Windows 8 is an odd, discombobulated beast of an operating system that suffers from an identity crisis of the most severe degree. On the one hand, the primary focus of Windows 8 is to bring touchscreen tablets into the Windows fold, but at the same time it cannot eschew the billions of mouse-and-keyboard users who use Windows on a daily basis, and the millions of developers and specialists whose livelihoods revolve around the Windows Desktop ecosystem.
Whether you use Windows 8 on a tablet or desktop, x86 or ARM, or something else entirely, this paradigmatic rift will always be there. With months of use you can push Windows 8′s interface conflicts and foibles to the back of your mind, but the rift is always there, an inescapable pestilence that lurks in your shadow and sticks a wetted finger in your ear when you least expect it.
The good news, though — if you’re a tablet user, anyway — is that the touch/mouse-and-keyboard schism is much more evident on desktops. In fact, if it wasn’t for a few niggling issues that should’ve been sorted out by now, I would even say that Windows 8 is a fantastic tablet operating system. To get the full story, read on — or, hit up our review of desktop Windows, if touch isn’t your thing.
For this review I am using Windows 8 Pro (x86) on a Samsung Series 7 tablet (pictured above). On the front there’s a 11.6-inch 1366×768 display, around the edges there are USB, micro-HDMI, and micro SD slots, and under the hood there’s an Intel Core i5-2467M CPU (dual-core Sandy Bridge, HD 3000 integrated graphics) clocked at 1.6GHz, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. In short, it’s one of the best tablets on the market. My only complaint, as you will see later, is that the screen is actually too big for Windows 8. You should also bear in mind that your Windows 8/RT experience, on wimpy ARM or Atom processors, might not be quite as slick as mine.
With that out of the way, my first impressions of Windows 8 on a tablet are very good. The first-run experience is smooth — and when you’re finally dumped on the Metro Start screen, and the live tiles burst into life, you immediately want to start touching things. The Start screen is by far the most fluid and agile interface I have ever used. It seems weird to say this, but flicking my way around the Metro interface is almost joyous.
And then, as the adrenaline begin to run dry and the elation fades, you realize that you should probably stop pawing at your tablet and attempt to actually do something. This is where Windows 8 starts to run into trouble.
There are four main gestures in Windows 8, and you’ll use them a lot on a Windows 8 tablet — but that’s okay, because touchscreen gestures are probably the operating system’s single most polished feature. Once you’ve used a Windows 8 tablet, iOS and Android will feel very clunky and slow in comparison.
Swiping in from the left switches to your last-used app, and you can keep swiping through a seemingly infinite number of apps. If you swipe in from the left and hold, you’re given the option of split-screening the app (more on that later). If you swipe in from the left, and then slowly move back towards the edge, you’re shown a task switcher (a lot like Alt-Tab).
Swiping in from the right reveals the Charms menu, which is the main way that you interact with the operating system.
Swiping in from the bottom is the gesture for “right click,” revealing an app’s context menu. Because this menu is populated by the app, and some third-party developers are lazy, this is generally the least-useful gesture — but it should improve over time.
Finally, swiping down from the top of the screen closes your current app. Due to the way Windows 8 handles multitasking (unless they require background activity, they’re suspended very quickly, removing almost all of the CPU and RAM footprint), there isn’t really a reason to close apps. With one exception: If you have lots of apps open, swiping back through them can be quite tiresome — in which case, you might want to close a few.
Rounding out the gestures, there is pinch-to-zoom, and what I’m going to call “Metro flick.” In Windows 8, there’s a UI guideline called Semantic Zoom, which the Start screen and many stock apps use — and hopefully developers will use in third-party apps as well. Basically, by pinching to zoom in/out, you can move up and down through the hierarchical layers of an app. You can zoom out on the Start screen to rearrange your live tiles, and then seamlessly zoom back in. You can zoom into a photo, and then zoom back out to your various photo libraries. Again, Semantic Zoom is one of those cool gestures that you’re really going to miss on iOS and Android.
Metro flick is a function reserved for the Start screen. Basically, to modify your icons/live tiles, you just… flick it. This is the equivalent of right clicking, and reveals a bunch of options at the bottom of the screen (resize, uninstall, run as administrator, etc.) To move icons/live tiles around, you just push and drag.
Overall, you will notice that Windows 8′s touchscreen gestures are very fluid. There is no push-and-hold that iOS and Android make such extensive use of. As a result, it feels like you’re always gliding through Windows 8 at high speed — which is a very nice change, if you’ve ever tried multitasking or rearranging your home screen on iOS or Android.
