Windows 8, the new flagship operating system from Microsoft released on October 30, 2012 has a lot riding on it. The future of Windows, and perhaps the entire future of Microsoft depend on its success. You’ll be asking yourself many questions with Windows 8 such as: Will it increase my productivity or that of my computer’s? Is it worth my money? Are Live Tiles and the new Windows 8 UI actually useful? What new features are there? Was it worth the wait? New users will encounter a steep learning curve, but is it worth it? We here at the TechfastClub have had our greasy Dorito-covered hands (cool ranch flavor, of course) all over Windows 8 and we’re here to answer all of those questions and more.
Before we begin however, we are running Windows 8 Professional Edition on an Asus 1225B netbook, so all of our discussion will be centered on the assumption that you’re running a standard mouse and keyboard setup, not a phone, tablet, or other touch optimized device.
The first thing you’re going to realize is that a lot of your life is now going to be centered on the Windows key. Yes that little key sandwiched between your “alt“ and “FN” keys means a lot with Windows 8. All of your shortcuts are now placed around it, not that there weren’t a lot of shortcuts centered around it in Windows 7, but now it’s what you’re expected to use and quite frankly what you should use in lieu of your mouse to navigate the UI, especially when you are working without a touch screen. For example, the most radical change for most people in Windows 8 will be the new layout of the start menu, becoming essentially its own full-screen app with a bunch of goodies thrown in with it. But because the start menu is an app, it means no more windows start menu orb on your desktop. That little orb that you were so dependent on since Windows 95 is no longer in the bottom left-hand corner of your desktop. Instead you will be using the windows key to pull up your start menu the majority of the time. And once you’re in the start menu, you’ll use shortcuts like Windows+D to return to your desktop. Let’s not deal with too much of the specifics or details like that though, you can read the manual if you desire. Instead, let’s first focus on the aforementioned start menu.
Much like all of Microsoft’s recent products (i.e. Windows Phone 8, Windows Surface, etc.), Windows 8 utilizes what are known as live tiles. A tile is a link/shortcut to a program on your computer. If you click on one, it will take you out of the start menu (if necessary) and open that program on your computer just like any normal icon would have on a Windows 7 desktop. As you can see from my screenshot, you can have a live tile for pretty much anything. These live tiles are dynamic and will change/update on the fly, scrolling through the day’s news stories, flipping through your picture collection, or displaying the weather outside all without you having to have go open an internet browser. Granted, there were many third-party programs that could accomplish the feat before such as Rainmeter, but they were always a little bit harder to control and manipulate, and none of them did it as seamlessly as Windows 8 does. Tiles can be added, dropped, made smaller, or have basic appearances changed. They’re actually a nice little touch to what would otherwise be a pointless extension of the start menu. If anything, they make things prettier and automatically update without you having to go under the hood which many users will find a luxury.
Before I go on, it’s important to make a distinction here between programs and apps. Apps are programs that are installed from the Windows Store and automatically appear as tiles in your start menu. They are similar to what you would find on your phone from your local app store. A program is a full 32-bit or 64-bit program that will boot on your normal Windows desktop and be run from that desktop. In short, apps are from the windows store, programs are everything else. Okay, time to move on.
The way you procure live tiles will also be very intuitive to smartphone users from any platform. Just as there’s the App Store on iOS or Google Play Store on Android, your apps can be downloaded from the Windows Store. You can browse through Top Paid, Top Free, Games, Productivity Apps, and the like just as you would on your smartphone. Apps install with the click of a button and will appear as tiles on your start menu. What’s cool about these apps however is that they are designed to be used to on your Windows 8 devices and can be shared across all platforms via a Microsoft Live account, which will now act as a gateway between for synchronizing settings across your Windows 8 devices. This means that if you download/buy an app on your phone like the ever-popular Angry Birds game, you can have that app on your computer as well in most cases (granted there are apps in the store that are solely for one type of device). These new apps actually make it much easier to browse Reddit through the “Reddit to Go” app, or post and follow others on Twitter through the “Tweetro” app. They make browsing a synch and they open up quicker than going to a web browser and navigating to a particular website. Many times, that’s all you want to do on your laptop or tablet anyway, and it’s actually quite a nice little feature. Coupled with the fact that I found those apps quickly and easily, and installed them just as quickly and easily from the Windows Store makes the experience all that more valuable.
