most importantly though, this gives you access to Microsoft SkyDrive. If you are not familiar with this service, think DropBox but with a sprinkling of Microsoft magic. When Office 2013 comes out soon, expect it to be very tightly integrated to allow you to save your documents by default into your SkyDrive account (much in the same way as Apple's Pages etc save to the iCloud). By default, Microsoft give you a free 5GB SkyDrive account, just be aware thought that SkyDrive currently can't handle files larger than 2GB in size, so if you've got a movie file or something equally sizeable, you probably won't be able to store it on your SkyDrive. Bummer. In addition to this, which I found rather imposing and questionable about how effectively Microsoft will police: SkyDrive doesn't allow you to upload copyrighted materials or content which holds nude or violent material. The downside for the nefariously minded out there and the upside (for Microsoft and their sponsors) about this is that people will simply store this content online elsewhere. Think Kim Dotcom's upcoming, for example.

Next, I emplore you to get in your car right now and go to your closest JB-Hifi or Noel Leeming and seek out these shiny new touch screen PCs that seemingly overnight have adorned the shelves of such stores. Apart from the stains caused by a thousand little handprints, these are wonderous little computers, starting from prices as low as around $400. Unlike the tablet PC era of Windows 7 and before, you'll find that Windows 8 is a fully 10-point touch sensitive interface which was built from the word go to use a touch screen. If you are not set in your ways with the Windows interfaces of old, the new Start 'screen' is a great place to start (no pun intended) using the touch interface in anger. Microsoft have followed a bit of Apple's lead here and gone for a full-screen layout with it's Windows 8 interface (previously known as Metro). The start screen is a nicely laid-out tiled display of all your favourite apps. If you're looking for 'classic' apps such as Windows Explorer or Control Panel though, you are going to have to look a lot harder and be prepared to right click a lot. Once you've gotten used to the lack of manual layouts, the Windows Start screen is a nice place to be, especially if you have a touch screen. If you don't, using the mouse wheel to zoom between start 'tiles' is do-able but not nearly as fun. The rest of the purpose-built Windows 8 apps seem to be a wonderous, full-screen experience which, just like the full-screen experiences seen on iOS and Mac OS 10.7+ before it. Apps like IE10 for Metro (not to be confused with regular IE10, both regular and 'Metro-ified' versions ship with Windows 8) are lovely, so too are the photo galleries, weather apps, and many of the other free and nonfree apps and widgets you can download from the Microsoft Store which at writing, currently hold around 350 apps.

Behind the scenes, Windows 8 has seen some significant performance tweaks: ReFS is the new 'Resilient' file system, whilst it's not 100% compatible with NTFS, it does constantly sweep your hard drive for errors and silently tries to fix them. Whilst I argue that in this day and age, an operating system should never need to have an option to restore itsself, Windows 8 makes it a lot easier to clear up the mess. Refresh is an option which will all but restore your Windows settings to sensible defaults whilst retaining your Windows 8 (note, not your 'desktop' (read legacy) software in situ. As more titles become Windows 8-ified, this will become more useful through time. For now although, there is a full Reset option which will reinstall Windows 8 from scratch without even needing a Windows 8 disk. Speed-wise, Windows 8 feels less sluggish, if anything, than Windows 7, and from what I hear, Direct X is completely revamped and is forced upon all applications, making graphics (even 2D graphics) far smoother.

The Windows 8 Desktop, note the lack of a start button.

The Bad

Windows 8 is a game of two halves. The new Start Screen (Metro) experience is the area where Microsoft looks like they are heading, but with any company the size of Microsoft, there is tension amongst the ranks, and this is no more telling than in the strategy behind Windows 8. In one moment, the Metro interface adorns you with it's rich experience which might even have an edge over what some are calling a 'tired' iOS interface. Then, the moment you want to do something like organise your files a little better, or use the classic start menu that most Windows users will be familiar with. What ultimately will confuse almost all of the Windows 8 users is the fact that there are two interfaces, there is the Start Screen (Metro) and then there is the Desktop, which is a crippled beast of the Desktop that Windows users know and love. Why Microsoft didn't just go with one interface and change the face of Windows forever is beyond me. As I mentioned before, the Start Screen versions of apps are not the same as Desktop versions of apps and worse still, some of these apps are duplicated in each environment but as separate entities: yep, you guessed it, there are two versions of Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8 and nope, they don't talk to each other. Save a Favourite in one and you can't see that Favourite in the other. That's crazy. I really hope they will fix that in SP1! If you've ever played with the spartan desktop of Windows Server 2012 or perhaps 2008 Data Centre Editions then you'll understand the feeling of nakedness you get when you use the Windows 8 desktop.

The Ugly

The disparity of the two worlds, Start vs Desktop is a horrid juxtaposition of ideas. Microsoft are terrible at not letting go of their legacies. Software you could run in Windows 3.1 could still more or less run in every version of Windows since then. It's a great strength of theirs but it's also a bigger weakness this time around. Seriously - the customers that are using FoxPro and the likes need not to be customers for Microsoft. They need to concentrate on making newer and better interfaces. Apple get this - they make bold, sweeping changes in the name of progress- they were the first to remove the floppy disk, and whist most scoffed at the time, everyone will agree now that it had had it's day in less than a couple of years from then. Same with the old PowerPC software and chips, CD-ROM drives and CRT monitors. Microsoft can still interface with all of the above, apart from the PowerPC (but they still support software written for the 286 CPU which was made in 1984). Anyone who wants a classic Windows experience here should stick with Windows 7, anyone who wants a touch experience only should wait. Don't get Windows 8 just now, at least get it when Microsoft have released Office 2013 and converted almost everything to be a Windows Start type interface, that is, if you can live with almost every app being full screened. If you are the sort of person that likes their email, web browser and file explorer open in one screen, well you're probably out of luck by the time Windows 9 hits the shelves. Another area of disparity lies in the Microsoft apps. You would have thought if you wanted Music or Videos on a Windows platform, you wouldn't have to launch an app called Xbox Music or Xbox Video. This is made worse by the fact that there is a further separate app just called 'Store', in which you can buy Apps only. There's no simple 'Windows Media Player' like before. If you want to be playing your media, it's a fiddly affair unless you stop using Metro, sorry Start and go back to the deskop, open the Windows explorer (which isn't available in Start) and then double click your audio or video to launch the appropriate app that way. The last ugly point would have to be the fact that ARM chips are not compatible with Intel chips: There are a few versions of the PC version of Windows out there to obtain, but more confusingly, there is also an RT version which is for tablets running ARM processors (such as the Surface). It is not compatible with Windows 8 normal (Intel). So if you've got Apps on the PC and you want them to work on your surface, it's probably not going to happen, or at the least, you will have to buy an RT version of the same app. Watch out for developments in this area over the coming months to see how this pans out.

The Conclusion

Windows 8 could have been so much better. The system is a heck of a lot better under the bonnet, the speed is lovely and fast, the 10 finger touch experience is a delight and the new swathe of Metro-ized apps are nice to look at, full screen or not, but Windows 8 doesn't know what it want's to be yet and for that, it's going to confuse not only the Windows loyal, but a whole set of new perspective users. This new operating system reeks of 'Whoops, we didn't see that whole iPad thing coming, let's try and quickly squeeze a touch interface out the door'. The result is a system which has a steep learning curve, unlike it's iOS rival. It's another half-baked, could have been from Microsoft. Shame really.

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