Windows 8 review

It's fair to say that Windows 8 is just about the most controversial operating system for some time. The strange thing is, everyone knows what Microsoft is trying to do, and most people agree that it's actually heading in the right direction. The only problem seems to be, the company has forgotten about the majority of its users in the process.

The crux of the issue is that Microsoft has decided that the future of computing lies in tablets. To accommodate this, the firm has introduced a user interface that was originally called "Metro" but is now referred to as simply "Modern". This has outraged some, annoyed others and won some praise from some, although this last group is much smaller.

Ignore it or not, Windows 8 will be a part of our lives. Some of us might not upgrade to it. Some of us may well take the plunge. So what should we expect? And what is good and what is bad about the latest version of Microsoft's cash-cow.

Our review here is based on the final version of Windows, or what is known as the RTM version supplied to us by Microsoft. Crucially, it's the version you'll be able to buy next month, and the version that will ship with new computers over the coming weeks. 

Design

In a controversial move, Microsoft has killed Aero. If you don't know what that means, press your start button now, assuming you're using Windows Vista or 7 and are on a modern computer with a GPU, then what you see is a glass effect. This, and some other bits, are the Aero look. In Windows 8, it's gone.

What it is replaced with, is a much flatter interface. Solid colours are now everywhere and although there's a very nice transparency on the taskbar, for the most part this OS looks much simpler. Although Aero was pleasant, and well thought-out, we actually really like the new look.

Explorer has changed too. It's an odd mix now, with a more populated menu at the top, but with some nice accessibility features. For example, press "alt" and you'll see some icons pop up that tell you other keys you can press as shortcuts, this is great if you can't use a mouse and it's super-clear too.

The explorer is sensitive to what you're doing too, so if you're exploring a zipped file, you get relevant options presented to you. It's actually surprisingly intuitive.

Then, of course, there's the Metro UI, or as it's now known "Modern". Here you get live panels which keep you updated on social media services, weather and pretty much anything else people have written an app for. Metro/Modern replaces the old start menu, and is a full-screen interface that offers a launch pad.

From Modern, you can load either old style desktop apps, or new Modern programs which are downloaded, and in some cases, paid for, via the Marketplace. This looks and feels the same as Windows Phone does. It's not, in itself, a bad idea but it does divide opinion. 

You can't turn the "modern" interface off

For many, the idea of Metro is acceptable for tablets, but not for desktops. When Microsoft announced that it was going to be using a different, touch-enabled front-end, we just assumed that those without touchscreens, and corporate users, would be able to switch it off.

WRONG.

You can't switch it off, and we can't really work out why. Microsoft told us that it's because people will quickly get used to the new interface and that it had done plenty of testing and had seen no problems.

We think that Microsoft has made a massive mistake here. To be clear, there is nothing at all wrong with its new modern interface. It works well on tablets for one, and is tolerable on a desktop PC with a mouse. The final version of Windows 8 has some tweaks here over the pre-release version many people have seen. The mouse, for example, now allows you to scroll by simply moving the pointer to the edge of the screen, and this works well.

READ: Windows 8: Which version is for me?

The issues with the UI are how it ties in the older operating system components with this new, fresh look. And it's here that Windows 8 comes over as half-arsed. For example, if you want to join a wireless network, you can do so through the new-look UI. The problem is, to adjust advanced settings you then get dropped into a more traditional Windows interface. It's a mess, a complete and utter mess. While Microsoft has gone to a lot of effort to make it possible to interact with the desktop on a touch screen, it's still hit and miss whether you can hit those tiny buttons and options. A quick glance to Android and iOS devices shows these things work best on touchscreens when you are presented with a large and easily controllable-by-finger

On-screen keyboard and handwriting

We have to say, for most simple text input the Windows 8 on-screen keyboard is pretty good. We miss having long-press keys, that give us quick access to numbers, but typing works through this method well.

The only problem is, get a tablet hooked up to a second display, and if your external display is set as the "primary" then you'll struggle to get the touch screen keyboard up on the right display, and you'll have to drag it over with a mouse to your touch screen. But, and this is good news, you can use the touchscreen as an input device, and have the output appear on your external display. So that means you can use a touchscreen as a little keyboard. Might be useless practically, but it's quite fun.

