Windows 8: Is it as bad as everyone says?

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

I teach computer classes at a public library, mostly classes on Windows and Office, so I’m on the front line, so to speak, whenever Microsoft changes its operating system. Not to overgeneralize, but I’ve found over the years that many Windows users tend to be technically hesitant or conservative. When Windows changes, the complaining from these users is extensive. This attitude directly contrasts with the Apple community, which tends to be excited, and extol the new look and features of the new operating system or device. A lot of Apple users are sometimes so into their new device or software that they wait in line and are, if anything, annoyingly enthusiastic. How many people waited in line to get Windows 8 or a Microsoft RT tablet? A Few? None? If anything, when Windows changes, people moan because they now have to spend a week learning where to find everything again.

The rather dramatic changes in Windows 8 is a response to the enormous profits Apple has raked in from the iPad and iPhone. Microsoft wants more revenue from mobile devices, which are widely assumed to be the future of computers; after all, the PC is supposedly dead.

When Google and Microsoft try to compete with Apple’s mobile devices, even if they create good devices, they run into a wall, Apple’s app infrastructure; after all, tablets are mostly screens for apps. Even if Microsoft created a better tablet than the iPad, it would not have as strong an app infrastructure for years.

Windows 8 is an operating system that works on tablets, and can run traditional Windows software, which is actually useful. One problem I have with my iPad is that I can’t run my Mac software on it. With the full version of Windows 8, you can run all that old Windows software on a tablet, which should allow Microsoft to overcome Apple’s headstart in tablet apps.

One reason the Microsoft Surface RT tablet has sold poorly is that it does not have a full version of Windows 8 and will not run legacy software. The full Windows tablet, the Surface Pro, costs about twice as much as the Surface RT, can run any software compatible with Windows 8.

So why is there so much complaining about Windows 8? Why have so many reviews been negative or lukewarm? The problem, although Microsoft would never admit this, is that Windows 8 is two operating systems. One operating system is the Start Screen, which Microsoft originally termed Metro, but dropped the name for copyright reasons. The Windows Start Screen is a new environment designed for touchscreens with no taskbar, no overlapping windows, and no dropdown menus. The Start Screen will not run traditional programs, only full screen programs from the Windows Store. The other operating system is essentially the Windows 7 Desktop, which has overlapping windows, a taskbar, dropdown menus, and is designed for the mouse and keyboard. It runs traditional Windows programs.

The two operating systems have separate control panels, web browsers, personalization features, and settings. If you want to change a desktop setting, and you’re working in the Start Screen, you often have to leave the Start Screen, go to the desktop, open the Charms Bar, and then venture into the control panel. The two separate settings creates the uncanny sensation that Windows 8 is a Frankenstein: two operating systems awkwardly shackled together.

Supposedly, the separate control panels will be modified with Windows 8.1, but at best this is another example of Microsoft needing multiple iterations before it gets an operating system right. Remember, Vista didn’t work real well until the second service pack, and Windows 7 was what Vista should have been to begin with.

The Start Screen is designed for touchscreens, and is awkward for the mouse/keyboard interface. The Start Screen is composed of large tiles, which on a touchscreen you tap to select, like the icons on an iPad or iPhone. You can swipe through screens of tiles, again like screens of apps on tablets and phones. The Start Screen has nifty touch gestures that allow you to work with the tiles, but this does you no good if you don’t have a touchscreen. If you’re working with a mouse, flipping through screens involves either using the scroll wheel, or using the scroll bar at the bottom of the screen, which is doable, but a bit awkward, especially for users who are technically unsophisticated.

Windows 8 has two different types of programs: Start Screen apps, and traditional Desktop programs.

The Start Screen apps are:

· full screen

· simple

· devoid of Menus

· downloaded from the Windows store

· virus-free

· designed for touchscreens and tablets.

If you look at that list, unless you have a touchscreen, there’s little that will improve your user experience. The lack of viruses is good, but even that comes at a cost. You download Start Screen apps from the Windows Store, so you get the controlled, curated experience that comes with the iPad and iPhone. Some people will like that experience, and some will not.

With Windows 8 Microsoft made some odd programing decisions. For example, the programs in the Start Screen have fewer features. I’ve seen more than one computer user flummoxed that the Start Screen version of Explorer does not have the menu bar they’ve relied on for years. To get a menu bar with Explorer, you have to go to the desktop and open Explorer there. You can access your email from the Start Screen, but the email program does not have menus. The Start Screen email program is OK for reading your email, but is not the best way to organize folders, or old email. Microsoft wants users to start relying on the Start Screen. There’s even an unconfirmed rumor that Windows 9 will not have a Desktop. If so, why remove the menus and make many of the Start Screen apps less functional? Even if you wanted to use the Start Screen extensively for work, you would find it difficult to do so.

I have Windows 8 on my laptop, and I generally click on a tile and go directly to the desktop, especially if I want to get real work done. The desktop has my taskbar, which I use to quickly switch from program to program and window to window, working with full programs and multiple documents.

I like the live tiles on the Start Screen, which provide continuous updates of news, weather, emails, etc. You can turn off any live tile you don’t need. The tiles of programs such as Calendar, Email, Bing Sports, and Bing News mimic the live updates typical of mobile devices. Sometimes when I first turn on the computer, I’ll click on Email, News, or Sports and read through a couple of articles. These types of entertainment features are the strongest aspect of the Start Screen.

