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What to do about Windows 8

December 4th, 2012

Martin

Windows 8 has been out for a little while now, and I’ve already done some repair work on Windows 8 PCs and laptops! It’s also cheap (less than £45 on Amazon), and promises the latest in Windows technology (whatever that is). But is it something you should put on your Christmas list?

I’m not going to be reviewing Windows 8 in detail here. There’s plenty of others doing that now. What I want to do is give you an overview of what it means to upgrade from earlier Windows versions, so you can decide whether to do it now, later, or skip this one altogether. Because, be honest, in this world there’s no getting away from Microsoft’s juggernaut in one form or another.

The new Windows

Microsoft has been releasing new versions of Windows fairly regularly for over 20 years now. Windows Vista was a bit of an abberation, coming some 6 years after the previous release, XP, but since then we had Windows 7 in 2009 and Windows 8 in 2012. Windows XP was hard for a lot of people to let go of, having grown used to it over the years, but the more frequent releases in recent times mean users haven’t had time to get too comfortable.

The consensus is that, if you’re using XP or Vista, it’s probably high time to upgrade to something. But it’s still possible, and will remain so, to get Windows 7 for your existing computer, rather than get fully up to date. So what are the obvious differences in 8? And how do they compare to 7 as an upgrade path?

Usability

Windows 8 is the first desktop version of the operating system to use the ‘Modern’ interface (previously known as Metro). This interface does away with the traditional desktop/icons combination, and instead displays as a series of tiles. These tiles are ‘live’, meaning that they show you ever-changing information such as whether you have any new emails, what the weather’s doing, the news headlines, Twitter updates etc etc. Just staring at the tiles may make you more aware of what’s going on in the world. Some of the tiles can be clicked on to launch programs too, even though they’re not ‘live’.

Live tiles on the Windows 8 Modern interface

Live tiles on the Windows 8 Modern interface

The tiles originated on Windows mobile phones, and suit the ever more common touch-screen devices like tablet computers or all-on-one PCs. They’re easy to stab with your finger, and you can swipe a digit across the screen to reveal more tiles to the left and right.

However, this interface doesn’t really suit the desktop, particularly if you still make use of a keyboard and mouse, and not a touch-screen. And remember: just because you bought and installed Windows 8 doesn’t make your screen touch sensitive (yes, people have made that mistake…). So if you’re wondering whether to move your current desktop or laptop computer to the new Windows, carefully consider whether the Modern tile interface is going to be more of a help or a hindrance.

However, there is still the old way…

The Windows 8 desktop and taskbar

The Modern interface still works with a mouse, so you can click on tiles and launch programs. But if you know where to click (or what button to press) you can rid yourself of that lot, and transport yourself back to the familiar wallpaper and taskbar world which looks just like Windows 7. Except for one thing: no Start button.

The start button has been with us since Windows 95, although it’s been a mere Windows logo since Vista. As the Modern interface is the new place to go for your programs, Microsoft saw fit to do away with it. (If you move your mouse down to the bottom left of your screen and click, as if you were aiming for the Start button, then you’ll be sent back to the live tiles).

Still, if you fight slightly against the way Microsoft would like you to do things, then you can have a Windows 7-like experience. But is that really what you want to be doing?

The prosecution rests

You’re no doubt thinking that this seems to be a pretty closed case: Windows 8 is a tablet/phone operating system that’s been stretched across a desktop screen. But it’s not as simple as that. Windows 8 has a few things going for it, and may be the first Windows system that you’ll actually enjoy using.

For a start, it’s faster (in my experience) than previous versions. This is probably because of the work done to make it run smoothly on tablets, which tend to be less powerful than full computers. It’s also expecting you not to turn the computer off completely when you’ve finished with it for the day. It’s better at going into very low power modes, prepared for a quick start-up where you left off. Again, this is due to its expected use on mobile computers, which are rarely – if ever – shut down or rebooted.

If you’re a social media junky, who mostly uses their computer for catching up with friends on Facebook or Twitter (or the million other places to share faux-Polaroids and cat pictures) then the live tiles put your tasks front and centre. If you’re a programmer, a novelist or a spreadsheet wizard, then you’re probably going to find the Modern interface just becomes another step to get past before you start work. Lord knows the modern world of IT has enough distractions and notifications as it is, without burning your eyes out with them every time you close your browser.

But if, like the majority of PC users, your computer is primarily for communication and reading the news, then that kind of thing is much more convenient on a Windows 8 computer. This system bills itself as ‘people centred’, and while that might make little sense to those who use their computer as a work tool, for many it makes it what they wanted it to be all along, and perhaps easier to use as well.

Skip this one?

It’s been noted that Windows versions seem to alternate between awful and great (Windows 7 = good, Vista = bad, XP = good, Millennium Edition = bad). With Windows 8 making such risky changes, this trend looks like it might continue. Already rumours are spreading about what Windows 9 might look like, and I personally think that the people-centric, live-feed information overload will be toned down in the next version. Touchscreens on ‘proper’ computers are still not a proven hit with consumers, so number 9 will have to take into account just how popular those screens are.

My advice is that, if you’re a worker when you’re in front of your PC, upgrade to Windows 7, and then stay there. If you’re a social type who wants to keep on top of all the latest news and updates then consider Windows 8, but consider just getting a Windows 8 tablet (or, even better, an Android or iOS device instead).

There are those saying that Windows 9 won’t be called that, and more likely it’ll be Windows 8.1, and include some of the changes I’ve suggested above. Maybe it’ll fix the imbalance between work and play that Windows 8 has gone with, and that might be a better time to take the plunge. Until then, get yourself up to number 7, and see how things pan out.

 

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