(Wired) -- The new version of Windows, which is available Friday, sees Microsoft tucking the old, desktop-focused Windows skin into its back pocket, and instead donning a colorful, touch-friendly suit of tiles. It's such a grand departure from Redmond's legacy Windows software that most users won't recognize it as Windows at all. And that's a beautiful thing.
I've been testing Windows 8 over the last few months, and I've come to really enjoy using it. Yes, it took a lot of re-learning and adjustment. Yes, I felt lost and baffled at first. And sure, I was a bit sad to see the Start Menu vanish. (There are others who feel the same way and have solutions.) Several small annoyances remain for Microsoft to work out. But if you're willing to put in a little bit of initial effort to learn the ropes, Windows 8 is definitely worth the upgrade.
The learning curve isn't too steep. The operating system is fun to use right out of the box, and it doesn't skimp on the key functionality you expect from the Windows brand. If you're buying a new computer this fall, or upgrading a recently purchased PC by installing Windows 8, you should expect something equal parts drastically new and comfortingly familiar.
Microsoft has two key goals for Windows 8. First, the company wants to regain its cool. Windows has long been synonymous with a mundane experience centered on "productivity." While Apple offers a visually slick, intuitive, user-friendly experience on the desktop, Microsoft has stuck to the Windows Way. For over a decade, it's been serving scoops of vanilla to compete with Apple's waffle cones of mint chocolate chip with rainbow sprinkles.
This strategy has helped Microsoft maintain its stronghold on the PC market, especially among business customers reliant on legacy apps and the host of OEM partners who crank out the devices for their consumption. But Apple simply has more mojo. Walk into any college dorm, tech startup, or big-city coffee shop, and you'll see an ocean of MacBooks, all running OS X. Younger users and creative types favor Apple's computing environment. It's undeniable.
The other thing Microsoft needs to do — desperately — is catch up in mobile computing. Its Windows Phone OS for smartphones is lagging, but it's expected to gain more traction as better devices and apps are released. The bigger worry here is tablets.
As we move further into the "post-PC era," the iPad is still held up as the gold standard for mobile computing, and Android is the scrappy alternative. Windows 7 was a total bust on tablets. It just didn't translate well to the touchscreen world. Redmond's plan for Windows 8, therefore, is to develop a fun and colorful OS that straddles the PC and the post-PC worlds.
Windows 8 can run both on tablets and on traditional computers, it can be fully controlled with touches, swipes and gestures, and it still gives users full access to all the good old Microsoft stuff: docs, spreadsheets, and the myriad legacy apps they use every day. With Surface, it's even diving into tablet hardware to prove how well its dual-use approach can work.
My Windows 8 testing took place on both on a touch tablet and a non-touch notebook. I'll often connect a keyboard and mouse or touchpad to the tablet in order to mimic the "convertible" experience. While I definitely prefer Windows 8 in a touch environment, it's almost as easy and pleasant to use with a gesture-enabled trackpad. By far, my least favorite method of using Windows 8 is touchless, with only a standard mouse and keyboard. But even then, it's not a bad experience.
The main factor for such varying experiences lies in the new Start Screen. The gorgeous spread of colorful tiles makes total sense with touch, and will look familiar to anyone who has used a Windows Phone device, as Microsoft's new mobile OS sports the same interface. We've covered the new environment thoroughly in our hands-ons of the Consumer Preview, Release Review and Release to Manufacturer versions of Windows 8.
If you're a veteran Windows user, the new Start Screen will definitely take some getting used to. But the familiar Windows desktop of yore remains, and is easily accessible as a tile (just like any other app) on the Start Screen. Microsoft is taking a significant risk here, since users who have been loyal to Windows might get very confused or feel betrayed until they find that magic button to take them to the desktop. Whether these people can adjust to Windows 8 will depend heavily on Microsoft's messaging and instructions. If that goes wrong, Windows 8 could fail entirely.
Even more confusing than a bunch of tiles: There are several versions of Windows 8. Most importantly, Windows RT, which comes built-in on the Surface RT tablet and other devices, is far less capable than Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. For more details on the difference, read our overview and Wired's review of the Surface RT tablet. In short, Microsoft will need to clearly explain that Windows RT is a mobile OS that shares the same skin as Windows 8, but is not a fully capable PC. It cannot run the same desktop programs as full Windows 8, only apps downloaded from the Windows Store.
The ambiguity between x86, or desktop, applications and Windows Store apps can also add to the overall confusion. Windows 8 can run them both, but they'll open in different environments. Pin a desktop app to your Start Screen and it blends in nicely, as its tile looks no different than a Windows Store app. But tap it and — surprise! — you're thrown into the desktop space. Microsoft should consider a stronger visual cue to help us distinguish between the two kinds of programs.
