Microsoft has released a gorgeous new operating system in Windows 8 but has essentially reinvented Windows. The full screen Windows 8 apps are perfect, the new OS responds so quickly even on the 4 year old PC I upgraded to test this and (finally!) search results for things on my own computer are instantaneous. But Windows 8 is a new environment. For me it was like walking into a house that I thought I knew but inside it had been transformed. My own grief cycle (modeled on Kubler Ross) was denial, infatuation, frustration, bargaining, learning, acceptance, mild appreciation.

The Good

First, some preliminaries. I’m using Windows 8 on a traditional desktop as many of you would be. I’ll be reviewing Windows 8 from that perspective. I upgraded from the very useful Windows 7 and have had absolutely no compatibility issues. I booted up, went through a very easy-to-follow setup to personalize my computer and associate my online accounts for calendar syncing. I was eager to see how the upgrade worked and was very pleased. My old printers work and all my specialized programs and geeky utilities continued functioning. Nothing crashed and there were no additional tweaks to get things working.

The most obvious change is that they’ve killed the Start button. They have replaced it with the gorgeous Start Page. I can’t wait to see this on a tablet. The finger-friendly icons and live-updating tiles show me my personal info in a really attractive way. The gallery of photos on my computer are rotated in one of the tiles. Constantly updated weather info and my upcoming appointments are right there as well. Mail is a light app for checking email, but does little management such as utilizing rules, Out of Office, etc. It’s not full function but the lack of a toolbar is almost a feature. There are no settings to play with so you’re stuck with reading and replying to messages. This single-mindedness is refreshing.

Even less noticeable updates are very welcome. The Control Panel has never been simple to navigate. Microsoft has introduced what I hope is a down-the-road replacement called PC Settings. (In this version both the Control Panel and PC Settings coexist. Some settings such as Windows Update and managing Devices exists in both places, too.) The layout here is obvious and the vocabulary makes sense. Sync Your Settings is easy to set up and allows you to set your desktop preferences — default browser, desktop colors and themes, even passwords — on one computer and see it reflected on another Windows 8 computer with that same associated account logged on.

One OS for tablets and desktops

Microsoft had not had a response to the tablet world until now leaving iPad and Android devices many, many years to claim incumbent status. (Microsoft tried for this category 11 years ago — really! — but famously flopped.) People embraced this new category of device and now expect swipy, touchy, pinchy mobile tools with app stores. And they expect some integration between their phones and their mobile devices.

In contrast with Apple and Google (makers of the Android OS), Microsoft is releasing one operating system designed for tablets and desktops. The Windows 8 Start Page looks great in tablet demos I’ve seen. The full screen Windows 8 apps will work well on a device like that. I also checked out the comparatively bare Windows 8 App Store and immediately scanned and found that my favorite apps on my iPad haven’t been released for Windows 8. I did install a few drawing apps that are clearly designed for finger use, not my mouse. Tiles, also, are not that helpful for my desktop computer. It would sort of work but with power-friendly settings on my monitors these live tiles don’t have a home since my monitors go black after a few idle minutes.

But for a desktop? The full screen apps, are clearly much better on a limited screen tablet than my dual 21” monitor setup. The calendar is gorgeous and displays my personal appointments that I share with my wife in our Google-linked accounts in one color right alongside my Exchange work account in a different color. But I don’t want it to take up the full screen and I obviously won’t dedicate an entire monitor just for that. And then it’s not clear how to minimize it. (Oh, you don’t. You do make it disappear by moving another app on top of it from the other monitor.)

Where do you want to go today?TM

And that’s just one challenge to getting around on my new PC. How do I get to the Start Page since there’s no Start button to get there? (Click the Windows key on your keyboard.) I found that if I hover my mouse in the bottom left corner of the screen (No, further. Further. All the way down and left.) then I could get the Start Page icon to show up briefly. But it would disappear if I moved off the left corner. Or I’d end up clicking the program in the bottom left of the Task Bar and launch Internet Explorer instead. And without a Start Button, how do you log off? (To log off, go to the Start Page and click the icon in the top right that represents you. Choose “Sign Out” from there. Apparently that’s the new “Log Off”.) Powering off the computer was even more challenging. (Hover off screen on the right to bring up the “Charms”. Click Settings. Click Power. Choose Shut Down, Restart, Sleep, etc.)

Tossing out the Start Menu has one irritating bit of collateral damage. In Windows 7 I was really loving Jump Lists, the ability to open the Start Menu, right-click on a program, and see a list of recent documents opened by that program or perform other quick functions. The Jump Lists sort of remain but only if the program is already running and the icon is in the Task Bar. If Word is open, right-click there and you’ll have the option to open a previous doc, create a new one, etc. But if I have to open the program first it saves me no time. There are barely adequate workarounds.

In the end, I see that what I’ve considered “Windows” all these years is still there but how I use it is completely different. The desktop, which is what Windows has always been to me, is relegated to an app in Windows 8. These full screen apps such as Calendar, Mail, Contacts, etc. are as prominent as the desktop. The Start Page which started off really pretty is getting more cluttered than that Start Menu ever was because every new tool installs a shortcut there and there are no folders to organize icons into. Microsoft Office cluttered my Start Page with 5 icons I’ll never use (unless I decide to use tools like Microsoft Clip Organizer for the first time ever). I’ll likely ignore the eye candy, get used to the odd (sorry, I mean the new) ways of getting around and just put up with it.

No rush to buy

I feel like I’m learning to navigate a new building but I’ll put up with it because it’s gorgeous, modern looking and quick to respond to searches, to opening programs. Windows is an ever-evolving tool that ultimately doesn’t need as much attention as it needs to just work well and get me access to my tools. The list of things that are maddeningly hard to find is diminishing and with it my reluctance to just go back to Windows 7. I’ll be asked by clients and friends and family if they should upgrade. I’ll say the same thing to everyone. Yeah, go ahead, it’s fine. But don’t feel bad about keeping your current computer and operating system.

Recommended Links

If you would like to read more or see a preview of Windows 8, I recommend:

CNet’s round up of devices launching with Windows 8. There are some wild new hybrid designs

David Pogue’s review in the The New York Times

LifeHacker has a good brief tour of the interface

Upcoming Events

I will be providing a preview of Windows 8 at the IT Trends event for DCWeek on November 7 and also doing a free webinar on Windows 8 on December 6. Come and see and evaluate if it’s the right time for your organization to get started with Windows 8.


We invite you to share your thoughts and questions about Windows 8 by commenting below.