In previous parts of this review, I discussed the many improvements to the desktop in Windows 8, the often uneasy relationship between that desktop and the new Metro environment, and how that new Metro environment is in fact a completely new mobile platform on which Microsoft is staking its future. These are big picture issues, what any budding Windows 8 user needs to know to get his bearing. For the remaining parts of this review—and yes, spoiler alert, there will be 8 in total—I’ll be focusing on more specific new features in Windows 8. And since this is Windows we’re talking about, let’s kick it off with a historical strong point for this OS: productivity. More specifically, let’s look at the new Metro-style productivity apps that Microsoft bundles with Windows 8.
(Note that you don’t have to live in Metro to see productivity gains in Windows 8. Part one of this review, which focused on the desktop, revealed many new features that are arguably productivity boosters. And future parts of this review will highlight topics such as reliability, security, and networking, and Windows 8’s business features. (And yes, there are some.)
Metro and productivity
To properly frame this discussion, however, you need to remember how the Metro environment works, specifically with regards to multitasking. After all, you’re not being productive if you’re only doing one thing at a time. (As I quipped recently in a work meeting after someone claimed they could get work done on an iPad: “If you’re getting work done on an iPad, you’re not working hard enough.)
Metro infamously utilizes full-screen apps that many feel constrains their productivity. But the story is more nuanced than that. In addition to a Snap feature that I feel is largely useless, Metro also supports various methods of notifying the user when something has happened in another app. These notifications can appear on the Windows 8 lock screen, they can appear on the dynamic live tiles for various apps, and they can appear when you’re using Windows 8, in Metro or on the desktop. So when a new email arrives, a pending meeting or another event is about to occur, or whatever, Metro will let you know. And it’s unclear to me why this is in fact less efficient than using a bunch of overlapping floating windows on the desktop.
No, seriously, think about that one for a second. With the possible exception of there being instances in which having two equally sized windows side by side can be useful, there’s precious little you can do on the desktop that doesn’t work pretty well in Metro too. If you’re writing a document in Word as I am now and your email application notifies you that you have a new email, that’s no more or less efficient if that email solution is a Metro-style app instead of a desktop application. What’s really rankled people, I think, is the perception of power that one gets with the desktop. And what these people seem to forget is that multiple floating windows is confusing. And that for most people, it’s just overkill.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a power user, and I have many, many windows open onscreen all the time. But if I’m being honest with myself, I only very rarely ever need to see two of them side-by-side. I’m pretty much always doing one thing at a time. So while there’s no Metro version of Word, Photoshop, or a few of the other tools I use regularly, there could be. And I’m starting to think that maybe—just maybe—this future world won’t be so difficult after all.
Metro productivity apps
You, of course, will need to decide for yourself. And looking at the collection of productivity apps included in Windows 8, I see a grab-bag of
Internet Explorer 10
Microsoft’s latest web browser is a testament, and poster child, for everything that is weird and wrong about Windows 8 and its bizarre dueling interfaces, Metro and the desktop. It’s not one browser, but two, a full-screen Metro experience with absolutely no extensibility at all, and a desktop version that you can trick out to your heart’s content. Both share the same underpinnings, so you get the same web rendering capabilities and so. But both work very differently.
More alarmingly, based on months of experience with the RTM version of Windows 8, the desktop version of IE is particularly unstable. In fact, I crash it almost every single day. This crashing occurs across many different PCs, so I know it’s not machine-specific. But it’s so common it’s caused me to reassess my allegiance to this browser.
If you can get past that, the desktop version of IE is basically the same as its predecessor, IE 9, with the same basic UI. There are a handful of new features, all hidden, such as the Flip Ahead precaching functionality. But it’s basically the same as IE 9.
IE 10 Metro, however, is another thing entirely. This browser was designed with touch-enabled devices in mind and it shines in such usage, with a simple, elegant layout and easily accessible controls. And unlike with some Metro interface, IE 10 Metro even works well with more traditional mouse and keyboard inputs.
Many of the features you expect from a modern browser are available, though in different ways thanks to the new mobile UI. Tabs are accessible via top-mounted app bar that appears when requested, and there are handy tools for navigation, typing in URLs and searches, pinning a site to the Start screen, and more.
Some have complained that Microsoft is hiding Favorites in this version of the browser, and that’s a fair claim. But Favorites, pinned sites, and frequently-accessed sites are all visible when you start typing in the address bar. So if there’s a site you access a lot, chances are it will be readily available.
Overall, Internet Explorer 10 makes a credible claim as the superior mobile browser. Now if Microsoft could just fix the desktop version, maybe they’d be on to something.
If you’re familiar with the Mail app in Windows Phone, you will recognize Windows 8’s Mail app as its spiritual cousin. And it’s actually quite good, minus two missing features, one of which I know is coming in a future update. We’ll need to cross our fingers on the second.
Mail is connected to the next three apps in this review, People, Messaging, and Calendar, in that you can’t arbitrarily install just one of them as they come in a set. That’s for a good reason: Most of the account you configure for one work in the others, so when you add an email account to Mail, the contacts are added to People and the meetings and other events are added to Calendar.
Mail presents your basic three-pane interface, with folders and accounts on the left, a message list in the middle and the reading pane on the right. If you’ve used any web-based email client, you get the drill: Mail works as expected.
As noted previously, however, there are two exceptions to that rule.
First, Mail doesn’t provide a linked inbox view as does Windows Phone Mail. This means that you must jump in and out of each account as new messages arrive, an inconvenience.
