My second week of using Windows 8 has certainly gone a lot smoother than the first week. I have come to terms with the app situation which does not appear to be as good as it is on OS X but that was always going to be the case, OS X’s dedicated app store has had a few years head start on Microsoft’s effort.
This week I have mostly been getting to grips with the actual OS itself and exploring the many changes that have occurred between Windows 7 and 8. The most striking change is the removal of the traditional start bar. It’s gone, the orb is no longer ever-present and is instead replaced with a graphic that appears when you point your cursor into the lower left and corner. Once clicked, a full screen option appears containing all the apps you have installed on the system, including desktop apps. This view will be familiar to anyone who has used an Xbox or a Windows Phone. A grid of varying sizes of squares and rectangles presents itself from left to right, select on and it flips round and fills the screen. It’s definitely a big change from what has gone before and I expect it will be jarring to many people. My first week was spent pleading to have the start bar back and I’m not entirely sure I have gotten over that yet. This feels similar to installing one of those fancy launchers over a stock android build. It changes the look of certain parts, but not the whole thing. This means the user frequently gets glimpses of what the true operating system looks like. The start menu and the desktop interface do not feel connected at all, they feel like separate operating systems to me.
The start menu does have some benefits though. The “tiles” can contain information such as the weather, football scores and so on and its definitely one of the better pieces of UI design in recent memory. It capitalises on the recent trend of colourful, flat, square design.
Another change is the way the system handles multitasking. A bar from the right hand side shows a list of currently running apps and selecting them takes you to that app. This can be accessed using a trackpad gesture (more on that in a moment) or by using the more traditional alt+tab. This, again, feels like another change for changes sake. Fundamentally all that has really changed here is that the list of apps is now horizontal rather than vertical. I imagine its more useful on touch based systems but that is a problem throughout Windows 8, using a mouse or a trackpad feels like a 2nd rate input now rather than the safe haven of the power user.
The other side of the screen holds the “Charms Bar” (what a horrid name) which gives you access to the share menu, search, devices and settings, as well as an oversized clock in the bottom left hand corner that looks like it was designed for people with cataracts. I use this only to shut the computer down and restart it. The search gives you a couple of suggestions and then takes you to a broader search in the relevant area of the OS such as the store, documents, etc. Also, the default search is Bing. You can decide yourself whether that’s a negative or not.
As mentioned, all of these things as well as toggling full screen mode and a gesture equivalent of alt+tab can be enabled on the trackpad. I can only assume however that none of these were actually tested by a human being with a normal size finger. Having an area on a 10 inch touch screen that gestures can be recognised is fine. Having it on a 3 inch touchpad? Not so much. Particularly when the gestures can be invoked from both sides as well as the top, leaving you the equivalent of a square inch in the middle of the touch pad where nothing happens. I lost track of how many times on the first day I was greeted with the charms bar or switched apps when all I wanted to do was open a new tab. This could be down to the hardware (Asus K55a) but given the history of horrible trackpads on windows machines I can’t be sure. Regardless, I kept them on for 10 days in an effort to get use to them before I gave up. My usage has been much better now as the trackpad does movement, scrolling and selecting.
I’m not trying to hate Windows 8, I’m really not, but I wouldn’t be doing my job correctly if I left out the negatives just to please the hardcore supporters. I’m trying to like it and give it a place in my heart but like a family who opens its home to a puppy, if he keeps biting you over and over again you’re going to start getting agitated. That’s how I feel about Windows 8, there’s potential here but there’s also issues.
I’m halfway through the month now and I’m not giving up. I’ll be back next week with another update.