This doesn’t mean you couldn’t install programs the same way you have in the past either, as long as it’s currently compatible with Windows 8 (that little caveat will be discussed later). You’ll notice on my start menu I still have Microsoft Word, League of Legends, and iTunes programs installed and appearing as tiles. As a quick side note, I’m beginning to love the basic Windows 8 pre-installed apps such as their mail client, music/photo viewers etc. The mail app is the most simple and elegant client I’ve used in my entire life and it just works. It’s fast and has full functionality with no additional bells and whistles.
To be honest, we love the new start menu. We think that it makes a lot of sense and offers an extra level of polish on top of what is already a great Windows experience. It only seems to add onto things like an improved search function, and the ability to create your own custom tiles. The only problem is that it feels like this UI is just screaming to be swiped. The overall layout of Windows 8 start menu is similar to any Windows phone UI and works amazingly well for touch, and it’s quite a shame that you can’t do it on your desktop. It doesn’t distract from the overall experience, but just leaves you pointlessly dragging your finger across the screen from right to left, and you can’t help but feel like this would work better on a touch-enabled device
When it comes to your basic desktop, the UI is left largely the same other than the missing start button. Windows still stack and appear on the taskbar the same way and there’s still a notification area in the bottom right. The main difference that you’ll notice is that to access some features like settings, you’ll have to use the charms menu (Windows+C). The charms menu is a small menu that can be accessed by moving your mouse into the upper-right or bottom-right hand corner of the screen. It pulls up a small sidebar that you can use to search your computer, share files or folders online through SkyDrive or other apps, pull up the start menu, a devices menu that will let you play around with any peripheral that’s plugged into your computer be it a second monitor or an external hard drive, and the settings menu (the equivalent of control panel, although there still is a control panel in case you wanted to use it). This adds an additional option for accessing your settings and devices in case you didn’t want to use the keyboard shortcuts. The search and settings options are on text-aware, meaning that you can use it to search while you’re in an app or to trigger searches across files and settings. From the settings menu you also will be forced to access your shut down button, unless you use the physical one provided on your device if there is one, or press Alt+F4 while on the desktop. It’s somewhat of a silly place to put it, hidden way out of view and will likely frustrate first time users not knowing any keyboard shortcuts.
If you hover your cursor over the upper-left hand corner of the screen, it will bring up a sidebar menu that contains all of your open apps. You can use this to switch inbetween apps, much as you would use Alt+Tab to switch inbetween programs/windows on Windows 7, which you can still do in Windows 8. Whats been improved about it however, is the snap to left/right feature. On Windows 7, many people remember one of the best new features was being able to drag a window to the left or right of the screen, and it would automatically resize that window to fit that half of the screen. As simple as that was, it was an amazing step forward for easily multitasking with windows. In Windows 8, they have taken that feature even further, allowing you to snap windows to the left or right of the screen, but they appear in a sidebar instead as of a new window. This can only be used with apps however and not programs. But whats good about it, is that they let you browse both simultaneously. Its somewhat hard to explain, so lets take the exmaple of having Microsoft Word open and the Windows 8 mail client open at the same time.
As you can see from this screenshot, the mail client is opened as a sidebar app after selecting it from the left hand sidebar and choosing “snap to left”. Mail can be sorted, read, and edited all the while having your Microsoft Word document open at the same time. The sidebar can be expanded, or dragged all the way to the right to close it. Again, this seems like a small feature and very much like what was included in Windows 7, but it’s so much more than that, and it’s hard to explain it until you try it. It makes a lot of sense for windows multitasking and would be incredibly useful on a tablet interface where you have no mouse or keyboard.
