Microsoft’s release of Windows 8 has been fraught with disastrous media renditions of how the operating system is awful, requires too many steps, and is in many ways far worse than the acclaimed Windows 7. But there’s a much deeper story to Windows 8 from my experience with the operating system, and there is a suspiciously large amount of factually incorrect things about it. What I can say in no uncertain terms is that if you want a Windows workspace, Windows 8 doesn’t change that. If you want a touchscreen-ready and typical computer operating system, Windows 8 offers exactly that. But if you want things to be exactly the same with no change, then you might be a Mac person.

Windows 8, or Win8 for short, is really two different user interfaces put into one operating system (OS). The Win8 home screen features live tiles and was previously called the Metro UI, which has been featured on Windows Phone 7 with limited commercial but highly critical success. But the first of many complaints starts a few seconds before reaching this navigation menu: Win8 logs in using your Windows Live account, and automatically logs your computer in through the internet after the initial setup.

(I should also add that installing Win8 was the easiest Windows OS upgrade I’ve ever experienced. My tested RTM version (supplied by Microsoft, which includes versions of all of the Windows 8 versions for testing purposes) was supposed to be difficult to install. It wasn’t. And it’s actually easier to install by downloading direct from Microsoft. For the incredible pricing on Windows 8 for anyone who owns a Windows PC with XP or later. Anyone who purchased a new computer since June 2 can upgrade for just $15, which is less expensive than the yearly upgrades to Apple computers. Otherwise it’s $40 to upgrade, which is very reasonable.)

“Authoritarian Control” is a complete fabrication

There’s a few things that Microsoft has done — including checking online that you are the correct user — that have both everyday users and critics scared: because they add another level of authority where it isn’t necessary. To be clear, an internet connection isn’t required to log into a Win8 machine. Users just need to be online the first time; they can also opt out by logging in with a username just for that computer/tablet, but then settings saved on that particular machine won’t be saved to any other Win8 PCs you have.

Next is the Microsoft Store. Think of it exactly like the Apple App Store for iOS: users log in to download anything, and it houses all of the applications available on iOS. The Microsoft Store works exactly like that, with one major caveat: users need never use it. In fact, after a month of using Windows 8 on my desktop, I haven’t needed to use the Microsoft Store once. It’s so far from a requirement for Win8 users that having any concern about it and Microsoft having more control over people, their computers, or information is completely absurd. Microsoft isn’t Apple: they don’t need or want to control every aspect of your digital life. They just build the software for all of your applications to play in.

What the Microsoft Store really is is an organized storefront from applications. Again, if you like the way Windows 7, Vista, XP, and past versions of Windows feel, you never have to open the Microsoft Store, or do anything that Microsoft requests from users that would seem to give them more control over your personal data. And if you feel that Microsoft is going too far, all you need to do is look at Apple and ask if they aren’t worse in every way. They have the same system in place for OS X, and in fact warn users whenever an application is installed from a source other than the Mac App Store. At least Windows offers the option to turn off such warnings.

Of course, there’s one final thing that critics, like Markus Persson (Notch) of Mojang, maker of Minecraft, have cried loudly about: that Microsoft is closing the Windows platform. In other words, they believe that Microsoft is making Win8 a closed OS that only certified applications can be installed on. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I learned as soon as I installed Win8 firsthand. All of my applications and games run exactly the same as they did before. Which leads to the next important topic…

Gaming is not worse on Windows 8

The number of lies on this very subject is staggering. Most of the problems with gaming on Win8 stemmed from graphics drivers, the software for video cards. I admit, immediately after installing Win8 I thought I had run into exactly this problem. Games stopped running well, and my overall computer performance dropped like a brick. It turned out one of my two GPUs fried right then. Once I took it out everything ran smoothly.

To recount, all recent titles I’ve installed and played on my Win8 desktop run perfectly. Borderlands 2, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and even the indie title Black Mesa. Some games do have problems, though in my testing they are limited to indie games. 99% of titles work equally well on Win8 as they do on Windows 7.

There have been rumors as well that Win8 uses a different Kernal which requires completely different coding from past versions of Windows. That’s untrue. If it were there would be highly limited legacy support.

