The newest version of Windows for computers, due to be released on October 26, is expected to narrow the gap between desktops and laptops (other than Macs) and tablets, whose intuitive touch-screen controls and apps have been changing the way people use computers. But the new features it offers may not be right for all buyers.
This fall Microsoft will also bring a version of Windows directly to tablets and phones. New Windows 8-based phones and tablets are expected to challenge the iPhone, iPad, and their Android-based counterparts perhaps as early as October.
Recently, we had a chance to test-drive Windows 8 on two computers. As soon as phones and tablets running Windows 8 become available, we'll try those out, too, and report on our findings.
The two computers we used were an all-in-one desktop equipped with a touchscreen display and a laptop with a conventional (non-touch) display. We upgraded both from Windows 7 to Windows 8 using what Microsoft calls the Windows 8 RTM (released to manufacturing) version. While this version isn't available to consumers yet, Microsoft says that it is the version that will be available on new computers on October 26.
Here's what we found when used Windows 8 for everyday activities:
It has a split personality. Unlike previous versions, Windows 8 actually has two user interfaces: One is the familiar Windows desktop (without certain Windows 7 features, such as transparent windows). The other, a touch-friendly design that Microsoft calls "Modern UI Style," resembles the interface on a tablet or smart phone, with a mosaic of large, rectangular tiles, one for each app (or accessory). You can run each by touching its tile or clicking on the tile with a mouse.
You toggle between the desktop and tablet-style interfaces using the keyboard, a pointing device, or, if you have a touch-screen, your finger.
With a touch screen, Windows 8 sings. You can access all of Windows 8's features using a mouse and keyboard. But the experience was way better on our touch-screen-enabled desktop than with the non-touch laptop. As we expected, when using the tablet-style interface, touching the screen quickly became our primary means of control. In fact, when scrolling between screens in the photo or weather app, for example, or zooming in or out of maps, using the touchscreen was as much fun as using a tablet.
Still, for some purposes, we found the computer's physical keyboard more convenient. For example, it was far easier to type on than the onscreen keyboard that popped up. And it was often handier to use the physical keyboard's dedicated Windows key to exit from an app back to the home screen, rather than having to click the mouse very near the display's lower-left corner.
When we used the traditional Windows desktop interface, we were surprised at how easily we integrated the touch capability. Some activities, such as clicking on an icon, were more easily done with a mouse than the touch screen, because Windows icons are so small.
Overall, though, when engaging in some daily tasks that we have performed for years on computers without a touch screen, we found ourselves moving intuitively from the keyboard and mouse to the display, sometimes typing, sometimes clicking, sometimes touching. It was seamless, and required no thinking on our part—it just happened.
Without a touch screen, Windows 8 is no great shakes. Things were different with the laptop with a non-touch screen. With the new tablet-style interface, which invites you to tap and swipe with your fingers, we were frustrated at not being able to engage. Yes, we could use the laptop's touchpad, but the experience was hardly the same.
To be fair, the version of Windows 8 that we used didn't include a full-featured software driver for our laptop's touchpad, so we couldn't take advantage of all the gestures and swiping that should available for laptop touchpads after Windows 8 officially ships. That software should improve the touchpad experience. Even so, we don't expect that experience to fully match the "hands-on" feeling of a touch screen.
Using the traditional Windows desktop interface was very nearly the same as with Windows 7. We tried speeding up some activities by using Windows 8's keyboard shortcuts, but that was no substitute for the experience of using a touch screen.
Apps are like those on tablets. The tablet-style interface displays a mosaic of tiles—for mail, photos, video, games, weather, and every application on your computer. Many were "live" right out of the box, automatically displaying appropriate fresh content inside each tile from time to time. To run an app, you touch it or click on it.
To make other tiles live, we had to undertake a process we found onerous: Open a (free) Microsoft Live account and then sign into each tile's app with that account.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is jumping on the app-store bandwagon, although its store was sparsely populated when we visited it. Expect Microsoft to beef up the selection on October 26.
Here are some key apps that were included with Windows 8 out of the box:
Apps can multitask.
- Mail: You can associate this tile with multiple e-mail accounts of your choosing. When a new message arrives in your inbox, the subject, sender, and some of the message itself will appear in the tile. But when we set up an AOL account, the contacts didn't show up in the People app (see below). When we tried composing new messages, no addresses were auto-filled.
- Calendar: This shows upcoming appointments on its tile. We'd like to have more options here, such as the ability to change when reminders are supposed to show up. Meeting notifications also pop up on your desktop, even when you're not on the touch interface.
- People: This is much more than your typical contact list. It's all about social networking. You can import the contacts associated with your e-mail accounts, add add Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and interact with them all right within the People app. Notifications that you've received a post from a Facebook friend also show up on the Mail tile. We like the idea of integrating social networking wherever possible, but found the People app to be somewhat confusing to use at times.
In the tablet-style interface, we were able to open more than one app window at a time and even have an app from the tablet-style interface running in one window while a productivity app, such as a word processor, ran in another. But we found that only two windows could be visible side by side at the same time, with one filling about two-thirds of the screen and the other one-third. We couldn't adjust those windows to any other sizes. Pressing the Windows and Tab keys simultaneously brought up a panel that showed all the windows opened.
Performance is unchanged. Microsoft hasn't claimed that Windows 8 will enhance the performance of your computer. And as our tests so far show, it doesn't; it performed much the same as Windows 7. Battery life tests also indicate that you probably won't see a big boost in battery juice either.
Some rough edges. Windows 8's desktop user interface does away with the Start menu that has been a fixture in the lower-left corner of the desktop on every version of Windows' desktop for 17 years. Performing all the functions that used belong to the Start menu, such as shutting the computer down or calling up the control panel, requires clicking elsewhere on the screen or executing keyboard shortcuts.
We found the change unnerving and uncomfortable. While learning new ways of doing things is the price of progress, simultaneously dropping the single most familiar control in Windows is a disservice to the millions who have relied on that control for nearly a generation. Microsoft could have waited until the next Windows version to wean users off the Start menu, although it's not obvious that the control needs to eliminated.
At least one company, Stardock, has already developed a Windows 8 application called Start 8 that restores the Start menu to its familiar place. When we tried it, it worked well.
Bottom line. Starting October 26, Windows 8 should be pre-installed on all, or nearly all, new Windows-based computers. If you don't need Windows 8's touch-screen features, the weeks leading up to that are a good time to grab a new computer, since prices will likely be dropping as stores make room for the new inventory.
If you're buying a new system after that, consider ones with a touchscreen, which will enhance your experience with this new version of Windows. The larger the display, the more touch capability will cost you.
If you're not buying a new computer, but your existing one has a touch screen, Windows 8 is worth the upgrade. If you don't have a touch screen, take a pass on Windows 8 for now.
—Donna Tapellini, with reporting by Jeff Fox
Related: Nokia Lumia 920 and 820, first Windows 8 smart phones, offer best cameras we've seen