Windows 8 Pro: a Windows 7 User's Reaction

Mark is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

Compulsive early-adopter that I am, I bought a copy of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows 8 Pro as soon as it became available on October 26 and installed it on a mid-grade Core 2 Quad 9550 PC I keep mostly as back-up.  I also bought a Logitech t650 wireless Touchpad, which is compatible with Win8, providing full multi-touch and gesture support.  While I mainly wanted to see how well Win8 worked as a conventional desktop OS, I wanted to take advantage of the features of what was called, this time last year, the Metro interface.   Now, it’s just called the Start Screen.  

I liked Metro in its earlier incarnation, and I like the Start Screen now.  No one can accuse Microsoft of ripping off the Start Screen look and feel.  It’s totally original, engaging and responsive.  The Live tiles, with their ability to update useful information in real time, make iOS app icons seem a little dry and boring.  There’s danger of information overload, however, and many consumers may feel that Win8’s Start Screen isn’t as simple and intuitive as either iOS or Android.  Since Metro, the color schemes available for the Start Screen have been toned down, so that Day-Glo Green tiles are no longer the norm.  There’s a choice of color schemes and backgrounds, but no background photos, since the tiles obscure most of the background.

The true bright spot of Windows 8 is how well it handles apps, both the new Win 8 apps available through the Microsoft store as well as existing Windows 7 apps.  Those of us who have lived in the Windows world know that app installation is far from an effortless process, and even after installation, compatibility issues can arise between the app, the installed system drivers, and other apps.  The price to be paid for the relative abundance of Windows software and hardware was always in the various system integration issues that cropped up.  Installation of Windows 8 apps downloaded from the Microsoft store is now as effortless as installing an iOS or Mac OS app from the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) stores, or an Android app from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Play, and this is a real accomplishment which will go far towards expanding the Windows 8 app ecosystem.  Installing existing Windows 7 apps works as well as it ever has.  Installation occurs in Desktop mode, and the apps will only be available in Desktop mode.  The key difference is that the Start screen gets a tile for the installed Desktop app.  

Windows 8 apps are inherently full screen, touch enabled apps that conform to the look and feel of the start screen.  Multiple apps can run concurrently, and you can switch between them relatively quickly by swiping from the left edge of the touchscreen or the touchpad.  It’s also possible to view two apps in a split screen mode where one app occupies about 75% of the screen and the other app the remainder.  Here I come to my first real misgiving about Windows 8 on the desktop PC.  With resizable windows and multiple monitors, many concurrent apps can be viewed simultaneously, and switching between them is simply a matter of clicking on the appropriate Window.  When I ask myself if I would ever want to give up the flexibility of resizable windows, the answer comes back resoundingly “No!”  

Resizable windows are, of course, the norm for the Windows 7 compatibility mode, known simply as the Desktop, that’s available in Win8.  The Desktop affords compatibility with all existing Windows 7 applications, and also hosts most of the system management tools that Windows users have become accustomed to, including the Control Panel and Computer Management.  Although there’s a Windows 8 PC Settings app (full screen, touch enabled) that handles mundane personalization chores, if you really want to manage your computer, Windows 8 falls back on the desktop.  Although Microsoft has claimed that converting apps to Windows 8 is easy, very little system administration functionality has been converted.  You can pin these tools to the Start Screen, but starting one of them dumps you unceremoniously into the Desktop.  

When Windows 8 was introduced at Microsoft’s BUILD 2011, one got the impression that Desktop mode was there simply as a compatibility mode for soon-to-be obsolete Windows 7 apps.  With the as delivered Windows 8 Pro one is confronted with a duality of incompatible user interfaces that Microsoft seems to want to present as the norm.  For instance, if you want to use more than one monitor, then that second monitor will only be in Desktop mode.  Windows 8 apps, including the Start Screen, are not only full screen, they are single screen.  The wall between the Windows 8 apps and Desktop apps appears insurmountable.  An app can belong to one or the other world but never bridge the two.  Although Microsoft’s demonstrations have focused on the Start Screen and Windows 8 apps, in fact, with Windows 8 Pro, the user has no realistic hope of being able to stay in the Windows 8 mode exclusively.  

The frequency with which one is tossed back and forth between the two OS modes is disconcerting.  Microsoft’s decision to eliminate the Start Button from the Desktop mode and force users to launch all apps from the Start Screen only increases this frequency.  And here I come to my second major misgiving about Windows 8.  The elimination of the Start Menu from the task bar greatly impairs the utility of Desktop mode.  Although switching to the Start Screen is nearly instantaneous, it just isn’t as convenient as a pop-up menu.  

The need to use Desktop mode for system management, combined with the elimination of the Start menu in Desktop mode make Windows 8 feel very poorly integrated.  Desktop mode is clearly a second class citizen in the new Win 8 world, yet Microsoft relies on it so heavily.  The sense of demotion of the Desktop is also underscored by the lack of translucent window frames.  Since Vista, Windows users have been conditioned to regard their systems as inadequate if they couldn’t run the Aero mode, which was only available if your system passed a series of tests that the OS performed.  Although translucent Window frames had little practical value, I still liked them and found them far more attractive than Mac OS X.  

I believe that most existing Windows 7 users will react as I did to Windows 8: Windows 8 has a lot of cool features, but the desktop portion is a downgrade rather than an upgrade.  This has been largely confirmed by reviews of Windows 8, which have tended to be a little circumspect about recommending it for non-touchscreen PCs.  PC World’s Lloyd Case stated: “Windows 8 isn’t for everyone. If you’re mostly a desktop PC user comfortable with Windows 7, upgrading to Windows 8 is probably not worthwhile.”  Wired’s Alexandra Chang danced around the issue a bit, damning Windows 8 with faint praise: “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.”  

What this portends for the performance in the market place of the Windows 8 OS and Windows 8 and RT devices, I’ll delve into in my next post: Windows 8: a Competitive Assessment.

MarkHibben has a position in Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.

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