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IHNATKO: Should you upgrade to Windows 8?

Windows 8's new Start page is central console whole Windows experience. Whether you're running tablet or desktop these live tiles

Windows 8's new Start page is the central console to the whole Windows experience. Whether you're running on a tablet or a desktop, these live tiles are the new face of Windows.

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Updated: March 5, 2013 6:12AM



Are you still waffling about whether or not you should upgrade your Windows 7 PC to Windows 8? Well, don’t rush.

Take your time.

You have the rest of the all day before the early promotional pricing expires and the upgrade becomes two and a half to five times more expensive. After today, Jan. 31, the cost of the $40 digital upgrade and the $70 DVD package jump up to $200.

I don’t blame you for putting off the decision. The opinion on Windows 8 is split exactly down the middle: I like it, and everybody else with a blog or a Twitter account hates it.

All right, I’m exaggerating. But those who dislike Windows 8, or have been at least severely put off by it, are extremely vocal. They’re the most annoying kind of “vocal person who disagrees with me,” too: They have a point. The main difficulty of Windows 8 is that it represents a radical departure, and Windows users typically like their computers to have the “get in, turn the key, and go” consistency of a rental car.

By contrast, Windows 8 is like an exciting sports car that’s several levels higher than a Toyota Corolla. But people who jump in and try to drive it like a Corolla suddenly wind up somewhere they didn’t expect to be. Fortunately, that’s “looking at a Start screen or a panel of charms” rather than “upside down in a drainage ditch at the end of a spiraley set of tire marks” but the net effect is the same: it’s jarring, and really puts a damper on the day’s productivity.

“Less advanced, but predictable” is a positive feature when you’re on a deadline and staring at a long to-do list. I would also say — utterly without judgment — that it describes what the Windows community wants out of their machines and their software. When they’re forced to learn something new, they see a price beyond simple confusion: They see a cost in the time they’re going to have to spend relearning a set of skills that served them well for years.

It also must be said many of these very smart Windows users checked out Windows 8, gave it ample chances ... and they simply didn’t like it. Fair enough.

Still, I was quite surprised by much of the reaction to Windows 8. Even when you dismiss (as you must) the rantings of Those Who Just Like To Fight On The Internet, you’re left with loads of sincere comments from rational users for whom Windows 8 was confusing as hell. Their experience was terrible, and in the end they decided that the new OS just wasn’t worth the trouble. Many (including a friend’s aunt) actually paid to have the copy of Windows 8 that came pre-installed on a new PC downgraded to Windows 7.

Clearly, I need to note that carefully. Better if Microsoft notes it, of course, but I’m just writing a column here.

OK, then: so noted. But I’m unusually well-qualified to offer an opinion on Windows 8 because I’m not a Windows user. I have Windows 7 machines in my office, of course, but I use them “many times a day, on some days of the week.” I use my Macs “several times an hour, every day.”

This leaves me with a different perception of Windows 8 than the daily Windows warrior. I tend to see it with fresh eyes instead of as an accumulation of differences between it and Windows 7, and after using Windows 8 on multiple devices for many hours a day for many weeks in a row, I like it. I feel like I can recommend it without any pangs of guilt because I feel like I’m reacting the way any full-time Windows user will after they’ve used Windows 8 long enough.

That said, it’s definitely not for everybody. And it’s a stone-cold fact that this is an OS with some serious issues. It’s not hard to understand why so many people dislike it.

Microsoft bungled the interplay between the Modern interface and the classic Windows desktop. It’s too easy to land on the Start screen by accident, through an errant flick of the mouse or keystroke. And when that happens, the user is torn away from a desktop environment that he or she has been using since forever, and unceremoniously desposited in...The Bad Place. And to a new user, the route from the Start screen back to the Desktop is by no means obvious.

A sense of “place” is a simple concept in user interface design. Yet no OS can truly succeed without it. It’s why the “Home” button on iPhones, iPads, and many Android devices is so valuable, along with Android’s system-wide “back” button. It responds to something that might even be a genetically-programmed human urge: “I don’t know where I am but I don’t like it and please get me the hell out of here!”

(Older readers: it’s like Dorothy clicking her heels together. Younger readers: the Home button is like a respawn area you go to after your playable OS character has been ganked by clumsy design. Middle-aged readers: just listen to The Talking Heads’ “Remain In Light” in its entirety.)

Windows 8 offers no such help. Microsoft could make Windows 8 much less confusing with the addition of a simple, static button at the bottom of the Desktop that takes the user to the Start Screen, and another button in the exact same location on Start that takes the user to the Desktop.

Such a button (similar to the placement of the Start menu in previous editions of Windows) would also help to remind the user that Windows 8 articulates itself in two wildly-different forms. As-is, there’s practically no connection between Modern and Classic, and thus no sense of “place.” Have you ever had that dream where you’re in your house, and you see a door in a wall of the living room you’ve never seen before, and you open it and walk into a room you never knew was there?

