My six days with Windows 8

— 12:32 AM on November 2, 2012

So, I installed Windows 8 on my desktop PC last week.

It was late on the eve of the launch. The download link for the $39.99 Win8 Pro upgrade had just gone live. I felt that familiar twinge in my stomach—the one that always precedes major upgrades, especially those conducted when they really shouldn't be. My rational side tried to argue against clicking the button. It made some pretty good points, too: I had to work in the morning, and if something went wrong, I wouldn't have time to fix it. My work PC would be hosed for the next day. However, my impulsive side retorted with an extremely persuasive argument: "Dude, you could upgrade right now." And so I clicked.

I lucked out, because everything went without a hitch. I downloaded the installer and ran it straight from Windows 7. It asked me to uninstall a couple of incompatible applications, rebooted my computer a couple of times, and showed me a fine collection of progress bars. Oh, and I think I had to answer a few questions, too, like whether I wanted to install right away or make a bootable USB thumb drive first. (I chose option A.) Finally, at 10:50 PM on the evening of Thursday, October 25, my PC booted into Windows 8 for the first time.

I stayed up entirely too late that night bobbing back and forth between Metro Modern UI tiles and the new-and-improved desktop. I fulfilled Microsoft's wishes and turned my local user account into an online one, which let Windows 8 sync my settings with the cloud. I agonized over which background graphic and color combo to use for the Start screen, and I wrestled with the hot corners, teaching myself to use the Charms bar and the new multitasking mojo on the left side of the screen. I stormed the Windows Store and downloaded a whole bunch of Modern UI apps to see what third-party developers had cooked up. I bounced back to the desktop and marveled at the multi-monitor taskbar and ribbon UI in the File Explorer. Ooh! Aah...

Mostly, I played around like an excited child. I've pretty much always done that after OS upgrades.


The next morning, I got up for work and was dismayed to find that, when I was actually being productive, Windows 8 really didn't feel all that different from Windows 7.

Then the sound in my headphones went out, and Creative's X-Fi driver caused a blue screen of death, complete with the new sad-face smiley. Classic Creative! Everything worked fine after I rebooted and installed the X-Fi's Windows 8 x64 beta driver, though. I guess Windows 8 is happier with bespoke drivers, even if it'll take your Win7 ones in a pinch. Then again, this is Creative we're talking about. Maybe I encountered what underpaid Singaporean developers call a "worst-case scenario."

I encountered only one other hitch, which is that Sublime Text has mysteriously disappeared from the "Open with" list for HTML files. It refuses to return no matter how many times I manually select it in the new "Choose default program" pop-up. Oddly enough, Sublime Text is still right there in the File Explorer ribbon's "Open" menu. Hmm.

Back to my point: somehow, Windows 8 doesn't really feel like an upgrade—not in the way Windows 7 did over Vista, and definitely not in the way Vista did over XP. When I'm busy working in the desktop and ignoring the Modern UI Start screen, which is about 99.9% of the time, Windows 8 feels more like a Windows 7 service pack with a custom skin than a whole new operating system. It's kind of underwhelming. Now, don't get me wrong; I don't regret upgrading. It only set me back 40 bucks, and the improvements I do notice (the new File Explorer, Task Manager, file copy dialogs, multi-monitor taskbar, and so forth) are very much welcome. It's just that... well, sometimes, I find myself looking around and saying, "That's it?"

I tried spending some time in the Modern UI interface, thinking some exciting new paradigms might be there waiting to be discovered. Mostly, what I found was unfinished apps that poorly replicated the functionality of major websites. Even apps that actually did something useful, like the Modern UI version of Skype, felt pared down and lacking compared to their desktop counterparts. Not that I found many of those. The Windows Store catalog is awfully thin right now. I'm only using one Windows Store app with any regularity, and that's the Windows 8 version of Jetpack Joyride.

I think that's the problem with Modern UI for us desktop users. You see, on tablets and smartphones, mobile apps like IMDB and Yelp and Facebook make a lot of sense. They're usually easier to navigate than the corresponding websites on a tiny touch screen, and they're often faster to open, as well. But on a desktop? You've got a keyboard, a mouse, and a big screen right there in front of you. Websites load in a picosecond, and you get to navigate them with a pretty optimal set of tools. What's the point of going to the Start screen and loading up a big, clunky, dumbed-down app when you can load up a full-featured website in a fraction of the time?

I can think of only one instance where Modern UI would come in handy on the desktop. Let's say I had a Windows 8 tablet or a touch-enabled laptop. Let's say I'd gotten awfully cozy with a certain Modern UI app. Now, I'd be delighted if I could use it on my big computer. The alternatives—having to use a website with a different interface or, worse, another piece of software entirely—wouldn't be nearly as convenient. Not having a full array of features wouldn't matter, because replicating familiarity would be the whole point.

Maybe I should take the touch-enabled laptop out of that hypothetical, though. I went and tried some of those on Friday, and let me just say Modern UI looks really, really awful on a 15" touch screen. The fact that the on-screen keyboard pops up when you tap into a text field, even though you've got a hardware keyboard right there underneath, doesn't help. (Yes, this happens, and it doesn't just happen on one system. I tried two touch laptops from two different vendors, and they both did the same thing.)

While grimacing at those half-baked machines, I realized yet another way in which Windows 8's forced convergence is hopelessly awkward.

The store shelves were packed with Windows 8 systems. Some of those systems were touch-enabled, some were not, and right there in between was a lonely WinRT convertible tablet. For an average user without prior knowledge, there was no way to tell whether a given Win8 machine would: a) respond to touch input or b) run x86 applications. None whatsoever. Heck, I caught myself pawing at non-touch-enabled Win8 laptops and being disappointed when that did nothing but smear the screen. Things will only get more confusing later this month, when Clover Trail-powered Windows 8 convertible tablets start to coexist with ARM-powered Windows RT ones.

This is a bigger deal than it seems. For the past couple of decades, people have been able to count on the fact that Windows PCs all operate the same way and all run the same software—generally speaking, at least. Windows 8 totally throws that out the window, and it does so in the worst way possible: by forcing a consistent appearance on systems that work totally differently.

I don't regret upgrading to Windows 8 on my desktop. All of a sudden, though, Apple's strategy of cleanly segregating iOS and OS X is looking awfully sensible.

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