Another defining split between Windows 8 and iOS/Android tablets is Windows’ ability to split-screen apps. Basically, by dragging in from the left slowly, you have the option of pinning an app to the left (or right) quarter of the screen. The other open app scales to fill the remaining three quarters.
This is utterly fantastic if you like surfing the web while watching a TV show, or if you like to keep your playlist visible while you work on an essay.
There are caveats, though: Apps can only be quarter-size, three-quarters size, or full size — there’s no sliding scale in between. This is because developers have to specifically program the quarter-size view (which is usually very different from the full-screen view). If you want to side-by-side edit two documents, you’re out of luck. You also can’t split-screen a Desktop app and a Metro app, which sucks.
All in all, split-screen is one of Windows 8′s defining features, and one that puts it head and shoulders above iOS and Android when it comes to productivity and multitasking. It has some limitations, but for the most part its implementation is spot on, and very fun and easy to use.
You should be glad that most of your interaction with Windows 8 will be gesture-based, because the on-screen keyboard and text input in general is bad. By default, you get a half-screen keyboard that looks and feels good, but it’s impossible to hit the keys in the middle without shifting your grip — and on a 16:9 tablet that weighs two pounds (900g), this gets old fast.
The other option is a split keyboard, with the keys split evenly beneath both your thumbs. You can configure the buttons to be small, medium, or large — but even on the largest setting, I had trouble accurately hitting the right keys. There is also the problem that you can’t see both sides of the keyboard at once; you have to turn your head to see what buttons you’re pressing. Again, this gets very old very fast.
Most of these problems might be ameliorated by a smaller screen, but the buttons would still be too small for my fingers — and I suspect you’d still have to glance from side to side as you’re typing on the split keyboard.
When it comes to actual text input, there is very little in the way of suggestions. Unlike iOS, Android, or Windows Phone 7, you don’t get word prompts as you type on the Windows 8 on-screen keyboard. It seems like some apps do provide prompts, but in those cases the prompts appear in the app itself, not as part of the keyboard — and reaching that far up the screen is neither fun nor quick.
Fortunately, eh, Microsoft’s Surface tablets are being bundled with physical keyboards — and as we’ll cover later, it’s very easy to connect a USB or Bluetooth keyboard to a Windows 8 tablet. Still, data input on the move definitely seems like one of Windows 8′s weaker suits.
As far as actually using a Windows 8 tablet, as long as your use cases are entirely generic, you’ll be fine. As soon as you step outside the bounds of the lowest common denominator, though, you’re in for a shock.
At first glance, the Metro Start screen seems to offer a wealth of options. Right from the get-go, there are default apps for 90% of the things that you want to do on a tablet. News, Weather, Finance, Mail, Music, Video, Photos, Messaging, Maps, Internet Explorer, People — they all do exactly what you might think, and in general they perform admirably.
More fool you if you try to do anything fancy with the default apps, though. Messaging is an attractive IM client, but it only lets you connect to Facebook and MSN — not Gtalk, or any other network. News is very pretty, but it’s impossible to share a story with anyone else due to the use of custom, non-standard protocols. Video is fantastic, if you want to pay Microsoft lots of money for a movie or TV show, but absolutely abominable if you want to play videos from your hard drive. Photos provides a lovely interface to the photos stored on your tablet, along with those in the cloud on Facebook, Flickr, and SkyDrive, but God help you if you want to do more than crop and rotate.
Metro apps also lack almost any kind of customization. With Desktop apps you usually have a Preferences or Settings menu; Metro apps, in general, are one-size-fits-all. The aforementioned Video app bug could be easily rectified with some kind of “show file names” toggle; but alas, no such setting exists. Ultimately I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft is pushing hard to de-emphasize customization in Metro; tablet apps are meant tojust work, after all — which is fine, except for when they don’t.
But fair enough, I tell myself — they’re default apps, after all. It’s not like they’re meant to be the best apps in the world; they’re mostly just placeholders, until you find a third-party app to replace them. Which leads us neatly onto one of Windows 8′s greatest shortfalls.
I decided to visit the Windows Store, to see if there were third-party apps that could ameliorate the shortcomings of Windows 8′s stock Metro apps. In short: At the time of publishing, there are roughly 4,500 apps in the Windows Store. Many of these are just websites wrapped in the Metro interface, and many more are just web links to Desktop apps (which aren’t distributed through the Windows Store).
