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Windows 8 Review, Part 1: The Desktop

You've been told that Microsoft has somehow compromised the beloved desktop environment and ruined it with Metro, its new touch-first UI for tablets and other non-traditional devices. You’ve been told that Windows 8 is a lousy upgrade on existing desktop and laptop PCs, and that you should stick with Windows 7 and pray that the next Windows version steps back from some imaginary cliff. Folks, you’ve been lied to.

To understand why this is so, I’m going to start this multi-part review by focusing on a topic that Windows 8’s and Microsoft’s detractors would actually like you to ignore. That if you look just at the improvements Microsoft has made to the Windows desktop, Windows 8 is a bigger and more signification upgrade over Windows 7 than was Windows 7 over the unfairly maligned Windows Vista.

Don’t believe me? I know, the Kool-Aid tastes great, but take a break from Reality Distortion Field and journey back in time with me a scant three years so we can rediscover what made Windows 7 such an impressive upgrade for the day over Vista.

“Windows 7 … improves on virtually everything about its predecessor while losing nothing of serious importance,” I wrote at the start of my massive, 12-part review of Windows 7. “Windows 7 is also a more compelling version of its predecessor, Windows Vista, offering enhanced usability, dramatically better performance, and new seamless compatibility options … Windows 7 [is not] just Vista with a bit of eye candy added and some performance tweaks … [it] is the sum of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny tweaks, none of which would be particularly interesting in isolation.”

In my conclusion to this review, I listed the ways in which Windows 7 met the needs of users. Let’s step through that list and see how the Windows 8 upgrade compares, again, just from the perspective of the desktop for users on existing PCs.

Windows 7 is the first version of Windows to actually run better on the same hardware than its predecessor and to have lower real-world hardware requirements and recommendations. Surprise: Windows 8 has done it again. Windows 8 actually runs better on the same hardware than its predecessor and has lower real-world hardware requirements than its predecessor.

New taskbar with its Jump Lists, interactive taskbar thumbnails, and other capabilities. Present in Windows 8 and improved with similar Start screen capabilities.

New window management methods like Aero Snaps, Aero Peek, and Aero Shake will make users more efficient. All are still present in Windows 8, though the Aero naming (like Aero itself) has been dropped. You can also snap the desktop side-by-side with a Metro app now, as well.

Libraries make organizing and finding files easier and more attractive than ever before. Libraries aren’t just present in Windows 8, they’re easier to use than ever before thanks to new Explorer-based management capabilities. And they integrate with Metro apps too.

Overall simplification work--where almost every single feature of the UI was poked, prodded, improved, and made consistent--gives the entire system a feel of refinement that Windows has always lacked. This is perhaps the one major area where Windows 8 is a step back, of sorts, to the confusing array of user experiences that somewhat dogged Windows Vista. There’s just no way around the fact that Windows 8 includes two user experiences, the desktop and Metro, and that many users will be initially confused by this.

Windows Touch … Microsoft has made desktop-based multi-touch capabilities a pervasive and first class user experience for the first time ever. It works just as well in Windows 8 (and of course the Metro stuff was designed in a touch-first manner and is thus even more integrated and natural).

Looking at the above list, from what I can see, Windows 8 comes out with 5 wins and 1 loss. But let’s continue and look at the issues I identified in Windows 7 and see whether any of these problems were fixed in Windows 8:

Some of the new user experience features--like the ability to pin items to the taskbar--are not fully conceived. This trend continues in Windows 8, in that pinned taskbar items are no more powerful than they were in Windows 7. (That said, Microsoft did dramatically change program launching in this release, adding the new Start screen with its live tiles.)

Previously bundled applications—like those that handle email, calendaring, contacts, video editing, and so on—now, in Windows 7, are not. Here, things have improved somewhat as well. Looking at the desktop specifically, you still need Windows Essentials. But Windows 8 does include Metro apps for email, contacts, calendaring, messaging, audio and video playback, and much, much more.

Microsoft's decision to not bundle an anti-virus solution in Windows is a mistake. Well, they’ve corrected that in Windows 8: Windows Defender now includes anti-virus (in addition to anti-malware and other OS security features) in the box. Windows 8 for the win.

The product upgrade mix can be confusing. Not anymore. With Windows 8, if you have any supported Windows version (XP and up), you qualify for the upgrade. Simple. (And yes, I’ll examine upgrading later in the review.)

Of the four issues raised above, Windows 8 emphatically solves two of the three problems and arguably solves the other two as well. But to be fair to desktop users, let’s call it a tie: 2 to 2.

This doesn’t sound like the disaster some are describing, now does it?

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. See, Windows 8 further improves on the Windows 7 desktop in several important and immediately noticeable ways. And if you really care about the Windows desktop—which, given the faux uproar over Windows 8, everyone apparently does—then this stuff should be triggering mass upgrades come October 26. The big changes include:

Faster boot/near-instantaneous resume. Windows 8 boots in as little as 6 seconds on all of my PCs. And while, yes, I have to tap Enter one extra time—the horrors!!—to get from the Start screen to the desktop that I, too, use day and day out, that’s a small price to pay. 6 seconds, people. 6.