Yes. Imagine that sort of experience. Except there was no door, you don’t know how you got here, and now you’re being confronted by twisted versions of your loved ones who have buttons sewn into their faces where their eyes should go.

Nobody wants that, Microsoft.

Please add an option that allows the user to boot directly into Desktop mode. Let people start off in a familiar place of safety, and then walk through the wardrobe on their own time, at their own pace.

(OK, let’s count up: Halo, Wizard of Oz, Coraline, Narnia. I’m not certain that I could avoid a Doctor Who reference even if I tried.)

If only Windows 8’s missing “sense of place” were the only trouble with the coexistence of the Modern UI and the Desktop.

Example: when you mouse into the upper left corner, you encounter a dropdown ribbon of screen thumbnails. “Aha!” the user thinks. “This would be the list of all of my open apps...just like what I see when I alt-tab!”

But they’re wrong. The ribbon displays thumbnails of the Modern apps but only there’s only a single thumbnail representing the entire Desktop, no matter how many desktop apps are running inside it.

Another pet peeve: I can change screen brightness through Modern’s Devices charm. So when I wanted to change the screen sleep settings, that’s naturally where I went. Nope, it’s not there. Mmm, all right, but I bet I can do it through that very pretty Modern-style system settings screen, right?

Nope. I have to switch to the Desktop and access a control panel. Windows 8 is regularly sending me out of Modern and into the Desktop for what seem to be simple systemwide tasks.

Whiskey tango foxtrot? I’ll spare you the rest of the list. Suffice to say that Windows 8 needs to shake out some serious weirdness.

“Discoverability” is another basic problem. The Start screen, like the rest of the Modern UI, can be controlled by any kind of input device but it anticipates a future in which everybody wants to run Windows on a touchscreen device. And activating Modern’s core elements (like the Charms ribbon) on a tablet or a touchscreen-equipped PC quickly becomes second nature after an hour or so. It’s fast and it feels natural.

But if you’re using a keyboard and a mouse, you’re truly going to have to write the shortcuts on a Post-It and keep it on your monitor until you’ve managed to flash them into your brain’s baseband programming through repetition. I myself stumbled severely when I tried to activate a Modern app’s App Bar (analogue to the menu bar). Every other “Modern thing that slides in from an edge of the screen” activates via a hot corner or a hotkey. But this one doodad responds to the right mouse button and I only found it after Googling for a cheat sheet.

I’ve gone into some detail about these things partly because doing so acknowledges and documents the genuine reactions of confusion and horror that the new OS inspires in so many users. I’m not saying that people who dislike Windows 8 don’t have an open mind or that they lack any motivation to make their PCs work better, nor do I pity them for lacking the full perspective and experience of a tech columnist.

(You don’t want the full perspective and experience of a tech columnist. These things usually come with a bit of a gut, and a social obligation to fix people’s phones when people at the party find out what you do for a living.)

Acknowledging Windows 8’s problems also sells my next major point:

After a couple of weeks with Windows 8, none of these problems seemed to trouble me.

Alt-tab isn’t a very instinctive or discoverable way to switch between apps, either, and we use that several times a day, don’t we? We grumble, we learn, and if the thing we’re using is good, we put a bad first impression behind us and we keep using it.

So that’s fine. I can cite several things about Android, iOS, and MacOS that made me grumble and curse initially. Actually, no, I can’t, not without referring back to my initial reviews. I got over those things and kept using great products because (like Windows 8) I considered them to be greater than the sum of their faults.

And while there’s no way to eliminate the Start Screen from your life, you can easily reduce it to little more than a rumor. I wish that the Windows 8 Desktop had been modernized and spiffed up, yes. Truth be told, a few weeks after working with a fresh install of Windows 8 I was using the Desktop no differently than I was using it in Windows 7. My most frequently-used docs and folders are desktop shortcuts, my most frequently-used apps are pinned to the taskbar, and I launch my less-frequently-used apps through Search, not Start.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole new world of Modern apps I can take advantage of. Overlapping windows have worked fine for decades now. But being able to pin a Modern app to the side of the screen and tile it next to the Desktop is even better. I can keep an eye on my Inbox, or Twitter, or on a necessary document or Web reference without burying it under project windows. I love it.

Ditto for the the Start screen. I love the fact that the live tiles allow my PC to be useful even when I’m not actually using it. More than once over the past few months, I’ve ended a phone call or chat session prematurely because I saw something alarming in a Live Tile out of the corner of my eye.

(Was a future Windows 8 project manager in attendance during a Macworld Expo keynote I delivered almost a decade ago? Windows 8 includes some of the ideas I suggested for the future of MacOS. Things like the ability for apps to articulate themselves as either a traditional screen-dominating set of windows or as a sidebar that could be pinned to the screen, depending on how the user wanted to interact with the app at any given moment. And a supplemental mode in which the whole screen was given over to status tiles instead of just flipping over to a screen saver when the user’s attention was elsewhere. Hmm.)

