Windows 8 was released earlier this month and if you haven’t upgraded already, you’re probably wondering what it’s like.

It’s different.

In fact, the very windows that gave the operating system its name have evolved in a major way for the first time since the days of the DOS prompt. Here’s what it looks like:

Windows 8

Windows 8 Start Screen

So, is it worth upgrading? What can you expect from the newest operating system from Microsoft?

The most noticeable thing about Windows 8 is the way you access your programs. In addition to the traditional desktop, it sports a brand new Start screen (pictured above), which is where you’ll begin your Windows 8 experience. Where older versions of Windows had a small Start button on the lower left, which brought up a few-inches-square menu of programs and utilities, Windows 8 brings up a full screen of tiled apps. It works a lot like the app menu on a smartphone. Programs from the new menu are always full screen, although programs accessed from the desktop can be windowed, resized, tabbed, and layered as before.

The first thing about Windows 8 that feels off, at least for traditional mouse-and-keyboard computers that lack touchscreens, is the poor compatibility between the traditional desktop and the smartphone-like Start screen. If you access a program from one, and then try to get to it from the other, they won’t necessarily be in sync. You may find yourself starting two instances of the program when you were just trying to get back to what you were doing earlier.

I don’t understand why they didn’t just merge the best features from the desktop and the Start screen. The snazzy app-icon layout thing is cool and could have replace the traditional “tiny rows of icons” on the old desktop, while keeping the old window functionality once you launched a program. The old windows worked really well. You could run them in full screen mode if you wanted to, but you also had the option to move them around, make them smaller, and stack them on top of each other. Obviously Microsoft still sees value in that experience, or they wouldn’t have included the traditional desktop, but taking that functionality away from half of the operating system experience just seems like a step backwards.

Well, if you don’t like the Start screen, you can just use the desktop, right? Wrong. You are required to use the new Start menu for certain tasks, like searching, uninstalling apps, or shutting down the computer, even if you were working from the desktop and didn’t want to switch modes.

That leads to my second complaint about Windows 8. It makes the controls for everything harder to find. While this makes computing a more seamless experience if all you want to do is turn on the computer and hit one button to start listening to music, it also makes it much more annoying any time you need to do something on a slightly deeper level. For me, the most grievous problem is the right click. Instead of bringing up a menu right next to your mouse, it brings it up at the bottom of the screen. It might look prettier down there, but it’s much less useful.

Windows also hides some commonly-used utilities in a popup bar on the right side of the Start menu. That’s where you go to shut down or reboot the computer. If you’re already in the Start screen, it’s not much more trouble to hover over the “Charm” bar, open the Settings, and shut down, but adding that extra step from the desktop is annoying. In fact, all the utilities are hidden until you hover in the right spot (usually a corner or edge of the screen). It’s not hard to get used to, but you may miss the visual cues when you’re starting out with the software.

Also, if you’re like me, you like using the search feature to find utilities you don’t use every day. Maybe you need to uninstall a program or troubleshoot a printer. In Windows 7, you could just type “uninstall” or “printer” in the Start menu search bar. No more. In Windows 8, you can start a search just by typing (yay, fewer clicks!) but it only searches apps and programs (boo, those were easy to find anyway).

There are a few nice things in Windows 8 to balance out the bad.

  • The Task Manager is easier to understand and got a “startup programs” tab added to it (yay for not having to mess around with msconfig).
  • Multiple monitors can now each have a taskbar with active programs.
  • The bigger Start screen is a more visually friendly way to access your favorite programs.
  • You can sync up your computer experiences on any device by using a Microsoft account (formerly Windows Live) login.

However, all things considered, the benefits seem more peripheral, and the flaws very central, to the Windows 8 experience. On smaller touchscreen devices like phones and tablets the benefits of a clean layout, full-screen apps, and hidden controls are more obvious, but you may want to hold off on Windows 8 for now for your desktops and laptops. Or if you are going to upgrade, make sure everyone has a chance to get used to it. This one’s different.

This video from lifehacker is a good introduction to the system’s flaws, benefits, and overall feel:


By Sharon Campbell