Microsoft is giving Windows its most radical overhaul since 1995 and even its most devoted users won’t recognize the venerable computer operating system in this new incarnation, called Windows 8, when it appears Oct. 26.
The minute you turn it on, the difference is apparent. Instead of the familiar desktop, you see a handsome, modern, slick world of large, scrolling tiles and simpler, full-screen apps best used on a touch screen and inspired by tablets and smartphones.
This is called the Start screen and it replaces the Start Menu every Windows user knows. But it’s not just a menu, it’s a whole computing environment that takes over the entire display, with its own separate apps and controls. The old desktop and old-style apps are still there. But in Windows 8, the desktop is like another app — you tap or click on a Start screen icon or button to use it.
This is a bold move and in my view, the new tile-based environment works very well and is a welcome step. It feels natural, especially on a touch screen, and brings Windows into the tablet era. It may even mark the beginning of a long transition in which the new design gradually displaces the old one, though that will depend on how fast Microsoft can attract new-style apps.
The new Photos app for Windows 8 offers access to not only a user’s own photos, but those from Facebook, Flickr and Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service.
Windows will now consist of two very different user experiences bound into a single package. The idea is it’s a one-size-fits-all operating system, which can run on everything from older, mouse-driven PCs to touch-controlled tablets without compromise. Everything from a touch-based weather app to mouse-driven Excel will run on it. That’s a big contrast to Apple’s approach, which uses separate operating systems for its iPad tablets and more standard Mac computers.
Potential for Confusion
By adopting the dual-environment strategy, Microsoft risks confusing traditional PC users, who will be jumping back and forth between two ways of doing things. Both the new and old environments can work via either touch or a mouse and keyboard, but the former works best with touch, the latter best with the mouse or track pad.
There are even two different versions of Internet Explorer. And many functions are different. For instance, Start-screen apps typically lack the standard menus, toolbars, resizing and closing buttons at the top that older apps do.
The company is gambling that the confusion will be brief and will be offset by the ability, via the old desktop, to run traditional productivity apps like Microsoft Office, which can’t be run on the iPad or its Android brethren.
Different Versions and Abilities
But wait, there’s even more potential for confusion. Windows 8 will come in two versions, one for standard Intel-based PCs and one, called RT, for tablets that run on the same type of processor that powers competing smartphones and tablets.
There will be a big difference, however. On the Intel-based machines, you’ll be able to run both the new tablet-type apps and your old Windows apps, via the desktop. But on the RT machines, you won’t be able to install and run traditional Windows apps on the desktop. The only major program that will run there will be a new version of Office, modified to work on these machines and lacking Outlook. You’ll be downloading all new, tablet-style apps through an online store, just as on iPads.
Finally, just to top off the alternate reality, Microsoft will, for the first time in its history, be making and selling its own personal computer. It’s a tablet called Surface and it’ll compete with Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets made by the company’s traditional hardware partners.
I tested Windows 8 on three machines: a tablet, a touchscreen Ultrabook and a convertible laptop whose screen can slide into a tablet-like position.
The big news here is the Start-screen environment, which is patterned after the tile-based interface introduced in Microsoft’s mobile-phone software, called Windows Phone. It uses a design nicknamed “Metro,” which features rectangular and square icons that look different from those on iPads and Android devices.
These tiles present snippets of information from the apps they represent.
The tile for mail shows scrolling information from messages you’ve received, the one for photos shows thumbnails of your pictures and the one for the calendar cycles through your appointments. The idea is you can see your key information at a glance.
You scroll through the horizontal array of tiles by swiping with a finger or a mouse or track pad. Icons for older desktop programs, like Microsoft Word, show up on the Start screen, but without any information. There’s a button called All Apps, which shows every program on the computer.
In my tests, this new interface worked very well, very smoothly and holds its own with iPad and Android.
Charms and Gestures
Windows 8 features an innovative, universal strip of controls, called Charms. It appears at the right side of the screen when you swipe in from the right edge. On a non-touchscreen device you can bring up this strip by placing the mouse cursor in the top right corner.
These charms include Search, Settings, Share, Devices and a button that returns you to the Start screen. The charms are tuned to whatever app you’re using at the time.
The Devices charm controls links to things like printers and other networked computers. Share allows you to send content via methods like email and social networks.
If you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, you get options similar to what you see when you right-click on a mouse.
If you swipe in from the left side, you can switch among apps. Swiping in and back quickly from the left shows a list of thumbnails of running apps and in the bottom left corner, an icon that returns you to the Start screen.
You can split the screen so two apps are visible at once, with one taking up a small strip of the screen at the left or right.
This is useful for, say, having your email and Web browser showing simultaneously. It also works to show an older app, like Word, alongside a newer one, like Photos.
Some of the new-style apps are impressive. The Photos app includes not only your own local photos, but those from Facebook, Flickr and Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service. The People app shows not only contacts, but social-network status updates for those contacts.
But the new Mail app was disappointing. It lacks a unified inbox, a single folder for showing unread mail, and a folder showing messages from your most important contacts, among other features.
There were many common third-party apps I couldn’t find in Microsoft’s app store, which is the sole source of new-style apps. For instance, while there are apps for Kindle and Netflix, I couldn’t find common titles like Dropbox, Facebook or Twitter.
Microsoft says there will be more of these popular apps by the launch date next week.
Windows RT will only be available built into devices. A high-end version of Windows 8, called Pro, can be purchased separately, so you can upgrade your PC. All details haven’t been disclosed, but for the next few months, you can download it for $40, or buy it on a DVD for $70. People who bought a new Windows PC between June 2 and Jan. 31 pay only $15.
If you don’t have a touchscreen, Windows 8 will still work, but more clumsily.
Pro is more tuned to using Windows with corporate computing systems. A consumer home version, called simply Windows 8, will be available, but the company isn’t saying anything yet about its pricing.
Microsoft deserves credit for giving Windows a new, modern face. And the company will surely please existing users by maintaining the old one and the ability to run older apps. But the combination will require re-learning the most familiar computing system on the planet.
Email Walt at email@example.com.