I had some concerns about Windows 8 and where it will fit with the traditional keyboard-mouse market, still by far the most popular input method to PCs despite the increasing popularity of touchscreens. This is one of the areas I’ll be investigating with this blog, along with how the changes Windows 8 introduces could affect everyday users.
Windows 8 offers a radical departure from 7, in that it does away with the Start Menu and introduces the new Start Screen (formerly known as Metro) Tile-based, this new bold, colourful interface changes the way you access applications. It’s initially daunting, and you will find yourself struggling to find where things are at first.
Start, while looking great, seems far more suited to a touchscreen. If you have a touchscreen you will be using gestures to navigate Windows 8, whereas the mouse alternative of moving the cursor around to replicate these gestures – such as scrolling to the top right or bottom right corners of the screen to access Search (improved over 7’s already excellent indexed search facility) and Settings – are compensatory, like you’re not getting the full experience. But after some time, things do start to make sense and before you know it you’re whizzing around with the cursor forgetting all about your misgivings. Even so, if you prefer the more traditional Desktop system, you still have the option by selecting the Desktop tile and you will see a more traditional setup with shortcuts available the way they always were with previous versions of Windows.
Another big thing about Windows 8 is that Microsoft seems intent on the platform helping shape your experience far more than before. We’ve seen some examples of this with Windows 7, but it still felt very much like you were simply using a portal to get to the internet or whatever applications you were running. Windows 8 wants to get more involved.
Examples of this are the new account login system, allowing you to sign in to your computer using a Microsoft email address in addition to the traditional local or domain accounts we’re used to. This allows cross-device continuity between multiple computers and/or smartphones with Windows Mobile, as settings you have on the Microsoft account can be replicated across different devices, and this also enables instant online integration of personal apps on sign-in.
Other examples are the Windows 8 integrated apps such as Maps, SkyDrive (a Cloud document-sharing utility), Weather and Finance which populate a large number of tiles; ideas we’ve seen before to a limited extent with the Gadgets feature found in Vista and 7, but here they’re far more integral to the UI, with styles within the apps designed match the overall look and feel of Windows 8. Again, it feels like many of these offerings are more aimed at the touchscreen audience but it won’t take long to navigate them easily enough with the mouse. Lots of these new ideas have been heavily inspired by smartphones and tablet devices in terms of navigation, and some apps include cross-platform communication with Xbox Live, which has already been explored by Windows Mobile. The new Store integration will draw obvious comparisons to Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Marketplace, but it’s a proven method of selling applications which has gone down well with consumers, and is one Microsoft will be looking to take advantage of.
Once applications are launched, you’re in familiar territory as Windows 8 takes a backseat to whatever you’re running, be it Office, Internet Explorer or a third party application, and things are just the way you know them to be. Switching applications is easy enough as you use keyboard shortcuts such as the Windows key (to return to Start or Desktop without closing your app), alt + tab (to cycle through open applications) amongst many others which will become second nature over time, but it can sometimes be confusing when multi-tasking, as some apps opened in Desktop do not correspond with the same tile apps in the Start screen.
One thing which has really impressed me is the speed of the operating system. I tested Windows 8 on a machine previously loaded with Windows 7, and boot time is vastly improved, as is the loading of apps and folder navigation. The difference in speed from Windows 7 is often striking with general usage of the OS. It’s worth noting too that Windows 8 has the same hardware requirements as Windows 7, which is good to know for users wondering if their PC will be able to handle the upgrade.
Ultimately, the key to Windows 8’s success with keyboard & mouse users will rely on the patience of users as they get used to the dramatic stylistic overhaul Windows 8 brings with it. We’ve seen big changes from one OS to the next before with Windows, but nothing quite like the leaps made with the Start screen. Such changes, however much they may add to the experience over time, are Microsoft’s biggest gamble with Windows 8, and should everyday users fail to get past the initial difficulties involved with switching from 7 (or even XP, still widely used despite the impending cessation of support), Windows 8 could fall by the wayside as the operating system the world wasn’t quite ready for.
On the other hand, many of the ideas on display are refinements of existing offerings from other manufacturers such as Apple, and they may just be the tonic consumers need to stick with Windows for their OS needs. With the free availability of the Consumer Preview, at least users have had a chance to fully evaluate what is coming with the release before deciding to take that plunge, and of course Microsoft has had plenty of time to evaluate feedback and make changes before the final product goes to market.