Then you've got handwriting recognition. And wow, this really is epic stuff. If you're using a touchscreen, you can simply use a finger, or a pen, and write in handwriting on the screen, and watch in amazement as Windows does a pretty respectibe job of converting your scrawl to digital text. With a pen, writing on the screen is quite relaxing and feels cool, it's worth investigating as an alternative input system, especailly for people who get aches and pains using a normal setup.

Boot time

Some magic has taken place in Windows, because for the first time ever it starts up at a pace that will make you gasp. We're using a Samsung Slate for our tests, and this is one of the quicker machines. It's equipped with an SSD, which is a must for fast start-ups. But, we managed to get it from a cold boot in just 10 seconds.

READ: How to install Windows 8 on a Mac

This is significant for a lot of reasons, but perhaps crucially Windows can now claim that it boots a lot quicker than an Android tablet - although tablets do generally sleep with instant-on an minimal power drain. Windows machines running on Intel or AMD architectures won't be able to match this for some time.

But compare a Windows 8 machine to a Mac, and it comes out looking good. Really good.

Modern apps

It's not hard to see where Microsoft is going with its platforms. XBox, Windows Phone and now Windows 8. It's all about tiles, about live updates and keeping things in rectangles.

Microsoft pre-installs some of its own apps, like SkyDrive, Messaging and People. These are all utterly dreadful.

People is the worst though, it's the absolute worst and everyone involved should hang their heads in shame. What you get, when you open "People" is not what you expect, or even what the live tile implies. What you hope for is a funky looking feed that gives you updates from your friends and allows you to interact with them on social networks. What you actually get is a list of meaningless contacts from every service you use. So, if you're signed in with Google, Hotmail, Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook you'll long lists of usernames, real names and random numbers.

Most of the supplied apps aren't really any better either. Weather is pretty, and does its job. There's the mandatory stock tracker for those who are dull enough to want access to share prices when they're away from their stock trading floor. Photos pulls content in from local and online services. It can use your facebook login details as well as those for Flickr, should you chose to hand them over, to show you images from your life. It's good in theory, and for flicking through shots it works okay. The problems begin when you realise the "back" button has suddenly vanished for no reason. It's a daft problem, but one we ran in to over again.

On the plus side, we like Mail. It's a bit basic, but for checking your Gmail and Hotmail it's usable enough. You can, like many Windows 8 apps, dock it on the left or right of the screen and use another app at the same time. This is handy, and although space is limited, it does the job.

This feature works better with the Messages app, which lends itself to taking up only a small portion of the screen for chats. Otherwise, Messages is a funny old app. It works well enough, but it can be very confusing when you're messaging someone via Facebook, but thought you were using MSN. The app tries to take away the services themselves, and present you with a unified front-end, but it ends up being a bit of a mess, and quite confusing.

Some of the downloadable apps are very good though. The modern take on remote desktop is really slick, and works really well.

Do watch out though. Some apps are odd, like eBay's. It works well, but when you load it the first time it does nothing. There's no setup prompt, it just sits there looking stupid. To get it working, you have to open the charm menu, go to settings and log in. This is really bad as a user experience, but like so many of these apps, they're on early versions. We'd hope to see massive improvements over time.

Multi-monitor craziness

As Microsoft released the Windows 8 "release candidate" - the pretty much feature-complete version of the OS - it made a lot of fuss about the new multi-monitor capabilities of Windows.

We've been looking into this, because it's relevant to our interests, as well as being a huge deal for business and serious users. It's here that Metro begins to make even less sense.

Here's a great example. When you install an app like Chrome, it now has a Metro mode. This means that it now launches in a "modern" manner. That means it's full screen and you can't see any other windows behind it, and there's no way to adjust the screen size. You can move it from one monitor to another, but doing so then makes that monitor the location for the "modern" interface to launch in the future.

This is actually Google's fault, but Chrome doesn't perform at all well in Windows 8. The inconsistency between how it launches are unfathomable. In the time we've been writing this review, it's gone from being a full-screen "Modern" app, to being a normal desktop program, and then back again. It makes almost no sense, and makes for a really poor user experience. It may not be Microsoft's fault, it might not even be Google's fault and we could be to blame, but none of that changes the customer's experience of the product.