Blink and you'll miss it: The Windows 8 boot screen

Improved desktop themes. While Microsoft pushed translucent Aero glass effects in Windows Vista and 7, it discovered a dark side to this look and feel: These windows weren’t power efficient. So in Windows 8, Aero is replaced by a new flat, opaque theme (though the taskbar, curiously, has some translucency). I happen to like it better than Aero, to be honest, and the automatic window color feature—where the border color of onscreen windows adapts automatically according to the desktop wallpaper, is excellent.

Desktop themes can automatically colorize based on the wallpaper...


Improved File Explorer. Windows has always been knocked for its lack of focus, a byproduct of its success, since Windows targets over 1.3 billion individuals, each with the own ways of doing things and different levels of expertise. And on the surface, the new ribbon-based File Explorer (a renamed update to Windows Explorer) seems to suffer from this lack of focus: I mean, what could be busier than the ribbon in File Explorer? Look a bit deeper however, and you’ll discover that File Explorer offers the best of both worlds: A user interface that will help even the least experienced user find exactly the command they’re looking for, and, when minimized, a UI that even a power user could love. 

File Manager for newbies: Every command, at your fingertips

File Manager for power users: Cleaner than Windows 7

Improved Task Manager. Like File Explorer, the new Task Manager offers two UIs, a super-simple one for the stopping the occasional crashed app or application, and a power user version that provides performance monitoring, app resource usage history, a startup applications list (where, unlike in Windows 7, you can actually prevent applications from starting automatically), and more. This is Task Manager on steroids. It’s awesome.

Task Manager in light version (left) and full-bore power user version (right)

Internet Explorer 10. I’ll look at the apps in Windows 8 a bit later in this review, but one of those apps, Internet Explorer 10, also comes in a desktop version that is vastly improved over both its Metro equivalent and previous IE versions. IE 10 brings hardware accelerated, well, everything, not to mention dramatically improved web standards support to Windows. It provides built-in Flash compatibility and, in this desktop version continued browser-add-on support. It even includes some new features, like Flip Ahead, and can and will keep itself up to date over time, just like Google Chrome. What’s not to like? IE 10 is my most frequently-used browser in Windows 8.

Internet Explorer 10: Looks the same, far more powerful


File History, Storage Spaces, and Push Button Reset. Microsoft has completely overhauled and improved the Windows 8 data protection technologies, and the results are File History, a replacement for Previous Versions, and Storage Spaces, a Drive Extender-like data redundancy solution that makes RAID look like the 1970’s-era joke that it is. Furthermore, the Push Button Reset tools—PC Reset and PC Refresh—replace the PC backup features of the past with solutions that are safe, fast, and reliable. I will be writing more these technologies extensively in a future part of this review.

Cloud connected. With Windows 8, you can sign-in with your Microsoft account, creating a seamless way to sync your desktop (and Metro) settings from PC to PC. Yes, folks, Windows 8 syncs desktop settings too. This includes browser settings (Favorites, typed URLs, home page, and much more), accessibility settings, web credentials, File Explorer settings, HomeGroup settings, mouse settings, Open With settings, taskbar settings, and desktop theme settings. And if you grab the optional SkyDrive application, you can integrate File Explorer with your online storage. Awesome stuff.

More consistent Start and Start Search experiences. In Windows 7, Microsoft provided a pop-up Start menu with integrated Search. In Windows 8, this becomes a full screen Start experience with integrated Search. But both of these things are far more consistent in Windows 8, with Metro experiences, of course, but also just generally. You can pin both desktop and Metro apps to the Start screen. And now, when you search, you can filter the view between apps, settings, and files, and the results include both desktop and Metro items were applicable.

A more consistent and full-screen Start Search

Business features. I’ll be looking at enterprise and business features in a later part of this review, but let me just throw out some features here that are decidedly desktop-based: Windows To Go (in Windows 8 Enterprise only), BitLocker and BitLocker To Go, Windows SmartScreen, integrated mobile broadband integration, and so on.

Power user menu. Mouse into the lower-left corner of the screen and then right-click and you’ll find a cool new power user menu that provides quick access to—wait for it—power user desktop tools like Power Options, Event Viewer, System, and much more.

A secret power user menu 

Keyboard shortcuts. I’ve written elsewhere about the many new keyboard shortcuts in Windows 8, especially those based around the Windows key, but suffice to say that Windows 8 is more keyboard friendly than any previous version of Windows, ever. Not exactly the type of thing you’d expect from a touch-first tablet OS, eh?

Less legacy deadwood. While you’ll need to move to Windows RT for the most savings, even the traditional x86 versions of Windows 8 do away with some pointless legacy deadwood from Windows 7, including the ill-supported Desktop Gadgets. Good riddance.

Final Thoughts

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too logical for the insane partisan blathering that passes for commentary in tech circles these days. But looking just at the desktop—you know, the part of Windows 8 that Microsoft supposedly ignored so it could focus on Metro—I see a Windows upgrade that is at least the equal of Windows 7. In fact, I think it’s a bigger upgrade.

And that’s before I’ve even discussed the best parts of Windows 8 yet. But I’ll do that soon, in the next installment of this review.

Next: Part 2, Yes, It’s Called Metro.

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