In an earlier post, I discussed my initial skepticism regarding Windows 8, but I decided to reserve judgment until I had a reasonable amount of time to play with the much-maligned new operating system. So, after five months, I’ve come to this general conclusion: the “under the hood” changes are excellent, but the default user interface (UI) is terrible. Happily, the awful UI experience can be completely altered for a mere $10.
The underlying improvements to Windows 8 are usually ignored by the screaming masses, but they are very impressive. The new OS loads onto my desktop computer in about half the time Windows 7 used to start in my current rig, and Windows 8 closes in less than a third of the time of its predecessor. The regular operation of programs is smoother and snappier, and I encounter very few of the “Not Responding” slowdowns that I used to face in Windows 7. The integrated Task Manager is by far the best version I’ve ever seen in a Windows OS, and networking is even simpler and more intuitive than before. I’ve not had a single driver issue either, something that could not be said for Vista or 7. Overall, the underlying functions of Windows 8 are superb, and justify the $40 upgrade I undertook last November.
But now for the bad news: the default user interface is absolutely dreadful, particularly for the hundreds of millions of people who prefer to multitask with multiple windows, a mouse, and a large monitor (or two… or three). The new Start Screen – a full window that replaces the old fold-out Start Menu – is where you begin navigating to your applications. This is the core of Microsoft’s new “Modern” UI.
Immediately you see how the old desktop paradigm has been lost, and that many of the customary efficiencies are not readily available. After playing with this new Start Menu for five months, here is a summary of the problems I face with the default UI in Windows 8:
- Windows 8 is optimized for a touch interface, but I do not have a touch interface and will never want one. I currently have two large monitors run by a fairly beefy video card and a mouse. The idea of reaching up, over to and across my monitors all day strikes me (and others) as absurd, as I can move around my monitors with just a few inches of movement from my mouse. The ergonomics of touch make no sense in a large, complex computing environment. If you want to single task on a small hand-held device, like I do with my Nokia 920, then touch is wonderful paradigm, but then the ergonomics are obviously very different.
- When you boot up your computer, you are faced with two hurdles: (1) a lock screen that makes sense on a phone but not on a desktop, and (2) the new Start Screen. You can get to the traditional desktop, but you have to click on one of the tiles on the Start Screen to access the desktop. I know this is only one click, but it’s one more click than I had before to get to the same place. By definition, this is a step backward.
- The Start Screen wastes an extraordinary amount of screen space on the top and bottom, which seems extravagant and wasteful to those of us who want to maximize usable space.
- The Modern Start Screen supposedly replaces the old Start Menu, but, because it’s full screen, the Start Screen looks more like a desktop replacement. Unfortunately, the Modern UI breaks my initial workflow: the first thing I usually do on a desktop is click on a document (Word or Powerpoint), rather than an application. However, it is difficult to pin a document to the Start Screen. There are workarounds, of course, but a workaround is by definition a step backward, particularly when it involves a registry hack.
- When programs are opened, they open full screen. I can’t properly express to you how annoying this is. It’s a major deal-breaker, to say the least. I hardly ever run a window full screen, as I like to run at least two or three overlapping programs at one time on each monitor, an approach that allows me to quickly and intuitively switch between windows. [The full screen approach has given rise to the ironic meme of “Window 8”.]
- Navigation tools are, get this, hidden! A graphical user interface that expects people to visually navigate an OS with tools that can’t be seen is almost Orwellian. Many critical system tools are hidden in the Charm Bar to the right (which makes a secondary monitor on the right a hassle), and even the taskbar is hidden to the left. Apparently, saving space is important for a tablet, so you need to navigate around the edges to activate the navigation tools. [But if space is so important, why do we face the problem in #3 above?] For average users, it can lead to a frustrating – and OS-killing – experience, like we see below:
- “But,” Win8 apologists will cry, “you can always memorize dozens of keyboard commands!” Memorize keyboard commands? Hmmm… why does that sound familiar? Hmmm… er…uhm… oh, I know! I used to do that in DOS on my Zenith computer! 25 years ago! And I hated it! Navigating an OS with a keyboard is the ultimate in “legacy app”.
- Finally, Microsoft is deliberately forsaking the desktop user because it wants to get a share of the tablet market. Aside from the possibility that the tablet may well go the way of the netbook, the treatment of desktop users as second-class consumers is simply irksome. Why can’t we get a bevy of upgrades, too? Why are our dollars less important than those of tablet users? And, will there ever come a time when the desktop disappears and we are forced into the vexing walled garden of the Windows App Store? All I can say is this: given my complaints above, I will not continue with Windows if the long term plan is to eliminate the desktop.
However, not all is doom and gloom. Until the desktop is taken away, there are two simple fixes that make Windows 8 the best desktop OS that Windows has ever produced. Oddly, Windows 8 is salvaged not by Microsoft, but by a company called Stardock. As a I reported earlier, the $5 Start8 program allows the computer user to boot directly into the desktop, and completely bypass the Start Screen. [Because of this, I’m not really bothered by the switching back and forth between desktop and Start Screen modes; I simply ignore the latter unless I want to browse the App Store.] Start8 will also allow you to insert and customize a Start Button and Start Menu. The latter remains an important option when you have hundreds of programs that won’t fit easily onto the Modern UI’s Start Screen, or even onto the desktop or taskbar. Recently, Stardock introduced ModernMix, another $5 program which allows users, for the first time, to use Modern apps in scalable windows inside the traditional desktop, and pin these apps to the taskbar. Though there are very few killer apps in the Windows App Store, it’s nice to have the option of accessing these apps when desired. App Radio, for example, is the one Modern UI app I use on the desktop, and it makes me feel like a first class consumer once again. Together, these two programs give me Windows 8 speed and stability with a Windows 7 interface.
As a result, I now consider Windows 8 an excellent operating system in spite of Microsoft. Who knew that $10 could turn Windows 8 from a frog into a king?