Surely users will want the Start menu to be consistent? To appear on the same monitor every time. This way, people can get set up and have one screen they dedicate to "modern" apps, and one to their regular desktop. An effective system here would have saved Microsoft a lot of anger from users, and us.

Multi-monitor awesomeness

It's not fair of us to say that multi-monitor is bad, because it's actually not. If you ignore the Start screen for a minute, there's a lot of cool stuff here.

For example, for the first time, you can easily set a desktop wallpaper to span two monitors, or you can have two different images on each monitor. It's a small step, but we've been waiting years for it!

Then there's the taskbar. This can now stretch from one screen to another, but better still you can tell it to show all apps on both or on the screen the app is running on. That's ideal for people who like to separate tasks and it gives Windows a more multi-desktop approach, like Spaces on a Mac, but a little less comprehensive but also possibly more useful.

There are keyboard, mouse and touch shortcuts that can help

As confusing as Windows 8 can be to current Windows users, there are some handy tricks. For example, hitting space on the login screen brings up the password prompt. This is another area the OS feels optimised for tablets, but it's easy to avoid having to use your mouse to drag the prompt down.

Modern apps are tricky to close. There's no dedicated button for this, so remember that you can grab the top of the window, and pull it down. This should reduce the size of the window, and it can then be dragged off the bottom of the screen. This is how you close these modern apps. When using a mouse, you'll get a pointer that tells you when you can drag down. If you're using touch, you have to drag your finger from the top of the screen to the bottom in one action.

If you're on a multi-monitor set-up, then you can switch where the start screen and apps load. Press the windows key and "page down" and you'll be able to chose the screen you want for these new apps.

Windows and D still takes you back to the desktop too, so if you find yourself in a mess, it's easy to see the trusty workspace. Pressing just the Windows key will take you back to the start screen and the "modern" apps.

Hot corners are useful for desktop users with a mouse. Hold the pointer in the bottom right of your screen, and the charms menu will pop up. From here you can share things, access settings - including app-specific controls - and even shut down the computer.

Hold the mouse in the left-hand corner, and you'll get the popup for the Start Screen. This sort of tries to replace the start button, but is weirdly located and feels odd to use. Why they couldn't just have a button there is beyond us.

Oddly, if you're a touch user, corners don't work. To get to the Start Screen you'd normally press the hardware button on your device, or just hit the Windows key on your keyboard. Charms can be accessed by swiping in from the right of the screen, in a similar way to the task switching does on the left...

Task switching

One thing we've always liked about Windows is the simplicity with which you can switch tasks. In Windows 7, you can either scroll through your open windows in a flashy way with the windows key and and tab combination. Or, you can use alt and tab to get a simpler interface, but one that's a little less overwhelming.

In 8, that isn't the case any more. Windows key plus tab gives you a strip down the left of the screen. Here you can see open "Modern" apps, with anything running on the desktop being inaccessible directly, you need to switch to the desktop mode first and find the window manually.

Happily, alt and tab will still give you access to all open apps, be they modern or normal desktop. This is fine, but we do miss aero here, and flip 3D was always a pretty decent way of scrolling through your windows and getting a large preview. Like Windows 7 though, if you move your mouse while alt-tabbing, you'll see a full screen preview of each window. It's not as slick though, but the functionality remains, even if accessing it is quite obscure.

If you're a touchscreen user, then you'll also be able to use the swipe from the left of the screen. This cycles you through your open apps, although, once again, it considers all desktop apps to be "one", which can be bothersome.

Smartglass

For tablets, Microsoft wants them to act like a companion to its other devices. Obviously, the Xbox is top of the list, and so there's a Smartglass app for Windows 8 that allows you to control your 360 over your local network. Setting it up takes a few seconds, and might require a couple of simple changes to your 360's configuration.

READ: Xbox Entertainment on Windows 8

From here, you can control the 360, select things to play, explore games or buy music and video. It's a nice addition, and it means that you don't have to play with the 360 controller to access services like Netflix. This is a big deal, because some people have no interest in the gaming aspect of the 360, and instead use it as a media and catch-up TV device. It works very well, and we'll look at in more detail in a separate review sometime soon.

As good as new

One of the headline features of Windows 8 is its "refresh" option. If you do something to upset your computer, break something or it just slows down, then it's reasonably simple to press a button, and refresh everything to the factory defaults. This process is reasonably quick, and there are a few different modes.

