ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Final Thoughts on Windows 8 + Unboxing

In late 2011, we received the first public release of Microsoft’s major new operating system, Windows 8. A few months later, we received a consumer preview. A few months after that, we got the release preview. Now, at long last, Microsoft has made the final build of Windows 8 and it is now available for purchase. Should you get it? Should you hold off? Does it improve the PC? Does it ruin it? Today I will offer up my thoughts, not as an exhaustive review, but simply as practical observations to top off the many technical reviews that have already been done on the basis of preview releases. Let’s dive in.

It’s fast and furious

The first thing I saw when using Windows 8 on my main desktop is just how fast the OS really is. On my experimental PC, the preview releases all ran great…but those were not really used and abused like my daily driver desktop. Initially I attempted a simple upgrade from Windows 7 rather than doing a clean install, and the results were not pretty (DISCLAIMER: I had customization hacks installed to Windows 7 which conflicted with Windows 8–I do not believe the problems were Windows 8 itself) but after doing a clean install and reinstalling my programs and documents, everything is smooth as silk. Boot up and shutdown speeds compete with the faster Linux distros, and overall system performance is very smooth. Now, my desktop is a powerhouse, so smooth performance is normal, but I’ve also got Windows 8 put on a netbook and Windows XP-level desktop, and in every situation it runs just as well as XP, and with an equal memory footprint as well. Nneither Vista or 7 could say that, and in my mind that is a big deal. Thus far I’ve also found Windows 8 to be very stable, but we will have to let time tell if the final build remains solid long-term.

It’s not that different

For any and all who have expressed deep concern over Windows 8 for its new facade, take heart: it’s really not all that different. The Start menu is now an entire screen that functions almost as an entire sub-OS, yes, and there will be a learning curve for new users. But the changes implemented by Microsoft really do work on a mouse an keyboard as well as they do on touch screens, and for the most part you won’t be required to work with the new stuff anyway. The Windows desktop is still an integral part of the OS and is where you’ll spend the majority of your time. But take it from me: you’ll like the Start screen once you’ve learned the basic ins and outs. As I said before, it functions almost like an OS within an OS, bringing the simplicity and elegance of a smartphone to your desktop without sacrificing usability or functionality. If you’re at all familiar with iOS or Android or WP7, this area of Windows 8 will basically come as a no-brainer to you as far as adapting to a new environment goes.

It is that different

Despite looking and acting like a tablet or smartphone in many ways, Windows 8 still manages to be very unique, which I consider a good thing. After using it for a while, I am convinced that we did not get changes for changes’ sake, but that someone really did sit down and think about what could actually improve existing paradigms. Microsoft didn’t assume that common tablet and smartphone paradigms were right for Windows just because other companies manage to get them to sell. Windows 8 could easily do (and I’d argue has done) for the PC what Halo did for the gaming industry: set a new control scheme that at first seems overly complex, but ends up being the standard everyone adheres to and even prefers when presented alternatives.

It needs to be more different

In order to maintain user friendliness for the crowd that is still only familiar with the Windows 95 to Windows 7 interface (which is everyone at this point), Microsoft has essentially crafted into Windows 8 a dual interface in which there are basically two ways to do everything. At least, it would seem that way. The true story is that while you have two control panels, two taskbars, and so on, there is little crossover functionality between the two, and they remain strictly segregated. This leads me to believe that Windows 8 is intended to act as a go-between, to be a transitionary OS that will get everyone used to a bunch of new features without completely removing people from what’s comfortable in order to convince them the switch is convenient in the first place. But that means the evolution of Windows is not over, and I for one am more than ready to start seeing old features being integrated into new features. I still stand by my previous statements regarding features not even seen in Windows 8 (but that should be), too. I don’t think we’ll see the Desktop go away any time soon, which is as it should be (otherwise the OS would be called ‘Boxes’ and not ‘Windows’), but I think we’ll see a radically different Desktop in future iterations of Windows whose features have been completely unified with that of the Start Screen. As it is right now, Windows 8 feels like a main OS with a sub-OS attached…because it basically is. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s clear that Microsoft has really just released a means to an end, not an end itself.

Conclusion – It’s gr8.

It is basically impossible to give an absolute rating for an entire OS, which is why I haven’t attempted to in this post. Think of this less as a review and more of a an evaluation of what’s new and what’s old and how it all works together as a single package. From the perspective of someone who has long cried for the unification of desktop and mobile operating systems, Windows 8 may not be quite everything I hoped for, but it is by far the best thing we’ve yet seen in that regard in particular, and for Windows in general.

If you’re currently running Windows 7, the present need to upgrade is not dire, but also may be greater than you think. If nothing else, it is a good idea to upgrade purely to get accustomed with the future of Windows. Anyone running XP or Vista, on the other hand, seriously needs to make the switch. Vista, because the performance and stability gain can almost not be overstated. XP, because Windows 8 finally covers all advantages held by XP over Vista and 7, and because Microsoft shall be cutting off all support for XP before Windows 9.

Whatever your feelings on the Start Screen and Microsoft Store and whatnot, Windows 8 undoubtedly deserves a fair chance from you. It isn’t the perfect OS, but it’s without a doubt the best Microsoft product in more than a decade.

So what are you waiting for? Hurry up and grab your copy of Windows 8 before the 65% off launch window deal runs out!