This juggling will cause some head-scratching among legacy Windows users when they upgrade. But the first few hours with Windows 8 will likely be more sweet than sour, as there are plenty of goodies: Live Tiles that show animations, a fully integrated search tool, and easy-to-adopt gestures for touchscreens and trackpads. These enhancements, and a host of other new features, are what make Windows 8 worth the upgrade.
Each app's Start Screen tile is alive, in a sense. The tiles display bits of information about whatever's happening within the app, sort of like notifications in a mobile OS. If you get a new e-mail, the Mail app will show the sender and subject. The Calendar app can display your day's meetings.
"Snapping" apps next to one another is a great multitasking feature. Every Windows 8 app is a chromeless, full-screen app by default, which is great for focusing on a single task and making the most of your screen's real estate. But when you want to do more than one thing at the same time, you can simply pull in another app and drag it somewhere on the screen. It will snap into a secondary portion of the screen, where it serves as sort of a sidebar. It's incredibly useful for when you want to keep the Messaging app open while browsing the web, or to check Twitter while watching a movie.
There is one slight flaw in the snapped app experience. When you're using a mouse or a trackpad and you want to scroll up or down in one of the snapped apps, it's not enough to just hover your mouse over the window. You have to actually click within that window before you can scroll it. If you're using touch, you can just reach up and swipe to scroll, since Windows recognizes a touch as a click.
It's a minor detail, but one that shows the need for additional polish. Mac OS X, by contrast, recognizes the intended focus when you just hover over a window with the mouse pointer, no click required. It should be that simple in Windows 8 when you're not using touch.
It's when you reach up and touch the screen that Windows 8 truly shines. Once I learned the Windows 8 gestures, I found it easier than even iOS to navigate. Swiping in from the left to flip through open apps is seamless. Semantic zoom, which lets you zoom in and out of your onscreen elements with a pinch gesture, worked consistently well in various apps. Trackpad gestures are also incredibly easy to use.
I also really like the so-called charms menu that you bring up by swiping in from the right or pointing to the lower right corner. There are five "charm" icons: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings.
Search is the biggest enhancement, and you don't even need to go into the charms to access it. When you're in the Start Screen, you can just start typing to search for an app, setting, or file. Scroll down the Search Charm menu and you'll be able to search within specific apps, like the Windows Store or Bing.
Annoyingly, this automatic type-to-search feature doesn't work in desktop mode, even if you have no windows open. It's in these tinier details where Windows 8 struggles the most. Another example: If you're using the desktop in Snap mode, all of your windows will shrink to accommodate the smaller, snapped app window — but once you expand back to full screen, none of the windows grow back to fill the screen.
Also, if you sign in to Gmail using the bundled Mail app, it won't be aware of your most-used contacts unless you've entered them directly into the address book, or unless they also happen to be in your People hub. Those addresses should be recognizable based on all of the e-mails that the app has synced, but they're not.
The bundled Messaging app will let you chat with Facebook and Windows Live friends, but it won't allow you to sign in to AIM or Google Talk, arguably two of the most popular messaging systems. And the Messaging app itself is strange as a full-screen app, which is the default state for all apps. Chat is supposed to take place in little floating windows, not on a giant screen.
Most bizarre to me, though, was the fact that the OS only lets you use one browser (whichever one you've chosen as the default) as your Start Screen browser. If you download Chrome for Windows 8, you'll need to set Chrome as your default browser for it work in the Start Screen environment. The same goes for Internet Explorer. If you want to use an alternate browser that happens to not be your default option, Windows will open in Desktop mode, which is jarring.
Just like any new software release, there are many little annoyances — things that you'd expect to work one way, but don't. If these bumps sound minor to you, then yes, upgrade to Windows 8. Overall, I'd say it's worth the effort of learning your way around the various quirks and wrinkles just to experience this entirely new way of interacting with a Windows machine.
The touchscreen actions are a huge gain for usability, and the interface is gorgeous. I wouldn't go back to Windows 7 after using Windows 8; I'd miss the touch controls too much. I even caught myself trying to touch my MacBook Air's screen last night.
The bottom line
Pros: Touch and trackpad gestures are intuitive and make navigating the Windows 8 environment a breeze. Snapping apps is useful for multitasking. Desktop gets its own improved tools like Task Manager and File History. Windows 8 is pushing touch and all sorts of new hardware experiences, which is good for consumers. Good price for online upgrades.
Cons: Windows Store is still relatively low on apps. Ambiguity between x86 and Windows Store apps in Microsoft messaging and when pinned on Start Screen. Windows 8 will take effort to get used to, and not all users want to learn a new operating system and interface. Microsoft risks alienating legacy users. Several feature details still need polish.
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