Review: Windows 8 wobbles on the tablet-PC fence
BY ROBERT EVATT World Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2012
10/27/12 at 4:42 AM
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Halloween brings us all kinds of spooky images, including that of Frankenstein's monster, a shambling creature created from the stitched-together pieces of completely different corpses.
So it's appropriate this Halloween also brings us the release of Windows 8, a shambling program created from the stitched-together pieces of completely different operating systems.
Microsoft spokesmen have long warned us that Windows 8 would be the biggest change to Windows since the operating system was created, and even a glance will show that they were right. But what Microsoft failed to warn us is that you'll have to bounce back and forth between the main face of the operating system and its more traditional backstage in order to perform everything you expect to accomplish with a traditional PC.
I used Windows 8 on a traditional PC without a touchscreen. It's also coming loaded on touch-capable laptops, but I didn't get to try any of the touch features.
Windows 8 defaults to the Start screen, which may look familiar to those who have used an Xbox 360 or a Windows Phone but doesn't behave anything like any other mainline version of Windows. The Start button is gone. So is the permanent clock. Icons for open programs no longer show up on the bottom of the screen. The red X that kills programs has itself been killed. In fact, folders and programs no longer show up in little windows you can move around and layer.
Instead, the home screen is clustered with a variety of tiles that represent apps and other computer functions. Each tile is "live," meaning the tile itself can present new information before you open it up. The weather tile shows the local temperature, and the email tile shows you how many unread messages you have.
Beyond clicking individual tiles to open them, users will navigate by moving the mouse to the corners of the screen. The top-left corner brings up a list of programs that are open, and the top-right corner brings up "charms" such as a search field, the option to share whatever you're looking at on social networks, and settings - well, some settings, but I'll get to that later.
Although users will have to re-learn the system from scratch, it's relatively easy to use, clean and appealingly animated. But the many changes aren't always for the better.
The pre-loaded apps are a mixed bag of handy tools and baffling omissions. Email is functional, but it's presented as a clutter of three vertical columns - one for email options, one for a list of messages, and one for the message itself - that you can't resize.
A cluster of apps for news, sports and finance presents a handsome array of recent stories, and you can add teams to follow, stocks to track and news sources to dig through. But you get only a limited set of articles you can't expand, and there's no way to search for a specific term.
Internet Explorer has become minimalistic to the extreme, as the default view gives you the web page with no navigation bar whatsoever. You can bring that bar, as well as tabs, back with a right click, but other than searching for a specific word or bookmarking a web page, you can't do much with it.
Like Windows Phone, a "people" pane gathers all the contacts you know from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and puts them together in a single spot. Unfortunately, you have to keep tabbing back and forth to go from news feed updates to posting your own information, and the notifications list appears on two different spots. "Pictures" fares better, as the app lets you clearly identify which photos are from your Facebook page and which are on your hard drive, for example.
It all feels very basic, which can be a virtue if all you're hoping to do is check your email or see what's happening on Facebook. Yet it feels a little too limiting. You can't have multiple windows open at once or side-by-side, you can't download a new program and use it - everything on the start screen has to come from Microsoft's app store - you can't use any of your old Windows programs, and you can't dig into files that aren't already associated with an app.
At least, you can't do that without going to the "desktop." Hit that icon, and Windows 8 instantly mutates into a mostly similar version of Windows 7. The Start button is still gone, but the traditional Windows experience is all there like you remember. Layered windows, red X's, open program icons, the recycle bin, the works.
It's here that you can do the things you've come to expect from a PC. Programs can be downloaded and launched without consulting Microsoft's app store. Internet Explorer regains all the other options missing from its Start menu counterpart. Open windows and resize them to your heart's content.
Even the Control Panel is still there. Weirdly enough, many of the computer's settings can only be changed within the desktop, as the Start page options are limited.
So it goes with the rest of the experience. To use your PC like you're used to, you're going to have to bounce back and forth between Start and Desktop, which is a constant pain.
Microsoft isn't stupid. They didn't set out to create something to annoy and limit people. The philosophy behind Windows 8 is to stay relevant in a world that's increasingly moving away from PCs and toward tablets. In fact, the Start screen could work quite well on a tablet like Microsoft's own Surface.
The problem is that PCs are being dragged along for the ride. It's obvious that Windows 8 wasn't made with these computers in mind, and that Desktop was included as a stopgap measure to keep the versions the same.
Hopefully Microsoft will work to make things better. But as it stands right now, it's hard to recommend upgrading unless you've always wished you could make your PC into a tablet.
Microsoft Windows 8
$40 to upgrade from XP, Vista or Windows 7
Pros: Attractive, well-animated, tight social media integration, few bugs
Cons: Experience must be learned from near-scratch, inability to resize or view multiple windows, must shuttle between two different operating systems to access all features
Original Print Headline: Windows 8 straddles the tablet-PC fence
Robert Evatt 918-581-8447
An attendant demonstrates the Microsoft Windows 8 operating system during its launch ceremony in Hong Kong on Friday. KIN CHEUNG / AP