Reflecting on Windows 8

In our Surface, VivoTab RT and Windows RT reviews both Vivek and I were fairly positive on Windows RT and the new modern user interface that Microsoft introduced with it and Windows 8. My feelings on the OS haven’t really changed since then, I still believe Windows 8 is a good step forward for Microsoft. The improvements to the underlying OS make it a good upgrade for current desktop/notebook users, while the modern UI makes it a great solution for tablets.

Windows RT/8 have sold me on touch when it comes to a notebook or notebook hybrid. I do wonder how much having a good touch experience is necessary when your trackpad experience isn’t perfect, but I find myself touching the screen on older notebooks more than ever before when switching between Windows RT/8 and other systems. I don’t believe ubiquitous touch is going to spell certain success for Microsoft, but it’s a good move.

I also can’t stress enough how big of a deal it is that Microsoft has delivered a power efficient OS capable of hanging with Android and iOS. It wasn’t that long ago where idle battery life on PCs significantly lagged behind even OS X, and now we’re talking about Windows experiences that rival ultra mobile OSes.

The big issue with Windows RT/8 is that the experience as a whole seems to be unfinished. Microsoft has done nothing to advance the traditional desktop UI paradigm. Keyboard/mouse navigation within the modern UI is functional, but it feels like more of a concession rather than an optimized experience. Microsoft of course needs to push the modern UI in order to quickly ramp up its app library. It’s a difficult position to be in and I don’t necessarily know of a better solution that delivers what MS wants while prioritizing the end user experience. Microsoft was one of the first companies to learn that for each device vertical, a custom user experience is necessary (e.g. Media Center Edition, Xbox). Wherever it has failed to keep those learnings in mind, things eventually end up going south. Sometimes it takes a while (Windows Mobile) and sometimes it’s apparent almost immediately (Tablet PC Edition). The fact that tablets/smartphones are the new high-growth markets definitely tilts things in Microsoft’s favor this time around, but that doesn’t mean that Microsoft is out of the woods.

Transitioning between modern and desktop UIs remains abrupt. I wanted to write about this in our Surface review but ran out of time. There's this weird bimodal UI paradigm that exists within Windows RT/8. Microsoft forces you into the modern UI by default, but sometimes it'll vomit you out into the desktop UI without warning depending on what you click. Want additional connection properties about your WiFi network? You're back in desktop mode.

Even within the modern UI there are some things that don’t seem well thought out. If you want OS/firmware updates, you’ll have to navigate to Windows Update - but if you want to update your apps you need to go through the Store app for those.

When it comes to performance, there are still quite a few annoyances. IE10 is better than expected, but it's in dire need of a performance boost. The swipe to go back to a previous page gesture is great for example, but the time it takes to switch from a pre-rendered screenshot to the actual page is unacceptably long.

Many fundamental tasks/apps still take way too long to respond with no real indication of what’s going on. I noticed I had 32 updates in the Store, clicked on the updates link and got this screen for minutes without anything happening:

The same is true for Mail, here's a screen i was faced with while mail tried to connect to my mail server. The process wasn’t quick, i was faced with this screen for dozens of seconds:

The problem when this happens is there’s usually no way to easily back out of the task or even get an idea of the progress of the task. The obvious solution here is there shouldn’t be so many situations where activity happens but no progress is made for a while. The issues aren’t always common but when they happen, they’re annoying and seem to be far less present on Android/iOS. Things just feel like they were rushed.

Microsoft needs to think about winning over Apple/Android users in a major way, as well as addressing their existing user base. There's clearly potential with Windows 8, but the usual model of minor updates that focus on under the hood fixes with major UI updates saved for major releases of the OS needs to go. I don't even know if an annual UI tweak is enough for MS to make up ground here. Microsoft has 12 - 18 months before Apple throws its hat into the converged tablet/notebook game, that's the window of opportunity to make Windows RT/8 a success. Otherwise, the exodus continues.

Microsoft had better not treat Windows 8 like it did Windows Phone 7 and not substantially update the UI for 2 years.

Charging, Battery Life & Dock Power Final Words
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  • BSMonitor - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    Exactly
    Not everyone runs only prepackaged software from Best Buy.