And the Modern UI is simply fantastic. Bravo, bravo, bravo to Microsoft.

Kindle for Modern UI is my favorite flavor of the Kindle app across all platforms. I can say the same of Netflix, the Comixology app, and many other multiplatform tools. Microsoft has developed a gloriously simple and effective design language that allows an OS and its apps to minimize clutter while not minimizing power. All of these Modern apps work together, sharing data between each other cohesively. They scale well, whether I’m using Modern UI on a little Surface RT tablet or a big desktop.

The more time I spend in the Modern UI, the more time I want to spend there. Modern UI has the tendency to make all other mobile and desktop operating systems look crusty and creaky and overdue for revolution.

There’s lots of great stuff happening under the hood as well. Windows 8 is far more secure, thanks in part to a new memory scheme that makes it more difficult for a malicious app to target and infiltrate a vulnerable piece of code on your PC. It boots up much faster. On many PCs, it draws less power (thanks to a more sensible scheme of CPU management). And it runs inside a smaller RAM footprint.

Finally, whoops, here’s something that I maybe should have said right at the top: Windows 8 is stable. In my experience with a couple of new Windows 8 machines and a couple of legacy devices, W8 is just as reliable as the current edition of the Macintosh operating system.

Nice, Ihnatko. But should someone upgrade or not? Remember, the price goes way up on Feb. 1 (Friday).

Here’s some clear-cut advice:

If you’re not easily wigged out by computers behaving oddly, you should upgrade. Everybody will absolutely be using Windows 8 (or its descendants) eventually. You might as well get those rough initial 4 to 14 days over with. If your experience is like mine, you’ll find Windows 8 just as easy to use as Windows 7 within a short amount of time. You’ll then reap the rewards of the Modern UI and apps, as well as all of Windows’ under-the-hood improvements.

If your PC is a netbook, and it qualifies for the upgrade (Microsoft lists them here: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-8/system-requirements), I strongly recommend the upgrade. Remember that Windows 8 is designed to run well on damned near anything, even devices with small screens, weak CPUs, and little memory. That’s your netbook, isn’t it? And the Modern UI and apps are tailor made for those little displays. My Dell netbook is like a whole new piece of hardware now that it’s running Windows 8 instead of 7.

If you don’t identify with either one of those two groups, then sit this one out. It’ll be fine. At some point, you’ll buy a new desktop or notebook and it’ll come with Windows 8 preloaded. You’ll make the transition then.

And Microsoft will be fine despite the popular wisdom that only every alternate release of Windows is worth experiencing. (Hey! A bonus Star Trek Original Cast movie franchise reference! Cool!). They have time. Corporations can take months just to certify a version of Windows for deployment, and most users seem to acquire Windows upgrades with new PCs, not on DVD or as a download. Microsoft traditionally keeps at least two generations of Windows in orbit for a few years until the older one naturally degrades and falls into the sea.

The company might need the time, too. Today, Modern UI is a sticking point for some users because it appears to deliver the hassle of learning new things and bring no visible upside. Because where are the great Modern-style apps? Even if you don’t count all of the months when Windows 8 was available to the public in preview editions, it’s been shipping for months. I would have liked to have written this piece in a Windows 8 Modern UI word processor...but there simply aren’t any to be found. Just code editors and Markdown text apps.

Nonetheless, Windows 8 and Modern UI are important steps. The major lesson that the industry has learned from the past five years of PC sales is that consumers refuse to accept a clean definition of what a “computer” is or to define what they intend to do with one. People flow their tasks between powerful desktops and budget notebooks and tiny netbooks (yes, still) and tablets and touchscreens and phones. They want cheap devices and performance devices, and they want everything they buy to work well, regardless of CPU.

Today, Apple continues to tap the same rich vein of ore they struck with iOS several years ago. Android has some excellent phones and some utterly wretched tablets and despite having earned a lot of praise, the OS continues to pursue a conventional and contemporary vision of computing.

Windows 8 is a clear move towards the future. In a way, Microsoft is putting themselves through the same difficulties that they’re inflicting on their users via Windows 8. Every major player in this market is going to have to transform their entire PC business so that the hardware, OS, and apps of their platform appeal to a generation of users whose first computer was a multitouch phone. The first steps in this process are going to be painful no matter when you start. Why not start sooner, when the competition is still focusing on the Now?

I will end by reminding and cautioning you that Windows 8 is, oh dear, quite a departure. But I think you’ll find that making a departure is indeed the necessary first step towards getting somewhere. And while Windows 8 might not be taking you where you asked to go, it’s definitely bringing you, and Microsoft, to the place where you need to be.

(Yes! “Doctor Who” reference right before the buzzer! Victory!)



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