This review is not intended to cover all, or even all net-new features included in Windows 8. Instead I have focused on features and functions used in my first 3 weeks with the OS (Enterprise edition), and 10 days using the Lenovo Twist (mixed professional/home/travel use). For the TL;DR version, read only underlined statements below.
The single biggest change in Windows 8 is the introduction of a new user paradigm, which Microsoft dryly refers to as “the new Start screen”, is formerly known as “Metro”, is informally referred to as “RT mode”, and is essentially an unbranded feature. On startup, users are presented with tiles and can search instantly by typing. Fortunately, there is a tile that most notebook/desktop users will select to return to the comfortable “Desktop” paradigm.
Search results in RT mode are grouped by Applications, Settings and Files and default to the first group with no “all of the above” option. (FYI – “Control Panel” appears as an application.)
<rant subtopic:RT Mode Apps>
- Many RT mode apps request a “Microsoft account” (formerly known as Windows Live). I’m uncomfortable connecting either of my two personal Microsoft accounts on a work-issued machine and so will likely never use apps with this dependency.
- Content within some of these apps scrolls continuously along the horizontal axis, and in my opinion, should not stop scrolling with some content cut-off along the left-hand side (for languages read from left-to-right). Content should continue to scroll until content “snaps” to the left edge of the screen.
- When accessing the Video app, the first page is Xbox Videos instead of My Videos (C:\Users\<username>\Videos). My expectation is that only the cheapest versions of Windows (not Enterprise) would prioritize subscription-based content over existing user content.
- The Finance tile should alternate stocks on my Watch List instead of Indices, and removing stocks from the Watch List is difficult.
- Removing Places from the Weather app is not intuitive. Places can only be removed if they are not the default and a user has selected it, triggered the bottom-overlay, and selects Remove.
Only time will tell whether this departure from the desktop-oriented operating system will help Microsoft grow its market share among mobile
consumer devices (domestically or globally) in a way that supports its other strategies.
The base touch-screen experience is acceptable. The touch screen keyboard works nicely and auditory feedback is appreciated.
The ability to override cookie handling and manually review third-party cookies in Internet Explorer makes it my preference for general browsing (and a more useful compromise between plug-ins, ‘Privacy Mode’ and allowing all cookies). When in IE10’s RT mode, some functionality is intuitive. For example, a sufficiently long horizontal swipe performs the browser back function. Selecting, copying and pasting text using the touch screen was intuitive but inconsistent in a way that leads me to believe it is too dependent on site architecture. I discovered the edge-overlays by accident and found myself integrating them in to usage patterns.
New tabs open with the cursor position in the URL field at the bottom of the screen instead of in the Bing search field. Given other RT design considerations, I can understand relocating the URL field, but it is inconsistent both with IE’s desktop mode and every other mainline browser (including IE10 desktop full-screen mode). My assumption is that IE RT users will prefer searching as opposed to directly entering a URL; and that if the initial cursor position becomes the first text field on page, that the touch keyboard should appear immediately.
The distinction between desktop and RT instances may be confusing for some users. Tabs are not shared between instances, which I found unsatisfactory as my browsing scenarios resulted in switching between modes.
The touch experience is immature compared with Apple devices.
When using two fingers to scroll vertically in IE (using the touch-screen), the screen flickers as it both pinch-zooms and scrolls simultaneously. As I am incapable of keeping my two fingers in exact synchronization, the interface fails to reject the minor variations in distance between fingers with the major variation in vertical motion intended to produce only vertical scrolling. Pinch-zooming itself worked as expected while browsing in IE (both desktop and RT modes) and enhanced the touch experience as touch-inputs are inherently less precise. Single-finger scrolling works well except when
using trying to use certain interactive maps in IE RT-mode.
When in RT mode, swiping in from any side of the monitor will produce a screen overlay. For example, swiping in from the right-hand size produces an overlay with the “Charms” menu and date/time. I describe it as an overlay, despite the lack of any dimming/graying of background content while the overlay exists – a potential confusion to an end user who may not understand that all inputs are directed at the overlay until it is dismissed.