The Start Screen offers a lot of customization options. You can pin programs, websites, playlists, photo albums, people, and mail accounts to the Start Screen. You just right click an app, and then select pin to start. You can drag tiles around and create tile groups. You can resize the tiles, and make them larger or smaller. You can personalize the Start Screen with 20 different wall papers and 25 different color screens.

The Charms Bar is available for the Start Screen and the Desktop. You point your mouse at the top right hand corner of your screen and the Charms Bar slides out. It has five icons:

· Search – for programs, documents, settings, email, etc.

· Share – send selected items to email or social network

· Start – go to Start Screen

· Devices – options for devices connected to computer

· Settings – options for app, or settings for entire computer: network, sound, screen brightness, notification, power, and keyboard

The Charms Bar drives some people crazy, but I think it’s useful. The Search function is excellent, the quickest way to find anything on your computer. You don’t have to go to Documents or “All Apps” to look for something, just open Search and start typing. If you’re big into social networking, learning to use Share can be productive and convenient; you can immediately post picture updates to FaceBook or put data on Twitter. Settings is a conglomeration of Control Panel, Network, Personalization, Help, etc.

I’m not sure how much I should say about the Desktop because that part of the operating system is the already familiar Windows 7. The most controversial feature, and change, in 8’s Desktop is the removal of the Start Button. The Charms Bar largely replaces the Start Button’s functions, but does it do anything new or superior? My answer would have to be no.

On the Desktop, you’re going to find yourself relying on the Taskbar. To see your drives, you can’t click on the Start Button and select “Computer.” You click on the folder icon on your Taskbar, and use File Explorer to locate your drives or documents. The alternative is to use Search in the Charms bar.

If you’re in the Desktop, you can’t click on the Start Button to get to “All Programs.” You return to the Start Screen, right click near the bottom of the screen and select “All Apps.” From “All Apps,” you can pin programs either to your Taskbar, which I recommend, or to the Start Screen (or both places). Notice the extra steps.

Windows 8.1 will offer the option of booting to Desktop, which I’m sure many people will utilize, but the Start Button in 8.1 will only be a link to the Start Screen. Play a dirge for the Start Button; Microsoft doesn’t think we need it anymore. I’m not sad about loss of the Start Button; as a Mac user I’ve long leaned on the Dock, but there are tasks that the Start Button handles more efficiently than the Charms Bar.

You do have the option of downloading 3rd party software and getting the traditional Start Button, and that will overcome some of these issues. But why do small software companies have to help Microsoft with its mistakes?

I’ve had frustrated students tell me they don’t know how to turn their computer off because there’s no Start Button. To turn the computer off, you open up the Charms Bar, click Settings, click Power, and then choose Sleep, Shut Down, or Restart. Now there are keyboard shortcuts, but why add extra steps for repeated actions? Many users are not going to learn the keyboard shortcuts.

If you open up File Explorer, you’ll find that it has a ribbon with all the commands spread out. If you’re good at using tabs and a ribbon, you’ll find that a useful feature. Microsoft’s research has found that many users don’t know to right click in order to find a menu of commands, and the tabs and the ribbon are meant to overcome that.

Another improvement is that Windows 8 is faster and boots more quickly than 7. Windows 8 is supposedly more secure and stable than 7. I have no way of testing the latter contention, but increased boot speed, and zipper performance are genuine features in 8.

Would I recommend upgrading to 8? Only if you buy a touchscreen computer. Upgrading a traditional laptop to 8, which I have done on my laptop and work PC, does not offer improved functionality. I’ve had 8 on my laptop for several months, and as I mentioned before I work from the Desktop. The 8 Desktop works just fine, but so does the 7 Desktop, and replacing the Start Button with the Charms Bar is a mixed blessing.

With that said and done, there’s no need to go into hysterics. If your company replaces 7 with 8, you can still click on the Desktop tile and get work done. The Desktop is where you work with full programs, menus, files, and folders. After you get used to it, you’ll be fine. But is that really the experience you’re looking for? Two operating systems awkwardly shackled together, that don’t really offer much additional functionality?

Windows 8 is not as bad as some people have suggested. If you have a touchscreen, it has a lot of nifty features and gesture control, but unless you have to upgrade, I recommend a wait and see approach. Some interesting devices have been built to work with Windows 8, and over the next few months more will be released. Don’t upgrade until you find just the right touchscreen or hybrid device, which is designed to utilize the operating system’s new features.

My final thought is to question the utility of touchscreens on PCs. Do you actually want to reach across your desk and touch icons on your monitor? Touchscreens make sense on handheld phones and tablets, but will touch on your laptop make you more productive than if you use a touchpad or a mouse? Does it even make ergonomic sense? Apple has chosen to maintain a separation between its touchscreen devices and its PCs (which work via mouse, keyboard, and touchpad). Microsoft has created one OS that works on every device. Microsoft has adopted a questionable strategy that so far doesn’t seem to work well. Touchscreen devices are selling poorly. Go to Dell or HP’s website; you’ll see one of their big selling tools is that you can still get Windows 7 on their computers.