Microsoft Windows 8 was officially released yesterday. For a limited time, the company is offering a $39.99 upgrade for users of Windows 95, XP, Vista, and Win 7. I’ve used the beta and preview versions for months and installed the final release early this morning. I thought a short review might help some of you decide if Redmond’s latest OS is a good choice. I’ll try to keep it brief* and concentrate on the biggest changes, especially those of special interest to writers.
WILL MY EXISTING SOFTWARE WORK?
The first thing to know is that most software that runs under Windows 7 should work fine in Windows 8. The glaring exception for writers is Microsoft Office 2003. Scrivener is my initial writing software for stories now, but I know many editors and other writers rely on Word’s track changes feature for proofreading/versioning.
With the exception of bug fixes and paid support options, the release of Windows 8 marks the end of life (EOL) for Office 2003. The pre-install upgrade assistant lists 2003 as incompatible with Windows 8. I think (but am not 100% sure) you can install it and it will work, but without jumping through some technical hoops it will disable Win 8’s automatic software updates, which is neither practical or safe for most users.
Good news: Office 2010 is compatible. And for the curious (adventurous?) among you, a fully functioning Office 2013 preview is available for the next few months. In fact, Microsoft is offering a free upgrade from Office 2010 to Office 2013 through April 2013. I installed the 2013 preview and like it so far.
Choice is good. Despite various Mac and Open Source alternatives, Word is still the business world’s de facto word processor, and will likely remain so.
WHO MOVED MY START BUTTON?
Many reviews of Win 8 have focused on its strikingly different visuals and stunning departure from previously learned ways of starting programs and arranging application windows.
First, the Start Button is gone. It’s been replaced by the colorful checkerboard-looking thingie below. Click on it to expand it and note that it scrolls sideways to get to your programs, not vertically. And while your programs are still grouped, there are no subfolders (Adobe, for instance) so every executable gets its on tile which tends to clutter things up. One cool thing about these tiles is they’re able to display live information. See your latest email, tweets, the weather, or calendar appointments without having to open the application. Instant love!
You can will arrange, delete, and add to this menu. Your sanity depends on this ability. Put your most often used programs into sensible groups and name them. Start infrequently used programs by hitting the Windows key and typing (just like Vista and Win 7). You’ll immediately be presented with several choices. Note in the picture below Windows assumes you’re looking for an application, but also shows other returns for the keyword.
Let me emphasize, Windows finally gets searching right! More on that in a moment. Let’s move to the other major change in Windows 8 thinking…
GO FULLSCREEN OR GO HOME!
Windows is positioning “8” as the operating system for desktop, laptop, and mobile applications. Bowing to increasing mobile and tablet use, native Win 8 applications will launch and remain fullscreen.
You can’t resize native apps in Win 8. You can merely choose them with Alt+Tab (for all open applications) or Windows+Tab (for fullscreen app windows). Touch surfaces and touch-enabled mice also allow you to slide between the native windows, sort of like shuffling cards.
Older or non-native software behaves as expected. You can minimize and arrange the windows on your desktop like you’ve done since Windows 3. Just to keep things interesting, native and desktop applications can run at the same time. But you can’t copy and paste information between the two worlds.
This split personality takes a little getting used to, but can be managed if you don’t dwell on the issue. And for native apps, there are some advantages. You can easily search from fullscreen, as well as share what you’re viewing. And this is a feature writers or anyone looking to maximize their social sharing efficiency will embrace.
In any native Windows 8 app move your mouse to the right edge of screen and the Charms bar pops up.
This sidebar lets you easily print, send to a second screen, share through enabled social apps, mail, or search. The picture above shows the sharing options for my homepage as viewed in Internet Explorer 10. By the way, People is Win 8’s amped contact application. It pulls all of your contacts’ email and social media info into one program that lets you choose how to communicate with your friends and colleagues.
This level of intimate sharing between programs only exists for native “8” apps, but may be reason enough to drop $40.
SEARCH ON STEROIDS
Remember the vastly improved searching? The screen below shows the highly contextual and effective approach. I’m in Internet Explorer so the default choice is an Internet search engine, but other choices are offered. Want to know more about a technology you’re reading about?, search using the Wikipedia app. Have a question about word usage? Try Dictionary.com’s cool (and free) app.
Too many passionate opinions on the web have merely fanned the flames of Windows 8 hatred. The truth is Microsoft developed this software in a very open atmosphere that blog after blog, explained in exhaustive detail some of their less popular design choices. The OS has been available to beat on for a year. Yet tech pundits still promote the idea that this interloper is the latest Millennium or Vista, and Microsoft will repent of it once exiting users sink stock prices.
I don’t share that view. This ground up redesign is so radical that starting over is not merely impractical, but probably not feasible. Windows 7 is rock solid but grounded in paradigms developed before today’s level of social and mobile app use.
Which makes more sense: Developing a completely new standalone mobile/tablet OS to learn, or developing a system that offers the best of the new technology while letting users also operate in Win 7’s familiar, stable interface? Microsoft made a tough business decision and that takes guts, regardless of user opinion of the final outcome.
Having used it as my main OS for several months, I’m firmly in Window 8’s corner. There’s room for improvement, but more importantly, there’s a path forward to improve it. I do have concerns about the future of its desktop apps, but I’m not cynical enough to dismiss its benefits until my questions are answered.
In my view, that’s the least you need to know to make an informed choice about upgrading to Windows 8. Well, one last thing. Native software will be sold through the Windows Store, a la Apple’s App Store, and you’ll need a Microsoft ID (Live, Hotmail, etc.) to get in. But that’s the way of the world now.
If you decide to take the plunge, this LifeHacker post will get you through the most discordant interface changes.
* Sorry, I tried to keep it brief!