The important thing to take away from this is that if you play lots of games and are curious whether upgrading to Win8 is a good idea or not, the answer is it doesn’t really matter. All games released will support Windows 7 for at least three more years, if not many more. And because Win8 has Windows 7 built into it, 99% of all applications and games for Microsoft’s last OS will work on the new one.

It takes too many steps to do anything

This was the big concern from Valve owner Gabe Newell, who went so far as to say that Windows 8 was a “catastrophe.” After using the OS on a laptop, I can see why he feels that way.

After making that statement during a talk in Seattle, Newell told Geoff Keighley of GTTV, “Things that used to be easy are now just complicated and hard.” When Keighly pressed him further on the subject, Newell admitted that he was using Win8 on a tablet only, not on a laptop or desktop. I’m certain he would have felt differently using Win8 on a desktop.

The reason for that is simple: on a desktop Win8 looks and feels nearly identical to Windows 7. There are only three major differences from a wider perspective: the start menu has been replaced with a home screen, there are odd touch-navigation selections available on the screen, and of course the whole Win8 UI. After a month, the only thing that’s changed in my work habits on my desktop is the inability to navigate to certain applications using the start menu. All I have is the home screen, which is clunky and cumbersome on a desktop.

It doesn’t take additional steps to do anything. At least when using a full desktop version where the majority of applications are from a Windows 7 installation. It’s a different story entirely when using a brand new Win8 laptop. A week ago I started testing the Toshiba Satellite S875, which comes with Win8 pre-installed. And I’ve had a hell of a time using it.

The first problem is exactly what Newell explained: things normally fast and simple take too long to do. But it goes a little deeper than that: any application running in the Windows 7 desktop can run in a separate instance for Win8, all from the same application install. Besides perplexing, this option is just confusing.

Furthermore on a laptop there are so many little steps that need to be taken to do seemingly anything. The trackpad, for instance, has special functions that Windows does not have options for. Swipe to the right for the charm menu bar, or from the left to switch applications (alt+tab). Both of these functions are great in principle, but really suck for actual use. They’re made for a touchscreen, not a trackpad, and they get in the way. It’s just another step to take.

That’s not to say everything is more complicated. Some things are simpler, like managing the Wi-Fi, volume controls, setting up new devices. In fact, most options have been simplified, though without a touchscreen it takes time to adjust to. It’s easier, but different. It’s like making a call on a smartphone versus a dumbphone. On the former you have to take 2-4 steps to dial a number; on the latter you just dial. The only difference between the two is we started off with a more complicated action in previous versions of Windows. Most of those functions have finally been simplified.

Unfortunately that simplification will lead to confusion and problems. Like any change, people will be equally upset and confused with how to do some things. Mind you, everything can in fact be done as it was in Windows 7; it just requires — wait for it — a few extra steps. The biggest problem some users will have is the removal of the start menu. I generally have no problem with it since most applications are easy enough to open using the search bar. In this age of Google searches, it’s faster and more convenient to type the application name rather than open it from an icon on the desktop or to use the start menu.

The problem some people may find is that the search function isn’t intuitive. In fact, it’s perfectly intuitive…for people who use keyboard shortcuts regularly. Jump down to a store search by hitting tab and using the arrow keys. Stop typing after a few letters and drop down to the proper selection. It functions just like Chrome’s omnibar and is brilliantly fast and smooth. In fact, it’s better than search on Windows 7, which often didn’t list programs at all.

The real problem is feel

If there’s any one thing that Microsoft got wrong with Win8, it’s the feel. For multi-monitor desktop users upgrading from Windows 7, there won’t be a major difference, if any. After a month with Win8 on my desktop I can safely say the overall experience is slightly better than Windows 7 because of the improved software, better flow and efficiency of the computer as a whole, and a very limited number of positive changes.

On the laptop I’ve tested for a week, I feel differently. The laptop is more trouble because it came with Win8 pre-installed. All of the programs I regularly used had to be installed from scratch, and half of them already have Win8 versions that installed side by side. The few Win8 functions I regularly used, like the split-screen function which allows users to run multiple apps in the same screen (in the Win8 mode, not the Windows 7 “desktop” mode) were hampered by the lack of available Win8 specific apps. Things like Twitter and Pandora aren’t available for download, and the store itself is pretty barren.

