A Positive Review of Windows 8

I don’t really do a lot of tech reviews on this blog (when I even get around to blogging these days, what with a 2-year old and a house to renovate!), but I might start doing a few more as I gradually move towards some more ‘design’ oriented posts – just to balance out some of the more ‘data’ ones that dominate here.

I installed a release preview of Windows 8 about 3 weeks about on my laptop.  I fully expected t really hate it.  And at first I did.  It was just ‘too dam different!’ from what I was used to.  Nothing in the right place.  Cursing MS for making me learn the Windows environment again.  Utterly confused about WHY they did this, or that.

I actually stopped using my laptop for a while out of sheer frustration and was about to write a really negative review of the system.

But then something happened.  I logged back in one day and just started looking at it anew.  As I played around with the system I realized that, yeah, this is actually pretty ‘fun’ – not a word I would normally use to describe a Windows experience.

I think there are three great design ideas in Windows 8 that just make it fun to use:

  1. Getting rid of the ‘desktop’ – Ok, so it’s not completely gone in Win8 but it has one foot solidly out the door.  The ‘desktop’ in Win8 is basically like an app you use to run programs from.  You can switch between the ‘desktop’ and other Win8 apps but you can’t switch Win8 apps on the ‘desktop’ itself.  This takes some time to get used to.  It changes the basic concept of windows from this ‘two-dimensional place called the desktop where you can put things’ to this ‘three-dimensional place where things are stored, but you don’t need to know where they are stored to use them’.  It’s basically a further abstraction of the idea that programs/apps have a ‘home’.  They don’t need to.  They just need to be available when and where you want to use them.  To this end, you can pin anything to the Win8 start-page, you can pin to the old desktop taskbar, or you can search through all the apps with a very fast/zippy search function.  Or you can even alt-tab between running apps.  It’s a little bit like the Android recent app selection menu function, except all the ‘pinning’ makes it feel more ‘custom’.  I suspect the ‘desktop’ that does exist in Win8 is a result of extreme pressure to keep some semblance of consistency between versions.  I’d love to see it go completely – it’s simply a better experience without it.  Which is surprising.
  2. Getting rid of ‘windows’ – If you use apps in Win8 you don’t really use ‘windows’ (as in the rectangles on the screen) anymore.  Apps are either full-screen or docked on the side of the screen.  You can of course use overlapping windows on the desktop (as usual), but not with apps.   Now this was something I initially thought was a step back – why reduce the flexibility users have when multi-tasking?  However, the more I used the side-docking (for things like a Twitter app), the more it made sense.  You see in Win8, an app knows when it is docked and hence reacts (or should react) appropriately to having a smaller screen space.  Unlike in the traditional desktop where most apps just scale down to uselessness when in a small window, the Win8 apps seem to seamlessly adjust.  Functions are hidden, screens reduce in size but still work.  Even new options appear when docked to allow you to customize what you see.  The only caveat on this is that it helps to have a wide-screen display, and I can see times when I will want some simple app (such as a calculator) to pop up over running apps for ease of entering numbers.  However, the design idea of docked apps that are ‘position aware’ is really good – kudos to MS.
  3. It FAST! – Yes, again, not something we normally associate with Windows.  But right from boot-up, to interacting with the start screen, to searching, to switching between apps, Win8 is a zippy experience.  We probably have to give credit to Apple here for setting the bar for responsiveness for hardware based OS’s, it seems to be something MS has taken very seriously in Win8.  Hopefully this also translates into the Win8 tablet experience.  The only place you see a slow down is opening the old desktop.
So in short, program/app location abstraction and a down-playing of the ‘desktop’, location aware app environment, and a speedy/responsive system make Win8 a fun ride.  Who would have thought?
I could end on all the stuff I don’t like (and there are a few things – forcing mouse users into tablet-based gestures is one that pops to mind), but those things don’t collectively out-weigh what’s good about Win8.  So I think MS deserves some credit for going out on a limb and actually ‘designing’ something new.  I feel like they could have gone further (and no doubt they will in the future), but it’s  a promising start.


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