For instant messaging, your only third-party choice — for now — is IM+. There is no Gmail, no Facebook, no Instagram, and not a single Metro video playback app that supports MKV. For that pleasure, you have to install a desktop app like VLC — but alas, VLC isn’t in the Windows Store either.
Now, on x86 machines, the Windows Store ghost town isn’t the end of the world — we still have access to millions of Desktop apps — but for ARM users (Surface, Windows RT), the Windows Store is it; if it isn’t in the Store, you can’t use it. For those of us who have been using Windows 8 for the last year, there has always been this silent assumption that Microsoft would deliver, come hell or high water, a Windows Store that’s full to overflowing with awesome apps — but alas, launch day is here, and we’re still missing a whole slew of big-name apps.
With that said, there are some very accomplished Metro apps available from the Windows Store — Skype, Evernote, and MetroTwit to name a few — but there simply aren’t enough of them. Updating your installed apps is a svelt, one-click process, too.
Beyond the Metro Start screen, Windows 8 introduces one other major interface element: Charms. On a tablet, the Charms bar can be accessed by swiping in from the right edge of the screen (again another case of gestures being one one of Windows 8′s best attributes; with a mouse and keyboard the gesture is much more clunky). From the Charms bar you can access Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings.
Start simply dumps you back at the Start screen, and Settings provides you with easy access to WiFi, volume, screen, keyboard, and other settings. It is also where you turn off or reboot your tablet (though you won’t be doing that very often). Devices we will discuss later.
Search, which replaces the Start menu’s just-start-typing feature, is by far the most powerful charm. From anywhere in the operating system, you can search for an app (and launch it), search for documents, or directly search inside another app. For example, you can be watching a movie, and then use the Search charm to immediately search the Wikipedia app. From here, you can then pin the movie using split-screen mode, and watch the movie and read Wikipedia at the same time.
Like most things with Windows 8, though, there are caveats. There is no way to search everything all at once, like with the Windows 7 Start menu; instead, you have to click through Apps, Settings, and Files (pictured below). It always defaults to Apps, too, which is very frustrating if you’re trying to access a control panel. The Files tab only seems to return files from your Libraries — and there doesn’t seem to be a way to expand the locations it indexes.
Share, in theory, allows you to share whatever you’re looking at with your contacts, via email, Twitter, and eventually Facebook (when Facebook finally publishes its Metro app). You can also use Share to submit links to other services, such as StumbleUpon. In practice, apps have to be specifically tailored to use the Share charm, and in many cases developers just haven’t bothered. The story isn’t much better with Windows 8′s stock Metro apps, either: You cannot share a News story with a friend. The Music and Video apps let you share, but only with other Windows 8 users.
On the flip side, the Photos app lets you share your camera, Facebook, or Flickr photos with anyone, via email — it’s fully backwards compatible. It makes you wonder why the other stock apps don’t degrade gracefully, though.
The Charms are a key part of using Windows 8 on a tablet. For the most part they excel at providing quick access to common functions, but also to deeper, more involved functionality that you would expect on a PC, but not on a tablet.
According to Microsoft, one of the biggest strengths of Windows 8 is its full support for the PC hardware ecosystem. Whether you have Windows 8 on a tablet, desktop, laptop, or convertible, you can plug a mouse into the USB socket and it’ll work flawlessly.
It’s a little unbelievable, but in practice this actually pans out. It would seem that, after 20 years or so, Microsoft has finally cracked the plug-and-play experience. Adding a Bluetooth keyboard is as simple as going to the Metro control panel and clicking “Add a device.” Ditto printers and scanners and whatever other peripherals you have laying around. Plug in a digital camera, and Windows recognizes it and gives you the option of immediately importing your photos into the Metro Photos app. Uninstalling devices is as simple as clicking a little minus symbol.
Once you have some devices installed, the Devices charm works a lot like the Share charm. You can use the Devices charm to send documents to your printer, or send a video to an attached display or TV.
Overall, the experience of installing and manipulating devices on a Windows 8 tablet is really rather pleasant. I wonder if Windows RT has the same level of support for printers, cameras, etc; I suspect not.
