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In Praise of the Windows 8 Desktop

For all the griping about Windows 8, take it from a long-time user: It’s not just OK, it’s better

We’re so consumed by negative reports and bad news about Windows 8 these days that I thought I’d take a step back and remind you about an inconvenient truth: The improvements Microsoft made just to the desktop environment in this release make Windows 8 upgrade a bigger improvement over Windows 7 than that OS was over its own predecessor, Windows Vista.

This isn’t the story you’ll hear from my colleagues in the tech space, many of whom have turned bashing Windows 8 into their primary job function. In my own coverage of Windows 8, especially on the SuperSite for Windows, I’ve tried to blend the pragmatic (how-to’s, tips, feature articles) with the commentary, but even in the latter vein I’ve skewed toward the practical (as in my “How to fix Windows 8” series). I’ve got to get work done. I assume readers do as well.

But here’s the thing. Since December 2011, I’ve used Windows 8 exclusively on all of my own computers. I’ve not so much as dabbled in Windows 7 during this time, except for the occasional support call from my wife (who, incidentally, switched to Windows 8 last fall as well). And I’ve got to tell you, I’m not just used to Windows 8. I prefer it.

Let me take that a step further. While I have certainly spent more time than most using and evaluating a new generation of multi-touch tablets and other Windows 8/RT devices, my own PCs—the ones I’ve actually spent a considerable amount of money on—are decidedly old-school. I’m talking an HP tower PC and a 15-inch Samsung Ultrabook, both purchased new in 2012. Neither has any touch capabilities whatsoever because, you know, I use them for work. Both came with Windows 7. Both times, the OS was stripped off immediately and Windows 8 was installed.

Ah, bliss.

To be clear, I use the desktop almost exclusively. And while there is indeed a jarring aspect to the Metro user experiences that pop up from time to time—none so annoyingly as the new Start screen—the truth is, they work fine. And the new keyboard shortcuts in Windows 8—especially the ones that use the Windows key to great effect now—are excellent. I can motor around this UI, Metro touchiness and all, very efficiently.

But the desktop. Oh, how the desktop has improved.

Gone is the now-antiquated Aero look and feel, its needlessly translucent glass effects replaced by the more pleasing, modern-looking, and, yes, opaque Explorer windows in Windows 8. Microsoft removed Aero because of battery life concerns, which I’m OK with. But I just think it looks better.

Windows Explorer has been upgraded substantially with a new ribbon-based UI that power users will immediately start grousing about. Relax, it’s a win-win: Now, the less sophisticated users you support can actually find what they’re looking for. And you can hide the ribbon, creating the cleanest looking version of Explorer you’ve ever used. And you can mount ISO and VHD images directly into the file system and access them just like normal discs and disks, respectively.

Anyone dogged by slow and unreliable file copies in previous Windows versions, especially over a network, will love that file copy/move has been completely overhauled. It not only looks better with a nice new single-window UI, but it moves like greased lightning, as if Microsoft finally discovered multi-threaded programming for the first time. This isn’t an evolution, it’s a big deal.

Have you ever wondered why Task Manager hadn’t been updated in years, despite Microsoft’s acquisition of Process Monitor with the rest of the Sysinternals suite years ago? Wonder no more: Windows 8’s Task Manager is a thing of beauty and utility, with heat mapping to help identify your most recalcitrant applications and integrated Performance, App history, and Services tools, plus an improved version of the handy startup applications configuration utility that inexplicably went missing in Windows 7.

Looking for better security? You’ve got it: Windows Defender now includes integrated anti-virus capabilities and not just anti-malware as in the past. The SmartScreen malicious download protection feature from Internet Explorer is now built into the OS so it can protect you no matter which web browser you use. Previous versions of documents and other data files are more easily accessible via a new feature called File History.

Power user? Enjoy the easy access to data redundancy with Storage Spaces, no master’s degree in RAID required. Encrypt your disks with BitLocker and BitLocker To Go. And use multiple display configurations more efficiently with vastly improved multi-mon support.

If you care about performance, consider this. Windows 8 boots on both of my PCs in about 6 seconds flat. And you can completely wipe out and reset Windows 8—a process I call “nuke from space”—in 5-7 minutes. There’s even a version of this tool that restores your documents and other files, personal settings, and Metro-style apps: It takes just a few minutes longer, and all you need to do when you’re done is reinstall desktop applications. You can do it during lunch.

On top of all this, Windows 8 provides virtually all of the benefits and functionality of Windows 7, and it runs exactly the same applications, utilities, and drivers. It’s a superset, what I think of as Windows 7++. And that’s before you ever get to the trendy, multi-touch, tablet stuff.

Is Windows 8 perfect? No. No technology is. But it’s also a far cry from the disaster that muck-raking industry pundits describe. And Windows 8 passes what I feel to be the most important test for any upgrade with flying colors: When I use its predecessor, Windows 7, it looks and feels uncomfortably old-fashioned. Someone has to say it. Windows 8 isn’t terrible, folks. Put aside your biases and spend more than 15 minutes with it and you’ll probably agree.

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