One minor nit against the UI is the 13 keyboard strokes to Shut Down: Windows + C, Down Arrow (2x), Enter, Down Arrow (5x), Right Arrow, Up Arrow (2x). Using the touch screen, it’s only four discrete motions: Inward swipe from right-edge, touch Settings, touch Power, touch Shut Down. There may be a more efficient combination of keyboard commands, but I like to take UIs at face-value and rely solely on intuition and presentation. Products for general use should not assume users will search out special key commands prior to use. In conversations with other business users I find that many are still unaware of the simpler Windows key commands (ex. Windows + D to show desktop, Windows + E to show Explorer, Windows + L to lock the screen).
The track pad seems to be of high component quality, but suffers critical flaws.
For example, the OS-level behaviors triggered by swiping-inward from an edge of the touch screen also apply to the track pad which always results in unintended input. After disabling nearly every special feature in the track pad driver, and searching online, I concluded that only registry modification would achieve the ‘dumb’ track pad functionality I prefer. Given that the touch screen is always available while using the track pad, it is unnecessary to trigger the edge-overlays or hot-corners from both components.
The more severe issue occurs as a result of eliminating discrete left/right click buttons. Users must depress part of the track pad to accomplish either function. Therefore, if the user moves the cursor over a selection and leaves that digit in contact with the track pad, using another digit to left-click will result in unintentional cursor movement as it is interpreted as multi-touch instead of touch + click. Two-finger scrolling is barely acceptable as the cursor jumps on repetitive scrolling where the user must lift-off and re-apply both fingers to the track pad. (There is no intended cursor movement in repetitive two finger scrolling scenarios.) Most family members found the track pad entirely unusable. For productive use, a mouse is required.
Lenovo ThinkPad users may be accustomed to configuring UltraNav; but in the future, all input-customization should be controlled by the operating system to deliver an intuitive and consistent multi-touch experience. I believe Windows could achieve this control through better design and/or vertical integration.
The Windows 8 desktop ships with desktop icons disabled. Users can enable them by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Personalization; then selecting Change desktop icons from the left-navigation pane and making the desired selections (Computer, User’s Files, Network, Recycle Bin, Control Panel). I find these to be useful abstractions that most power users will want to enable.
Desktop window styling is cleaner, and less cluttered than Aero. Windows Explorer has inherited the ribbon from the Office suite but is easy to live with, despite the loss of a 1-click New Folder button. (Users must click to show the ribbon’s Home tab to view the New Folder button.)
Although not new to Windows 8, Explorer “Libraries” continue to be an additional, unnecessary abstraction cluttering Explorer windows and file dialogues-alike. I suspect the intent is to simplify configuration of built-in sharing and back-up functionality. I use it for the latter, but would prefer that Windows Back Up use an in-app, directory-based selection. Furthermore, I resent the implication that Explorer libraries exist to support integration with the broader Microsoft ecosystem (i.e. subscription services). My work-around is to add frequently-accessed logical directories to Explorer Favorites so they appear above Libraries. Allowing the user to re-prioritize Favorites, Libraries, Computer and Network in Explorer would be a profound improvement.
Task manager is vastly improved, showing consumption across all resources (CPU, Memory, Disk, Network) by processes (hierarchically). Before the Twist, I also used Windows 8 on a Dell E6400 and found that Task Manager identified Disk as a bottleneck during start up due to the latter’s lack of an SSD.
Twice in 10 days with the Twist, I experienced an issue where plugging in headphones did not result in a termination of audio output via built-in speakers. Only restarting resolved this issue, which I expect is a conflict between some Dolby software and the actual audio processing.
Once while in tablet mode, the cursor independently jumped around the top left-hand corner of the screen, triggering the overlay. I found a thread on Lenovo Community describing the issue and resolved by restarting.
I work for Microsoft, who provided all hardware and software reviewed here. As noted in About, views and opinions are my own and not those of my employer.
Wikipedia: Windows 8
All Things Digital: Windows 8 Review – Walt Mossberg
Wikipedia: Sinofsky at the Windows Division
ZDNet: Sinofsky’s departure from Microsoft: Politics or products to blame?
MIT Technology Review: The Woman Charged with Making Windows 8 Succeed