Furthermore, none of the Win8 special functions really work right in the Windows 7 desktop. Some can be overlaid, like the split-screen function, but the two remain very separate, enclosed user interfaces. On multi-monitor setups one monitor can be used as a desktop while another is for Win8 apps, but that’s the extent of it. I didn’t have a touch display to test out how Win8 Pro works on a desktop with a touchscreen; if/when I get one in this review will be updated.

I also haven’t tested Windows 8 RT, the ARM version of the OS which is much more limited and requires the Microsoft Store to download applications and has no legacy support. As a tablet using a different CPU architecture this isn’t unexpected, but Microsoft could have easily won over the hearts and minds of computer users galore with such a function. My research indicates that some functions that Microsoft has disabled in Win8 RT could have been possible, such as OpenGL support. That’s a shame. With so few applications available for purchase from the Microsoft Store and a closed ecosystem for RT devices,  that version of the OS and all tablets running it may be doomed from day one. We’ll have to wait and see.

Yet all in all the real problem that Win8 has is that it is two OS’s in one. There’s the familiar Windows 7, typical desktop that everyone knows and loves side, and then there’s Windows 8, the touch-enabled tablet-style OS that people are familiar with now that so many of us use tablets and smartphones regularly, but don’t necessarily need. The thing is, my use of Win8 on a tablet has been really quite nice. I like being able to switch between the two for a tablet. But I don’t necessarily want that for a home desktop or laptop. And this is still Windows; I’d like to have an option for enabling and/or disabling those functions altogether.

Conclusion: Get it

As with Windows 7 and all previous iterations of any operating system, Windows 8 features a plethora of enhancements and updates that would take far more words than this review already has to list, let alone explain. Just the improvements to how audio is controlled is worth the upgrade. And considering the low price of either $15 or $40 for a wholly updated and improved OS that you won’t have to pay anything additional for another 2-3 years, that’s a good deal compared to the competition.

Especially for desktop users I highly recommend Windows 8. It has improved my workflow — albeit slightly — but every second counts. The few knicks with Windows 7 have been fixed, and if you’re capable of handling a change to the general UI like no more start menu, you’ll enjoy it immensely. You’ll really like it if you do a lot of heavy lifting on your PC and have to use the task manager, open up tons of programs at a time, and generally need simple and easy access to lot’s of information quickly.

For laptop owners, the upgrade is simple enough but be wary if you have a small trackpad. With limited to no options for gesture controls, it’s tough to recommend it if your laptop just isn’t built for it. Small or uncomfortable trackpads make a world of difference in the user experience, which is the first time it actually influenced the OS. I’d love to say otherwise, but that’s the biggest problem that’s come up over and over again. And, if you’re a regular tablet user, I’d recommend potentially getting a laptop with a touchscreen. That way your urge to use the screen to navigate is rewarded with actual menu navigation, and not just more fingerprints to clean.

For new computer buyers, be wary of how you plan on using the computer the most. If you stay in the desktop, download apps directly from the source. If you use the Win8 UI, then get them from the Microsoft Store if possible.

Finally, for tablets, I’ll have to hold off on a recommendation for users until we have a test unit in. My time with a functional Windows 8 tablet, in either RT or some Pro version, is too limited to write about at length. We are still waiting to test the Microsoft Surface tablet, as well as several competing tablets.

I am definitely satisfied with Windows 8. Gabe Newell was wrong. Windows 8 is fantastic. It’s not perfect, and the design is a little confused, but just like anything else, you need a little practice before you can really appreciate it.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: Gabe Newell was wrong. Windows 8 is an excellent OS upgrade

Pros:

  • Great OS to upgrade to
  • Excellent pricing
  • Tons of improvements across every facet of the OS
  • Win8 UI is solid, easy to use
  • Overall design is more conducive for professional use
  • Great for gaming; plays vast majority of games perfectly

Cons:

  • Some functions are scattered; Win8 versus Win7 line is very strict
  • Laptops with small/poor trackpads will suffer immensely
  • Upgrading proves far easier that setting Win8 up brand new
  • People easily frustrated by change will have problems here



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.