Windows 8 - Screenshot 1

Windows 8 with Metro or the modern interface is cool, touch centric and slick. On a tablet with touch, on a huge 27” touch screen computer its fast, on a 4” phone it makes sense. For the rest of us it may just be a choice we just do not want. Windows 8 is the most radical reimagining – to use Microsoft’s words, in the history of the Windows ecosystem. Couple this with Microsoft’s mobile strategy, launching October 2012, on both tablets via their Surface devices, and mobile via Nokia and their other launch partners HTC and Samsung, the next few months and years will be critical to the success of Windows  8, and by extension Microsoft themselves.

This is a review of Windows 8 final release version, and to be sure I had all my bases covered I installed the final code on four of my key machines. The first install was on my Apple MacBook Air 2011 model on the Bootcamp partition. The second install was on a Samsung 11” slate tablet which was running the Windows 8 release candidate. The third PC was an Intel based Core i5 based desktop PC which I use to run my business, and the last PC was my Intel South Africa supplied Core i7 Ivy bridge gaming and cutting edge PC component testing monster.

The range of equipment I used to test Windows 8 would cover just about any scenario possible for many users, from Gamer to casual laptop user. The first impression from an instillation point of view was speed. In all instances, whether installing clean, which was the only way possible if you are using any pre-release version of Windows 8, to a full upgrade from Windows 7 which was seamless, and included all my installed apps and files. The install or upgrade process was simple, well laid out, and informative. Questions asked about what you want to do, and the consequences of your choices were clear simple and logical. For most, if not all users, the install of or upgrade to Windows 8 will be a fast and painless experience.

Once installed a brand new feature of Windows is presented. You are asked to sign in with your Windows Live credentials, and if you don’t have any you can simply bypass this step or actually sign up quickly for an ID. Windows also assumes you have an active always on internet connection for this, and this may be a real challenge in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa, where a huge majority of users connect via a mobile 3G data dongle of some sort, and may need to set up windows and then install the data dongle operating program, before they can access the web. Being connected is useful and ultimately necessary but can be worked around. The Windows Live login gives all sorts of benefits to users, not least of which is a free 7 gig SkyDrive where you can save, sync, and share files, in the so called cloud. SkyDrive is fully and seamlessly integrated into Window 8 and operates exactly like your physical hard drive.

One you use your Windows Live login, Windows 8 boots into the brand new and slick looking tiled interface, which was called Metro, but is now referred to as Modern by Microsoft. One other absolutely smart feature of using your Windows Live login is that all my Windows 8 PC’s mentioned above, are now synced , both from  SkyDrive and that data point of view, but also down to user preferences such as browser favourites, login and desktop backgrounds and other user choices. Seamless sync across devices, fixed and mobile, is key to the Windows 8 experience.

Now to the interesting part, the user experience. With Windows 8 properly installed on everything from a laptop, to a super computer we can explore the Windows 8 experience. The first and overriding impression is that it is fast, very fast. Windows 8 is faster than every Windows 8 preview, by a large margin. It is much faster than Windows 7 in all respects and far smoother in overall operation.

The Microsoft team have done a sterling job in making Windows 8 the cleanest, fastest, and most stable version of Windows I have used to date. Even without specialised Windows 8 drivers. Almost every bit of hardware worked right after install. Where it was critical such as with the MacBook Air, the standard Apple Bootcamp drivers installed perfectly, and all the hardware worked as well, if not better than they had under Windows 7. On the Intel Core i7 monster, I needed to download video drivers and ATI had dedicated Windows 8 drivers ready and waiting. Windows 8 found almost all my external printers, routers, scanners, and other connected Xbox’s, and PS3’s, connected them and allowed them to be used. Basically everything just worked. All programs installed on my work machine worked as they did before, and everything I installed that worked on Windows 7, worked on Windows 8. There does not seem to be any compatibility issues with older programs at all.

On to more exiting issues, the new interface, gone is the Windows 7 menu Orb. In its place is a touch friendly active tile blocky full screen experience.  This was called Metro and now is called the Modern interface. Very creative thinking that by Microsoft, though they may well rename it before general release. The new interface is the repository for all the new Modern apps, or programs, that adhere to the new interface rules. These all run full screen and are installed via the Windows Marketplace, which is a little sparse and poorly populated as of now. Some of the apps were nice and some even useful, but this early into the new paradigm of windows 8 none were exceptional. None I tried beat out the older Windows 7 style programmes we are all used to using. There is no Modern version of Outlook, for example, and the bundled mail, calendar and people app, are at best lame and not very useful. There is no Modern Metro Office suite as well, and even the new Office 2013 preview is Windows 7 style, with touch aware elements, and cloud integration built in I must add.

The big big question is should you upgrade as soon as Windows 8 is available? The answer is not a simple one, as it was with the recent upgrade to Apple’s OSX Mountain Lion, which for the price is a no brainer. Windows 8 will be the least costly upgrade from Microsoft ever, at around USD 49.00 which for the price brings huge improvements on Windows 7 in speed, compatibility with hardware, software tweaks in Windows 7 mode, that greatly enhance usage. The main issue will be the new interface, which is in effect the new menu system, and programme or app launcher.

On the Samsung tablet it felt natural and swift, and the learning curve to app switching and navigation with the charms bar and left to right motion was intuitive, and became natural after a short, sharp learning curve. On non-touch screen devices, mouse controls have been enhanced and shortcuts created to allow fairly smooth control of the older and new interface. The main challenge here is that very few new mouse gestures are intuitive, and will need tuition and learning. Asking your users to relearn a new way of doing things they have always done, no matter the benefits always has huge associated dangers, like alienation. Often users may just not get it, and resist the change, no matter the benefits. Or more dangerously they may move across to a Mac as the OSX interface, whilst different to Windows 7, is far more similar to the older Windows 7 interface than the newer modern or Metro Windows 8 interface.

Windows 8 is a huge move for Microsoft, its greatest strength and its ultimate benefit will be the unification of the desktop, tablet, and mobile interface, coupled with all the cloud services and syncing baked in. Its Achilles heel may be the same things. The new interface needs learning, though for the most part I run 98% of my work day on older programmes within the Windows 7 style interface on two monitors with Windows 8, and really appreciate the speed, stability, and sheer polish of the new version of Windows. Many will hate the new interface on principal, as change is hard, and the “if its not broke don’t fix it” refrain will make sense for many. There is simply too much choice for the average user. The visual disconnect from the older interface to the new interface is jarring, and will be difficult to get used to, which will be problematic for many.

After much use over the past week my ultimate advice is to upgrade as soon as you can. Windows 8 refreshes older hardware, is faster, much more polished and stable on new hardware. If you are waiting to get new hardware on the other hand, there will be a plethora of touch enabled monitors, laptops, and tablets, on their way before year end, all capable of taking full advantage of the new modern touch friendly interface of Windows 8. The app ecosystem should also mature and improve rapidly after general release of Windows 8. For now do as I do and run Windows 8 in Windows 7 mode, complete with a start orb , which can be downloaded from www.lee-soft.com, and enjoy the speed, polish, and hard work that  Microsoft have put into making Windows 8 the best Windows to date.

Steven Ambrose – Executive Editor, CEO of the technology and strategy consulting firm Strategy Worx and a major gadget geek. A chartered accountant by training Steven sports a history spanning from heading statups to divisions of major multinational corporations, he ran and wrote for Gadget.co.za from 2006 to 2010, and now consults on technology and its impact on business as the brainchild and CEO of Strategy Worx. For more immediate comment, views and discussion follow him on Twitter
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