It all comes down to this.
Windows 8 is the biggest and most confusing upgrade that Microsoft has ever wrought on its most core of platforms. It is, as I wrote in Start: The Windows 8 Era Begins, a mess. A glorious, wonderful mess.
Microsoft calls it a “reimagining” of Windows, and while I generally recoil from such terms, in this case it’s absolutely true. Rather than embrace the new mobile- and touch-based computing future by tacking more and more features on top of its traditional Windows product, Microsoft has instead started over from scratch and created a completely new mobile platform, which I think of as Metro. And then it grafted an evolved version of the Windows 7 desktop onto it and called this … mess … Windows 8.
Maybe there’s a better way to explain this.
Windows 8 is the most controversial release of Windows ever, eclipsing previous perceived disasters like Windows Vista and Windows Me.
I have argued that neither of those Windows releases were as bad as the FUD-slinging critics claimed. Windows Me, for example, debuted numerous technologies we later embraced in Windows XP, including driver rollback and System Restore. And Windows Vista was a major architectural change that, yes, worked best on new PCs—which Windows release doesn’t?—and made the beloved Windows 7 possible.
But what about Windows 8? How does this compare to these previous and unloved Windows versions?
When it comes to evaluating any software upgrade, especially a Windows revision, I ask myself two questions. First, does the new version make the previous version look old and worn by comparison, so that going back to the previous version is like using something antiquated and out of date? And two, is there anything in the new release that I simply can’t live without?
On that first question, Windows 8 comes out ahead. It does indeed make Windows 7 look old and tired by comparison, and I prefer the modern looking opaque Explorer UI to Windows 7’s now silly looking glass effects. It’s no comparison, and that the Metro UI, for all its controversy is both modern and clean looking is, of course, barely debatable.
The second question is troubling.
There are certainly Windows 8 features that are excellent, that are solid improvements over what came before. File History, Storage Spaces, and Push Button Reset are all great examples of solid, sometimes revolutionary changes that make Windows much better. But are they so good that I can’t live without them? Or are they just conveniences?
Again, this one is troubling.
Being honest with myself, is there anything in Windows 8 that I simply can’t live without?
To be fair it’s “no” only on the PCs I actually use, a classic (one might say “antiquated”) tower PC with a 27-inch (non-touch-capable) screen and an Ultrabook (also non-touch-capable). There are things I really like about Windows 8 on these machines, yes. But nothing I can’t live without.
Things get more nuanced when you move to touch-enabled hardware. Suddenly, the nonsensical Metro user experiences start to actually make sense, and those weirdly-positioned UI buttons, the charms, the app bars with their edge-happy buttons, are right where you fingers fall when you hold a tablet normally. What is curious and weird on a desktop or traditional laptop PC actually works—works well—on multi-touch, mobile hardware.
You may recall the yarn about each new Windows version making the most sense on new hardware. (Heck, I just mentioned it.) Thanks to its multi-touch and mobile roots, this has never been truer than it is with Windows 8. Looking past the general stuff, a Windows 8 tablet or hybrid device has little in common from a form factor perspective with a traditional PC. They’re just different things. They’re almost not even answers to the same question.
I don’t honestly think that most people will dislike Windows 8 on traditional computers. I don’t really believe that the lack of a Start button is unsurmountable, that any normal person can’t, after just a few days of use, figure out how things work and be efficient in this new system.
But I also have a hard time believing that any normal person—that is, any non-enthusiast—would want to, or should, go through the time, effort, and potential disaster of upgrading a perfectly good Windows 7-based PC to Windows 8.
The best way I can explain it is to remind you of the difference between PCs and devices. Windows 8 is an OK upgrade for existing PCs, just like it’s an OK OS to have pre-installed on new but traditional, non-touch-based PCs. It’s not bad. It’s just OK. It’s not something I recommend to the average user. (Enthusiasts can and should just continue to ignore my advice. You can handle the upgrade.)
On a device, however, a highly mobile machine with multi-touch capabilities, Windows 8 is a great choice. It’s full-featured, it offers the best of both worlds with both Metro and desktop interfaces, and it works very well.
Windows 8 is for devices. It’s not really for PCs.
There is one major caveat to this observation. Windows RT, arguably the version of Windows 8 that is most obviously tuned for devices, is not ready for primetime and should be ignored, at least for now. As I wrote in Surface with Windows RT is No PC Replacement, the ARM-based version of Windows 8 may represent the future, but we live in the present. And it’s just not ready.
But Windows 8 on a modern, multi-touch device? Absolutely.
For myself, I will of course continue using Windows 8, and I will do largely on the traditional PCs I already own. That may change over time, as may my advice about Windows RT. Today, we stand at a dividing line in history, the line between the traditional PC past and the touch-based mobile device future. And Windows 8 was made for the future, not the past.
This is exactly as it should be.