It’s being called the boldest leap Windows has made in decades, maybe ever, and it’s been the subject of much debate in the tech world ever since the tech world first laid eyes on it. Now, Windows 8 is here, and it’s hard to imagine a more misunderstood operating system coming out of the gate.
PC owners have been buzzing about the new Metro style (sorry to Microsoft, but it’s easier to refer to it with that jargon now) Start screen and apps, with many vocal about their disapproval. It’s easy to focus on those features as core to the Windows 8 experience, along with the omission of the Start button, but I think that’s an extremely unfortunate misreading of the purpose and function of the operating system.
If you’re a PC owner, and a PC owner only, all of those apps, and even the Start screen, don’t need to mean anything to you. Desktop mode exists, and it is essentially Windows 7, minus the Start button. After boot-up (which is much, much faster than it was with Windows 7 – strikingly so), pressing the Windows button on your keyboard will take you straight to the desktop. Once you’re there, you don’t ever need to leave – just use the operating system like you would with Windows 7. Don’t like the app version of Internet Explorer? Don’t use it – go to the desktop and use Chrome or Firefox like you always would.
Which begs the question, why even have the apps and the Start screen change? This is where Windows 8 has been the most misinterpreted. Take a look at Surface. RT differs from Windows 8 proper in that it lacks a desktop mode, so don’t expect Surface RT to be a PC replacement. It’s a tablet with a keyboard, and it’s really Microsoft’s answer to the iPad and iOS. But what is compelling, and what strikes me as the conceptual philosophy behind Windows 8, is the upcoming Windows Surface Pro, which runs the full version of Windows 8.
Windows 8 was, looking ahead to the future, built with hybrid machines like the Surface Pro in mind. We’ve seen plenty of other hybrids – the Asus Taichi, the Acer Aspire S7 (to an extent), and the Samsung Series 7 ultrabook. These devices can be used as tablets or as PCs, by folding the screen back 360 degrees or detaching the keyboard from the monitor. The dual nature of Windows 8 – the apps along with desktop mode – make these hybrid devices possible. A tablet running Windows 7 would not be a terrific experience. Likewise, a PC running Windows 8 apps would not be a terrific experience either. The reason they are all on one machine is to enable this hybrid experience – allowing you to use desktop mode when using a hybrid device as a PC, while being able to switch to apps using the new Metro style home screen when using the device as a tablet. Windows 8 apps aren’t really designed to be used by PC users, regardless of what Microsoft might be saying at the moment in order to move units. The underlying philosophy is built around the idea of hybrids – the most important purpose behind Surface might not be to sell units (though that’s certainly important), so much as it is to provide a template of the ideal Windows 8 machine to ultrabook makers.
But, the Start button has been replaced by the Start screen, so PC users won’t be avoiding the Metro style screen altogether. This isn’t a bad thing. Programs that you use in desktop mode can be pinned to this screen. For example, you can pin Chrome as a tile to the start screen. Click that after the computer boots up, and Chrome will open in desktop mode. You’re back in Windows 7, just like that. It’s simple, and in a lot of ways superior to the Start button. Search is another great example – on the Start screen, just start typing. This will, by default, search for apps – if you want to open Paint, for example, just type Paint on the Start screen and hit enter. Paint launches in desktop mode. It’s very efficient in practice. If you don’t want to search for apps (apps means apps and desktop programs, here), you can choose to search for settings or files, instead.
The most important thing to remember is that, for PC users, this isn’t a huge shift. There is no major learning curve, unless you need to learn how to hit the Windows button on your keyboard. You don’t need to relearn anything, outside of maybe adjusting settings, which is well streamlined, anyway. You can just use Windows 8 as Windows 7 – if you don’t want to deal with all the new stuff, you don’t need to. And, when you need to use the new Start screen, whatever you were doing in desktop mode is preserved. You pick up where you left off when you head back.
Back to the Surface, Surface is available for purchase now. Again, Surface runs Windows RT, which does not have desktop mode – so this is not a laptop replacement, regardless of what Microsoft says. The Surface RT is a tablet in hybrid’s clothing. Yet, after spending some brief hands-on time with Surface at the Windows 8 launch in New York City, we came away feeling that reviewers are being a bit too harsh on the device. So what if it cant run x86 apps – after all, can a Mac run iOS 6 apps? If you must have a tablet that has support for all x86 apps, there are plenty of other hybrid PCs and Ultrabooks running Windows 8 to choose from. Besides, the Windows Store app is sure to fill up quickly with apps, and at the launch, Microsoft said that they are committed to making that happen. Pricing for Surface begins at $499 for the 32GB wi-Fi only model, and the memory is expandable with a microSD card.
Windows 8 is also available for purchase, both in digital and hard copy forms. The digital download of Windows 8 Pro is on promotional pricing out of the gate, at $40. Getting a hard copy sent to you will cost $70. Regardless of how you slice it, Windows 8 is a vision of the future for Microsoft – one that the company hopes brings success on the back of a unified experience and a whole lot of hybrids. It’s by no means a perfect operating system, but it’s better than the bad rap it’s been getting.