    I can write programs in Visual Studio very easily on the PC. With no recompiles, emulators, etc, I can also run that program on the x86 tablets.
    Reply
  • Guspaz - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    That has nothing to do with x86 compatibility and everything to do with Win32 compatibility, and that's all on Microsoft.

    If Microsoft had not prevented third-party apps from using Win32 on RT devices, you'd be able to recompile most apps with no code changes for ARM.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    Well that would be nice for us tech heads, but opening up WinRT like Win8 brings all of the negatives too. For most of your average users, WinRT is better. You can't take it online, click some ads, and get a nice trojan or two. It's really a good tablet platform overall.

    So now we've got the option of some affordable Atom-based Win8 tablets. So you can pick whatever suits your needs more, WinRT (and its restrictive walls and safety) or Win8 (and all the traditional Windows advantages and disadvantages).
    Reply
  • Chamie - Tuesday, March 05, 2013 - link

    > You can't take it online
    You can stop here, lol. (No browsers, only IE) Kidding.
    But, actually, you can't get it as easy on x86 Windows too — UAC and other stuff should prevent it. The only thing preventing you from getting the same on RT will be it's lack of popularity for users and, thus, for malware makers. Even WiFi routers suffer from infections (see Psyb0t, Chuck Norris etc.) despite running Linux on MIPS, why would Windows on ARM be any safer?
    Reply
  • Guspaz - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    Every single app you mentioned there runs on ARM (either the full version or a mobile tablet-oriented version) except for notepad++, and the only reason it won't run on ARM is because Microsoft forbids the use of Win32 on RT.

    x86 compatibility isn't all its cracked up to be. Most of the software you use on an x86 Linux distribution works just fine on an ARM Linux distribution, including stuff people tend to use on a day to day basis like Chrome or Firefox.

    I think you could make a better case for Win32 compatibility, x86 compatibility doesn't mean much for most people.
    Reply
  • SM123456 - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - link

    But this netbook costs $600. Ridiculous! Reply
  • Concillian - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    Depends entirely on what you want to run.

    Consider, for example automotive applications that interface with your car. These are very lightweight and old tech. A laptop in the passenger seat with a TN screen is overly bulky and the crappy screen is a liability. A tablet is a huge improvement in ergonomics.

    Applications like that are NEVER getting ported to android or iOS, so x86 compatibility is the only answer. I suspect that there are a number of similar industrial applications. At my work, we have some very lightweight applications at work running homemade VB or .Net applicatoins from 1.6GHz P4 machines. With x86, we could run them, but nothing else will. Some of these were developed to run on a 486 and we still use the basic program to run the equipment.

    x86 compatibility is meaningful to people who do actual work with these kinds of devices. Those who treat them like toys? Probably not so much.
    Reply
  • Slaimus - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    There are many such apps for iOS and Android. They interface with a bluetooth OBD transmitter and you can wirelessly view real time information. See: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.... Reply
  • Concillian - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    I know of and have used Torque. It's a toy.

    It cannot do the same thing that factory diagnostic tools and open source reverse engineered equivalent tools can do (like re-programming the ECU or TCU for your desires). Those tools are specialized by vehicle brand and are (x86) Windows exclusive.

    Industrial applications for these kinds of things move at a GLACIAL pace. Less than a decade ago I was regularly using a program that used a *terminal program* to communicate through a serial cable to program the device... It was straight out of the 80s... iOS and Android apps for the stuff that people make money with are not going to spring up overnight.

    x86 compatibility is a must for these kinds of applications. They also happen to be applications that are VERY light on hardware, so these kinds of tablets are a good option.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Thursday, December 20, 2012 - link

    I'm sorry, but you attribute "actually doing work" to "requiring junky legacy apps?" Not every workplace is burdened with those. And most that are depend on the mouse+keyboard interface anyway, so the whole "Win 32' compatibility is irrelevant.

    Besides, why did you write homemade VB apps anyway? VB is VB... and .Net shouldn't be that hard to port to a new version (which, obviously, would run on RT).
    Reply

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