Microsoft's new operating system has received mixed early reviews. Get past the missing Start menu and the 'ribbonized' File Explorer, though, and you'll likely find a faster OS that should make workers more productive -- especially if you give them new Windows 8 tablets.
By Jonathan Hassell
The Web has been abuzz with mixed reviews of Windows 8, Microsoft’s latest client operating system, which will be available on Oct. 26. It’s a departure, at least initially, from the staid user interface that has been with us, in one incarnation or another, since Windows 95. As always, first impressions aren’t always the same as lasting impressions.
I was quite critical after my first couple of days with Windows 8. I found that many of the changes to the operating system’s design really degraded my initial experiences using it. I even commented at one point on Twitter, “I’m in IT and I failed the Aunt Minnie test,” referring to a process of activating the OS that used to be simple but seemed needlessly convoluted mainly because of changes in how you access the Control Panel and its options.
I apparently had a faulty installation as well, since I experienced several hardware glitches, and even the software seemed unstable. For instance, after installing the .NET Framework 3.5 so I could load the latest Quicken 2012 release on my machine, all Metro—sorry, “Windows 8 style UI”—apps simply stopped working. Mail, Calendar, People and other apps available out of the box with the Windows 8 release version simply loaded, froze, and then closed.
I was so frustrated that, after about 72 hours, I reverted to Windows 7 via a backup I had made. However, I had a nagging feeling that I hadn’t given the new operating system a fair try, so I re-installed the OS and re-committed to using it for an extended period.
That was several weeks ago. I am somewhat pleased to report that, after a three- to five-day acclimation period, I have come to like Windows 8. I definitely appreciate some features and conveniences that are present in the new version that weren’t in previous versions, and I’ve come to live with some of the changes that I don’t find useful or pleasing. Some of these impressions have takeaways that are important for businesses considering an upgrade or a desktop OS refresh. Here are a few conclusions Ive reached after my first few weeks using Windows 8.
The Windows 8 Start Menu: Not That Bad, Really
The hullabaloo over the Windows 8 Start menu removal is overblown. Like many, at first I was thrown by the removal of the Start menu. It’s not because I used it directly to launch programs, because I rarely accessed the menu as a program launcher. Rather, it seemed like a change for the sake of change. How did the presence of the Metro Start screen really inhibit Microsoft’s grand plans to create a “no-compromises” experience of a touch-first, keyboard-usable operating system? I still don’t quite understand the difference, really, but the good news for many is that it’s an unimportant distinction anymore.
The taskbar in the traditional desktop environment still works the same way it did in Windows 7, and the pinning of applications, folders, documents and such still functions just fine. Spend a couple days pinning your most often-used items to your taskbar and you’ll hardly ever need to be transported back to the modern-style Start screen. In the weeks that I’ve been using Windows 8, I haven’t needed the Start screen to launch a program once. If Microsoft would restore the capability to boot natively to the desktop environment and skip the Metro screen, it would be even better.
This is, of course, technically possible, and in Windows Server 2012—which shares a common code base with Windows 8—you go right to the desktop once you log in. In the beta versions of Windows 8, you could enable a registry key to let you do this as well. This, then, is an artificial limitation Microsoft added in the release version, which is needless.
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid of the lack of the Start menu or the new Start screen. Taken together, it’s a non-issue in daily work. Invest in a bit of user training, but don’t worry about having to make them accept this.
Windows 8 File Explorer: Nice, If You Like That Sort of Thing
File Explorer is more useful than I initially gave it credit for. I dismissed some changes in the Explorer interface as needless—who needs the ribbon in File Manager, really? I’m not completely sold that the ribbon was a must-have addition to Windows 8; in touch mode, it’s difficult to use, so it’s clearly not designed for touch-first tablets, but it’s still pretty good for mouse and keyboard users.
Takeaway: For business users who primarily live in the desktop environment—that is, almost everyone except tablet users—the File Explorer improvements are positive and welcome, if not totally necessary.
Windows 8 Overall Performance Improvements
Full disclosure: I’m not a test lab. I’m a power user who runs Windows on a variety of different devices and hardware profiles. I can objectively state that Windows 8 boots faster, gets ready faster, installs faster, and suspends and resumes faster than Windows 7 did on an identical hardware reference.
The OS feels snappy on a late-model Thinkpad, which has been my daily driver machine, and on an older Fujitsu corporate-issue desktop. It boots and gets to the Start screen about seven seconds faster than Windows 7 did. That’s a pretty good improvement from nothing more than tighter, more efficient and well-optimized software code.
Takeaway: You won’t lose any speed, and your computers will probably feel quicker in Windows 8. Overall, this is a boon for productivity.
Windows 8 Worth It If You’re Willing to Learn, Get New Hardware
After using Windows 8 for a few weeks and allowing my initial impressions to mature, I came to two conclusions.
1. I certainly like Windows 8 much more than I did after the first three to five days. This suggests that there is a pretty big barrier, obstacle or hump for people to get over when they first encounter the operating system.
2. At $39.99 for a Windows 8 upgrade license, the benefits are a no-brainer. However, I am less sure of the value in a full-cost license, which depending on volume license agreements traditionally costs about $100 to $200.
On existing hardware and non-tablets, I’m not convinced that Windows 8 is a must-have. I’m not fond of the artificial limitations and changes Microsoft has made with the operating system, and I think Redmond should get out of the way and let users decide if they find utility and value in the new Metro Start screen experience.
On tablets such as the Microsoft Surface, on the other hand, I’m willing to bet Windows 8 will shine. There is some beautiful new tablet hardware coming that will change how business users can interact with their portable devices. Windows 8 is well-positioned to take a lead in that space. On any hardware, too, there are some clear improvements.
Overall, Windows 8 deserves more credit than I, and a lot of reviewers and the blogosphere, have thus far given it. Don’t disregard it.
Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He’s also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.