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Mini review: Windows 8 closest thing to a complete teardown, rebuild

Microsoft executive Wei Qing introduces new tablet Windows 8 Shanghai Tuesday.  |  AFP~Getty Images

Microsoft executive Wei Qing introduces the new tablet and Windows 8 in Shanghai on Tuesday. | AFP~Getty Images

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Updated: November 26, 2012 7:23AM

Windows 8 (available Friday as a $39 digital download) represents the next closest thing to a complete teardown and rebuild of the world’s most popular operating system. The basic footprint may be the same, but most of its reliable and familiar touchstones have been done away with. Which is a shame, but the benefits are huge.

Windows has been made far, far better than it ever was.

The downside? Windows has been around for so long that users have burned certain concepts and shortcuts into muscle memory. The learning curve is steeper for Windows 8 than for any previous edition.

Retraining stinks. But stagnation is worse. Windows 7 catered to an aging audience who valued the comfort of the familiar over the opportunities of modernization. Windows 8 shows Microsoft’s determination to remain a relevant and important OS in 2015.

The concierge to the Windows experience is now a Start screen filled with live tiles, not a popup menu activated by a Start button. It’s a consumer-oriented presentation that replaces something built to please the IT department. After a startup process that seems instantaneous, Windows 8 presents a screen of tiles that gives you a one-look overview of your workspace. If you’ve signed in using a Microsoft account, you’ll see tiles populated with your contacts, pictures and other personal information. Tap a tile to launch an app. You can manage the layout manually, bringing in different apps from an easily accessible list.

Another fundamental change to Windows: The edges of your screen now have meaning. Instead of a static bar at the bottom of your screen, systemwide tasks (such as settings, search and access to the Start screen) are accessed by a stripe of “charms” that appear only when you swipe into the screen from the right (or mouse over to the edge). Swipe in from the other edge to scroll through an application switcher. Swipe down from the top to reveal additional controls for the app.

These gesture-based controls shine brightly on a multitouch tablet (like the Samsung tablet provided to me for testing). There are keyboard shortcuts as well, and it’s possible to engage them from external input devices. Even if you aren’t using a tablet, the benefits are immediate. Microsoft has taken heroic measures to reduce visual clutter. The result is a UI that’s not entirely unlike staring out at a Zen contemplation garden.

Consumers have been indicating a clear movement toward computers like the iPad. They want streamlined devices, built on multi-touch, that deliver a more consumer-style experience. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s answer. It delivers a new class of apps inspired by the company’s Metro-style UI that deliver a form of clarity and elegance. These new-style apps, which you’ll get from the new, curated and, at the moment, rather skimpy Microsoft Windows Store, are gorgeous full-screen apps that focus on tasks and goals. A second app can be tiled in as a sidebar; other running apps are accessed via the switcher.

Old-style apps will still be made, and the existing apps will still run fine. I suspect that many are conceptually incompatible with the concept of “simplicity.” There’s a rather severe mental dis­connect when you move from The Land Of Tiles And Magic into Classic Windows Free-Fall Mode.

Besides simple usability, The Land Of Tiles And Magic offers a second serious benefit: consistency across multiple classes of devices. When you move from your 27-inch office desktop to your 13-inch notebook and then to your iPad-like Surface tablet, it’s all the same app with the same UI — and Windows keeps your docs and settings synced between the three on its own.

I can give Windows 8 an enthusiastic and unreserved recommendation. I don’t think I’m even going too far to call it the most exciting step forward in desktop operating systems since Mac OS X 10.0.

It’s a fresh look that shows an eagerness to progress beyond the familiar interface concepts that were considered hot stuff way back when Reagan was president. Windows 8 is gorgeous, but not at the expense of power.

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