Second, Mail inexplicably doesn’t support drag and drop of messages. So if you want to move a message from the inbox to an archive folder, you must perform some touch-based calisthenics: Select the message(s), display the app bar, tap the Move button, and then select the destination. That’s about three steps too many, and when you consider that web-based email like Hotmail and Outlook.com support this basic functionality, it’s a bit weird that a full-fledged native app doesn’t. But Microsoft tells me drag and drop is coming.
Also, it’s worth noting that while Microsoft added IMAP support in a recent update, POP3 support is still missing in action. That’s coming too, though I’d argue that Microsoft should skip out on such legacy support and just utilize modern email services only. As it is EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) and IMAP are enough, in my opinion.
People is billed as the Metro-style contacts manager and while it is certainly that, it has far more interesting uses, as you’ll soon see. As a contacts, manager, however, People does what’s expected, integrating with various Microsoft accounts—including Messenger and Skype—and of course any EAS-type accounts. From this app, you can fire off emails (with Mail), messages (with Messaging), call phones (Skype), map addresses (with Bing Maps), and more.
But I mentioned some more interesting uses. As with the People app in Windows Phone, People also integrates with social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter. It provides a What’s New feed that aggregates all of your contacts’ social networking updates in a single view, which is awesome, and from there you can post to friends’ walls, “favorite” a post, comment on other posts, and more.
If that view is too general, you can also dive into any one contact’s contact card and see only their What’s new feed, including a separate view for recently posted photos. Again, you get the same capabilities for commenting, posting, and so on.
Not social enough? Well, the People app also lets you share with others. You can view your own contact card—shades of “Me” in Windows Phone—from which you can post to any connected social networking service, view recent notifications (such as mentions on Twitter), and access your own photos posted online.
And because People works as a Share target, it integrates with the Sharm charm in Windows 8 so that you can share information you access in other sites—like a favorite web site in IE 10—using the standard, system-wide sharing mechanism. When you do, you can choose which service to use for sharing.
All this social activity means that People transcends the whole “productivity” label. But I like it quite a bit. It’s one of Windows 8’s hidden gems, in the sense that most people probably don’t understand how much it can do.
Where People is an overachiever, Messaging is nothing special. It’s just a full-screen version of Windows Messenger, and as with its desktop cousin, it can access exactly two messenger-type services: Microsoft Messenger and Facebook Chat. (And you can only configure one account of each type.)
Basically, nothing to see here.
Microsoft’s full-screen calendaring app, the imaginatively named Calendar, is one of the more mature Metro-style productivity solutions, and unlike most of the other apps here, it hasn’t changed a lot over time. But then Calendar pretty much has it all: attractive Day, Week, and Month views, nice appointment creation and reminder capabilities, and compatibility with any EAS-based calendar source (plus Facebook through Microsoft account integration).
Missing? You can’t make or manage tasks for some reason. And while the three main views are nice, I’d like to see a work week view and something like “next five days” or whatever. Still, this one is pretty good, and unlike a lot of Metro apps, it even makes sense in Snap view.
Bing apps: Bing, Maps, Weather, News, Sports, Travel
Here’s a little shocker for you: While Windows 8 certainly includes its fair share of Xbox apps—Games, Music, and Videos—and of course the communications apps—Mail, People, Messaging, and Calendar—the single biggest family of apps in this product come from—wait for it—Bing. Yep, that’s right: Microsoft’s underappreciated decision engine is the source of not one, not two, but six Metro-style apps in Windows 8. And you know what? They’re all pretty good.
The main app, simply called Bing, is a front-end of the web-based search engine and is similar to the Bing experience in Windows Phone 8. It features a big search box, the beautiful image of the day (with image hints), links to trending search topics, and, via a discrete More button rather than the Metro “bleed” used on Windows Phone, a separate full-screen interface to those trending topics.
The best part of this app, however, is hidden: It integrates with the system-level file picker so you can find beautiful landscape and scenery shots via Bing and use them as your lock screen wallpaper. Nice!
Bing Maps is one of the nicer mobile mapping solutions I’ve seen and it offers location and directions, different map styles with flyover aerial views, traffic updates, and more. Combined with cellular connectivity and a car mount, a Windows 8/RT tablet would make for a killer GPS device, and one that is far more readable than any phone.
Weather is exactly what it sounds like and while I suppose wannabe meteorologists will want to check out everything the app has to offer, I sort like just having the forecast available from the app’s live tile.
And while News, Sports, and Travel have the look of throwaway apps, but don’t be fooled. Each is gorgeous, useful and even deep in its own right, and I recommend actually taking the time to check these apps out. News and Sports are variations on the same theme, and wonderful front-ends to the content that will matter to newshounds and sports buffs, respectively. And Travel features amazing panoramas, surprisingly deep written content (from Frommer’s, though more sources are coming) and useful travel tools like flight comparisons and purchasing, flight tracking, hotel comparisons, and more.
Office Home & Student 2013 RT
The Windows RT variant of Windows 8 includes a preview version of Office Home & Student 2013 RT, which provides desktop versions of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint 2013. (The final version will ship to RT users sometime in November.) While some have focused on the limitations of these applications—there’s no Outlook application provided, and none is coming, plus the Home & Student versions of these applications are hilariously licensed only for non-commercial use—I look at this as the welcome freebie it is and a well-intentioned attempt at overcoming what is obviously Windows RT’s biggest weakness. Plus, the applications look and work exactly like the “normal” PC versions. This is all good news, sorry.
But wait, there’re more
While the productivity inclusions in this OS are generally decent, Windows 8 isn’t all about work. It includes some fun music, video, and game functionality as well. I’ll discuss these new solutions in the next part of this review, Entertainment Apps.