Everything but the PC? A week with Windows 8

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By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

At the BUILD conference last week, Microsoft publicly unveiled the “developer preview” on its upcoming new operating system. Microsoft has staked out the claim that Windows 8 is the future of the operating system. After a week with the preview, does it deliver?

To start with, performance of the developer preview is generally better than Windows 7, especially in terms of startup and sleep. This is apparently made possible by a hybrid system that closes programs but hibernates the operating system, and it pays off. Behind the scenes improvements are minor but important, like native USB 3, better virtualization and ISO mounting support (finally!).

The defining feature of Windows 8 is Metro. Of all the parts of the operating system, this is both the best and worst. Best, of course, because it finally gives Windows a touch-friendly interface that’s also usable on a TV or media center, and worst because it’s a nightmare for real productive work that needs a keyboard and mouse (or touchpad).

It’s an impressive piece of work that deserves commendation on both interface and technical grounds, but as an engineering major, it’s patently unusable for much of what I do on a computer. What’s worse is that Metro and the classic Windows desktop aren’t separate-but-equal citizens; some things have to be done in ‘classic’ mode (like file transfers), and yet other things have to be done in ‘Metro’ (like the Start menu).

Windows 8 is far from perfect, and Microsoft needs to rethink the split between Metro and classic. There are a few major suggestions we’ve heard from people using the preview. First, Metro is just plain unusable for day-to-day desktop work, and there’s nothing wrong with the traditional Start menu, so the obvious answer is to keep them both and allow users to choose.

Second, there’s no reason Metro apps can’t run windowed in ‘classic’ mode. Metro is resolution-independednt, so it shouldn’t be hard to get this to work. Third, make almost all the tools available in classic mode available in Metro too. It’s awful design to have a tablet user drop to a finger-unfriendly system just because they need to change a setting.

Microsoft has always aimed for “Windows everywhere,” with the same software on PCs, TVs, tablets, phones and game consoles. In that light, Windows 8 all makes sense. It’s the first Windows variant in over a decade to truly support anything other than a standard desktop interface, and it’s also the first Windows variant since 2003 to support other hardware architectures.

In short, Windows 8 has both the technical and interface features needed to run on everything from a PC to an Xbox. The question that remains is if Microsoft, in its attempt to make Windows a jack-of-all-trades, can avoid making it a master of none that simply doesn’t work for normal laptop or desktop users.

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