You can opt to remove all your files, and reset Windows back to a fresh install. Alternatively, you can repair the OS, but leave your files in place. Installed apps will be deleted here, apart from those "Modern" apps installed from the Marketplace.

There is also a new menu that allows you to re-install from a USB key, or attached DVD drive. This is a new interface, and it's handy because it saves you from messing around getting your BIOS to boot from a USB key.

If you can't cope...

There will be some people who hate the start screen and won't want to use it. Microsoft, it has to be said, has comprehensively ignored you. Despite the fact that adding in an option to keep the Start menu would have been incredibly trivial it makes you hack about to get back to this trusted and much-loved way of working.

We used Classic Shell to get around this. It allows you to replace - or augment - the Start Screen with a more traditional start menu. It's not as pretty as the version in Windows 7, but it will do if you really want the updates of Windows 8, but can't bear that new look and feel. There's also a theme that gives you a proper, Windows 7 start button, and a good approximation of the Start menu. There's also Start 8, by Stardock, which does much the same thing, although we didn't like it quite as much.

Windows RT

We aren't reviewing RT here, but we will do so as soon as it comes out. But there's an important point here. RT will be a good thing for tablets, but it will also be a good thing for Windows 8. These new, cheaper, Windows tablets should give developers a reason to come to Windows, and build "Modern" apps.

READ: Best Windows RT tablets

RT also makes a lot more sense, because there isn't really a desktop mode, although you can see a desktop, you won't actually be able to do anything on it, because MS won't allow apps to run on it, bar Office and Windows Explorer.

Of course, RT will have its own issues, especially when customers say "ohh it's Windows, I'll just install my favourite app" and then can't, because it's an x86 desktop app.

Verdict

Using Windows 8 for a while has had an interesting effect on us. We started off finding it confusing, and for the most part there are still things in here that baffle us. We have, however, learnt how to use the OS now. It's rare we can't get it to do what we want, and while there are still some huge frustrations, it's not perhaps as bad as we had feared.

We still want to be able to use a Start menu instead of the Start screen. There are some times when we want the screen, and others when we want the menu. Why MS couldn't have built it with this in mind is beyond us. We'd like the Start menu on our primary screen, with the option to bring up the the Start screen on our second display. And why shouldn't that be an option?

At its core, Windows 8 is as stable and reliable as Windows 7. There's some brilliant stuff here, the interface looks good - the loss of Aero isn't too much of a trauma - and there are some nice new features, like multi-monitor support and being able to pause file transfers. The core team knows what it is doing, and that shows all through Windows 8.

READ: How do I upgrade to Windows 8?

But, and it is a huge but, it's ruined by the user interface which suits neither tablets nor desktops especially well. On tablets, when you hit the traditional desktop interface, things become a lot harder with touch control. In Metro, the UI looks good on touch screens, and works well, but it's not such plain sailing with a regular desktop. Although, it's not a disaster to use now, and Microsoft has fixed the mouse problems that meant you had to drag a bar to scroll in previous versions.

A lot of the problem is visual. The confusion between the tiled, modern interface and the traditional desktop means that you never really know where you are at any one time, and you always need to pop in and out of the other UI.

The sad thing is, the decision to kill the task bar was taken because of the Microsoft consumer improvement program. Essentially, the firm worked out that most people didn't use the start button, so got rid of it. The strange thing is, the company saw that people weren't using it, so they made a thing you have no choice BUT to use - Windows boots in to the Start screen when you turn your computer on. That's a very "Microsoft" approach to a problem. Something isn't working, so let's work out how to force people to use it instead.

Ultimately, there's no one with a gun to your head making you upgrade. As there are still people using XP now, there will more than likely be even more people using Windows 7 in 10 years time. And that's fine, because needs vary for different people.

We suspect that Microsoft won't have the same hit on its hands here as it did with Windows 7. Many will not see any reason to upgrade - although upgrades are a tiny percentage of the business for Microsoft - and businesses are unlikely to see much benefit. The world will keep turning though, and while we think the new user interface is here to stay, as touch interfaces become more widespread there is every chance the firm will improve its offering further.

Perhaps by Windows 10 we'll have another OS like 7, perfectly suited to most people's needs. As it stands, 8 is a bit more like Vista - there's nothing wrong with it, but it's probably slightly ahead of its time.