Unlike Windows RT, where the Desktop basically only exists as a playground for Office, Windows 8 tablets feature the full Windows 7 Desktop. With the exception of the Start menu (which is replaced by the Start screen), the Windows 8 Desktop is virtually unchanged from Windows 7. There are a few tweaks to basic Desktop apps like Task Manager, some cosmetic changes, and the introduction of the Ribbon UI to Explorer, but that’s about it.
As you have probably guessed by now, due to the sparseness of the Windows Store, you will be spending quite a lot of time in the Desktop on your Windows 8 tablet. If you want to edit photos, you will need to use the Desktop. If you want to play MKV video files, you’ll need to use the Desktop. If you want to do anything outside the limited functionality of Metro’s four and a half thousand apps, you will need to use the Desktop.
Unfortunately, using the Windows 8 Desktop with your finger is, to put it kindly, not good. Where the Metro interface has slick, fast-moving gestures, the Desktop touch interface is clunky and slow. To right click in Desktop, you push and hold — which is tiresome, and because most of the targets are designed for mice, you often end up pushing-and-holding the wrong thing, meaning you have to start the whole belabored process again. As you know, the Windows Desktop revolves around the Superbar (Aero Peek, jump lists), and yet none of these features are easily accessible with touch.
You are probably wondering about data input, too — well, again, the lackluster on-screen keyboard makes a comeback, but this time it’s even worse. As you can see in the screenshot above, to say that the OSK and Desktop apps don’t play well together is an understatement. While we’re on this topic, it seems the OSK doesn’t work at all in some apps; I installed World of Goo via Steam, but there was no way to pop the OSK up, and thus no way to enter my name — and thus no way to play World of Goo on a Windows 8 tablet. This problem will likely exist with many Desktop apps. (Incidentally, World of Goo also changed my tablet’s screen resolution, and the only way to get it back to normal was to restart.)
Ultimately, using Desktop with your finger involves a lot of very fine, fiddly work, which is unpleasant and frustrating. In an ironic twist of fate, my tablet actually came with a stylus — and if there’s anything that styluses are good at, it’s hitting small, fiddly targets. I really don’t want to pull out a stylus every time I use the Desktop, though — and likewise, while it’s an option, I don’t want to plug in a mouse and keyboard either. It blows my mind that Microsoft didn’t include any touch gestures at all in Windows 8 Desktop, after doing such a fine job in Metro.
By now, it is hopefully very clear that Windows 8 is a mixed bag. Metro itself is probably the slickest user interface/user experience (UI/UX) paradigm to grace the tech world, ever. The new Metro control panel, the Charms, the device management — all very well executed and a joy to use.
The lack of decent Metro apps, though, is crippling. There’s no two ways around it. Yes, Windows 8 on a tablet has access to the Desktop — but it just isn’t feasible to use Desktop apps unless you have a rock-steady hand and you’re sitting down. Of course, you can always plug in a mouse and keyboard — or indeed any PC-compatible peripheral — but again you need to be sitting down. One of the coolest aspects of a Windows 8 tablet is that it can become a fully fledged laptop or desktop PC — but really, that’s missing the point, and Windows 8 with a mouse and keyboard has its own set of problems, anyway.
As it stands, Windows 8 makes for a good tablet operating system if you’re happy with only performing a specific subsection of activities. If you step outside the reservation, Windows 8 is brutally unforgiving. Every new platform faces such teething issues, of course, but the simple fact remains: Windows 8, in tablet form, has very limited functionality.
The upshot is that all of the pieces are there — they’re just rough around the edges, and don’t quite fit together. There are strokes of genius — gestures, charms — but alongside them are deal-breaking flaws, such as a lack of Metro apps and a touchphobic Desktop. The good news, though, is that Windows 8′s flaws can easily be fixed with software updates. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft publishes significant fixes to its stock apps in the next few days.
Fundamentally, I think that Microsoft rushed Windows 8 to market. The biggest flaw in Windows 8 — the lack of Metro apps — could have been completely mitigated if Microsoft had announced its intentions sooner. As it is, we did not find out about the Metro Start screen until June 2011, and developers weren’t given tools to develop Metro apps until October. If Microsoft had held back Windows 8 until 2013, really polished the operating system until it shone, and gave developers the time to develop excellent apps, I suspect this review would’ve been almost entirely positive.
But of course, Microsoft can’t wait. It’s hemorrhaging market share to Apple and Google, and the only way to stem that is to get into the mobile market — and fast. It’s a risk, palming off a half-baked operating system on consumers and enterprises — but I hope that it pays off, because Windows has the makings of a truly fantastic tablet OS.