Windows 8: Attention Consumers, Do NOT Download It Yet

Microsoft is inviting consumers to be unpaid beta testers of a not-yet-finished operating system. But for the average PC user, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is intimidatingly different. It's also buggy enough to give you headaches. Wait until it's finished.

I'm going to be straight ahead with you: Do not (as in NOT) download the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Unless you have a spare computer and a lot of time to geek around, you could be really sorry.

Why? Despite the overheated press coverage, Windows 8 is what they call a beta, which means it is by definition not ready for prime time. Running an unfinished, radically different operating system on your PC is frustrating and potentially risky.  We're not talking about some 99 cent app you bought on iTunes that you can discard without a second thought. We're talking about the software that runs your computer, and once it's taken over, you're stuck.

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What's more it's really, really different from Windows 7 or Vista or XP. There's no start button, there's no handy, nicely nested list of applications, almost nothing is where it used to be. Instead you have a start page with a whole bunch of tiles, unlabelled corners that lead you to various functions, and something called charms that appear on the right side of the screen. At first I couldn't even find the "power" button to the machine off, let alone my apps. Coming to Windows 8 cold is a lot like jumping into the deep end of the pool and then remembering that you don't know how to swim.

To get a sense of what it's like to come across Windows 8 as a newbie, I made a point of not reading stories that peddled advice about to use it. I simply clicked the download button, and then waited while it turned my laptop off and on for an hour or so as it installed. By the way, the laptop I used is not the PC with which I earn my living. And that's my first piece of advice to those of you trying out Windows 8. Use a machine you don't depend on. Don't take my word for it. Microsoft gives the exact same advice on the download page. 

There are a number of settings you need to deal with when installing it. Since it's a beta, some of those settings didn't work quite right for me; or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention and checked the wrong box. Two really startled me.

Windows 8 asks you if you want to keep your files, applications and so on. I did say yes, I'm sure of it. But once my system was ready to go after the download, my files were there, but none of my applications. If I were planning to use that machine for real work, I'd be spending a lot of time reinstalling stuff.  

Then this happened. During the setup, it asked me to choose a theme. I did so, and called it "Bill's Default." Later that day I went over to my Windows 7 machine and there was the "Bill's Default" theme. What the heck? I should say that both my machines are on my home office Wi-Fi network, which gave me a clue. It turns out that Windows 8 has an option to share themes and other things across devices. Either I checked a box by mistake, or didn't notice it, or it did its thing without asking.

Not a big deal. But these two events illustrate why you need to be careful with Windows 8. It's powerful, and will bite you in the butt if you're not careful.

A colleague of mine over at InfoWorld calls the new operating system "Windows Frankenstein," which I think is too harsh, but he had a point. Frankenstein, you'll remember, was a monster created by stitching together parts of dead bodies and bringing them to life as a deformed, mentally-disturbed creature. Windows 8 is hardly that, but it does feel a bit stitched together, since Microsoft's stated aim is to bring some of the features and the look and feel we've come to expect on tablets and smartphones to the desktop.

What's actually going on here is an attempt to integrate the Metro interface Microsoft is using on smartphone with a desktop interface. When we all are using touch-enabled laptops and Windows 8 tablets, we may like that. But a UI (user interface as we geeks call it) designed for swiping and pinching feels rather awkward when you're using a keyboard and mouse. Constantly having to scroll right and left with a mouse to find something gets old in a hurry.

Having said all this, I don't want to come off as a Microsoft basher. I'm not. I respect the efforts to bring Windows up to date, and when it's finished, the new operating system may turn out to be a good one. We'll see. Microsoft, by the way, deserves credit for being upfront with users. The download page clearly warns users to expect bugs and, as I mentioned, not to download Windows 8 on a machine they count on for day-to-day work.

But using Windows 8 now makes you an unpaid beta tester for Microsoft. For advanced users, that's fun. But for the majority of computer users, it won't be. Wait a while and see how things shake out.

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