Windows 8 is a radical change from previous versions of Windows. The change is intended to make the touchscreen experience of the new operating system consistent across all Microsoft devices from PCs to tablets to smartphones. As PC World explains, it does not look at all like what Windows users are accustomed to seeing on their PCs.
Microsoft event reveals new Start Screen
You get a sense of the new look from this image Microsoft used at its Launch Event. There is no Start button. The entire screen is a start button. You open applications, drag icons around to create columns, contact people and do other chores from this screen.
The radical change is a gamble Microsoft felt it needed to take to bring itself up to date in a market where it's fallen behind. The rest of the world is largely mobile now, and the iPad has been out for 3 years. Like anything new, Windows 8 is going to take some getting used to. And like most reviews of anything that takes some getting used to, some early reviews are highly critical.
Dori Smith, writing at Backup Brain addresses the confused user issue. She thinks Microsoft's big gamble to make everything operate in the same way may be a mistake. She writes,
Windows 8 is a disaster from a usability standpoint. Or more precisely, Win 8 makes perfect sense if you think that people use an OS because what they want to do is use an OS. Most of us use an OS because we want to get some task done: write an article, play a game, surf the Web, etc. The OS is in the background handling its required tasks, and it usually only presents itself when something has gone very wrong.
MS appears to think that people want to sit and stare at their desktops and admire the way they look. I’ve never known anyone where this was their primary usage, although I don’t doubt that MS focus groups were able to dig some up. Sadly, this appears to be a case of the Windows tail wagging the computer-user dog—MS sells Windows, and makes a lot of money doing so, therefore, Windows must be at the center of all your computer using-tasks.
Dori's view is backed up in an article on the blog Gadget Box, Usability expert finds Windows 8 on a PC confusing. The article quotes usability expert Raluca Budiu of the Nielsen Norman Group as saying,
. . . at least for some tasks, the usability is worse. There are things that you can do more easily in Windows 8. For instance, it’s easy to share a news story through email or with friends on Facebook. But, I am not sure that these are the tasks that people do most often on a PC.
Windows 8 is optimized for content consumption rather than content production and multitasking. Whereas content consumption can easily be done on other media (tablets and phones), production and multitasking are still best suited for PCs. Windows 8 appears to ignore that.
When Budiu was asked about the hidden menus (you must hover in a certain spot to reveal menus) she said,
Hovering before using a menu does slow users down, but that’s not the major problem. The fact that the menus are hidden is primarily what slows users down – remember that what’s out of sight is out of mind. In our studies with mobile devices we found that whenever a menu was not in plain view, even users who knew about the existence of that menu (that is, they had discovered it in the past) didn’t use it as much or took a longer time to think to use it than if the menu options were all visible. So it’s not only the hovering that slows users down – it’s the lack of visibility that makes these menus less available.
Microsoft Office and its mail program Outlook are also changed and updated with a new look and feel that brings another learning curve into the process of working in Windows 8.
Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT
The PC versions of the OS are Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. The version installed on Surface tablets is referred to as Windows RT.
At Techmamas in Top 10 Things to Know about the Windows 8 Launch, we get this advice,
There are three Windows versions: Windows 8 , Windows RT and Windows PRO. It is important to understand that "Windows RT contains many of the same features as Windows 8, but is a new operating system for thin and light PCs". The best way to learn about the different features of each version of Windows is to visit the "Which Windows is right for you" page.
Although Microsoft is striving to make the PC and tablet experience the same, Windows RT does not have all the functions of Windows 8. Windows RT comes on Microsoft's Surface tablets and will be on other Windows-based tablets as well, such as those from Asus and Dell.
Even though Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT are not exactly the same, manufacturers are marketing devices that are meant to be both desktop PCs and tablets. As PC World put it about Sony's entry into this market: Sony Tap 20 review: A Windows 8 all-in-one that's also a humongous tablet.
With the holiday gift giving season not far away, Microsoft's PC and tablet offerings will be under plenty of scrutiny, as will devices like the Sony Tap 20 that strive to provide the best of both worlds. If you've used one already, or plan to buy one as a gift this holiday season, we'd love to hear your opinions of the new OS.
What about older PCs?
Even though the new OS is meant for touchscreen use, it can be added to Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 machines for only $39 at windows.com. The windows.com site also has helpful introductory videos to help you understand how to use the new system.
At Maximum PC, the comment on installing Windows 8 was,
We never thought we’d type the words, “Microsoft has made it easy to install Windows,” but there you have it.
Others who have installed Windows 8 on an older machine also mention how easy it is, but keep in mind, there's no going back to your earlier OS once you install the new OS.
I think I'd wait to get my hands on a new Windows-based PC to try out the new operating system before I downloaded it on an older machine running XP or Vista, but it's possible to do it if you want.
Any new Windows-based PC you buy now or for the holidays will be running Windows 8. Is a new Windows based device on your shopping list?
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