An area that we didn’t get to play around with much was the Xbox (Music) and smart glass features of Windows 8. Xbox Music is a new streaming service which can be used on your Windows 8 devices to sync all of your music between them and for $9.99 per month; you get access to Microsoft’s catalog of over 30 million tracks at any time as well. With smart glass, any Windows 8 device can be used as a remote control to play Xbox Music content on an Xbox console or simply navigate apps (or use a virtual keyboard on your device to type within those apps). There is also an Xbox Games app, which has the idea that you should be able to play games across Xbox, PC, and phone, letting you launch Xbox 360 games from your Windows 8 device and also provide information about that game. While we didn’t get to try it out, this is obviously a brilliant addition to Windows 8. Much as Apple has done with Apple TV, Microsoft wants to be in all rooms of your house as well as in your hands, making them your #1 source for all of your media. This is definitely a step in the right direction, and we hope to start using it soon with Xbox 360.
After all of this, it seems like Windows 8 should be a no-brainer. It’s become more user-friendly for the most part and added extra layers of fun to the Windows 8 bean dip medley. However there are some major problems we’ve encountered. First of all, it’s a minor quip, but there’s no longer Aero, the Windows 7 method of displaying windows. With Aero, windows could be customized in a much deeper way and be translucent and rounded. It’s likely to make it similar to the style that is found on Windows phone and to help realize Microsoft’s dream of creating a unified Windows UI across all of its platforms, but some users will miss the style of Windows 7 Aero
Another problem I had with Windows 8 was even getting it on my computer. Microsoft has tried to make the upgrade as simple as possible, and for the most part, it is great. When installing, Windows 8 will scan your computer and tell you which programs aren’t going to be compatible with your new version of Windows. That would be great, except for the fact that it told me my Bluetooth driver wasn’t going to be compatible? What? No Bluetooth? Why? I would expect maybe that a game, or a random program I grabbed from the internet wouldn’t work, but Bluetooth? Really? Well, after uninstalling that and freeing up some additional space (about 20 gigabytes), Windows started up and installed itself perfectly. The problem with it though was that I had to be connected to the internet the whole time it was updating (it should be noted that an internet connection will only be required if you download an .ISO file to install Windows 8 rather than buying it on a DVD). And when it was updating, it took in excess of 45 minutes. My Asus 1225B netbook doesn’t have a lot of power so a lot of that loading time likely stems from the fact that my computer is a little weak in the processing department. However, having to have that constant internet connection could prove to be a pain for many users, unless you buy Windows 8 on a disc and then you wouldn’t have to deal with any of those problems.
Once Windows 8 was installed, I was also shocked to find out that none of my function keys worked, nor did my Wi-Fi adapter. After scouring the internet and Asus’s site, I installed the one Windows 8 BIOS driver they had but nothing helped. Even updating to the latest drivers for my Wi-Fi and function keys for Windows 7 didn’t help. After taking my computer into the Microsoft store and working with them for a couple hours to try to solve the problem, we both determined that Asus had simply yet to release Windows 8 drivers for my computer and that I would be playing a waiting game until they did. That is incredibly annoying but also not all the fault of Windows. That being said, Microsoft has touted windows 8 as working with virtually any device, it seems to me like a basic Atheros Wi-Fi card would be one of those devices.
That’s the bottom line with Windows 8. You essentially have to make a sacrifice in some areas to be an early adopter of this new UI. Many people will find themselves like me, unable to install a few drivers until they are released by various manufacturers and will have limited functionality on their computers. To me it’s acceptable, but to many others I assume it’s not. You also have to make a sacrifice in understanding that the Windows Store is not quite up to par with what’s on other platforms, but that is expected to grow with time and already has many of the essentials. Overall, Windows 8 does many things right but those improvements aren’t without their shortcomings. This seems like the perfect UI for phones and tablets and laptops, but feels a little bit unnecessary on more powerful desktop computers. So our recommendation? Give it a try on one of those devices, just maybe not on your home gaming stack.