Trying To Love Windows 8

on May 29, 2013

I’ve been using Windows 8 in one form or another for well over a year and I keep hoping that it will become as comfortable as every other version I have used, going back nearly a quarter century to Windows 3.0. I hoped the final version would be better than the various previews. It was, but not enough. I hoped that using it on a new system with a touchpad designed for Win 8’s new gestures. Again, better but only a bit. Even a touch display was not enough to overcome my frustration and sense of foreignness.

Over the past few weeks, I have been using Windows 8 particularly intensely in an effort to discover the sources of my unhappiness. I have used both a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch with a 14” touch screen and the Hewlett-Packard Envy X2, a clever design with an 11.6” touch display that can detach to become a sleek tablet. ((The Envy X2 delivers a very light, thin package with excellent battery life—7 hours for the tablet and 12 hours with the keyboard and its auxiliary battery attached. But you pay a price in performance; the 1.8 GHz Atom processor struggles to keep up with the demands of Windows 8 and response was often sluggish.)) I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three basic issues.

One is the two-headed nature of Windows 8: It keeps forcing you to switch back and forth between its touch-centric Modern (or Metro) user interface and the traditional Windows Desktop. In an effort to create an operating system that worked with both conventional PCs and tablets, Microsoft came up with a hybrid that doesn’t feel right on either. The second is the difficulty of discovering features and functions. And third is the painful lack of apps designed for the new UI. Time and the release of a new version, codenamed Blue, in coming months, should erase these problems, but are unlikely to solve them. There are a lot of good things about the Modern UI, though I have come to the conclusion that Microsoft’s much-promoted live tiles really aren’t worth the space they occupy; I would rather just have more apps on my home screen. The interface is a bit clumsy used with a mouse or a touchpad, but works very well with touch. The problem is that you just can’t stay in Modern. Many common tasks require the use of Desktop, including most utilities and the great majority of control panels. For example, trying to troubleshoot any sort of wireless connection problem requires opening the Desktop Network and Sharing Center control panel. Even requesting help on the Modern PC Settings screen brings up a Desktop help window. And Desktop windows, with their tiny controls, do not work at all well with touch.

It’s an enduring mystery how Microsoft failed to see that this would be a massive problem that makes Windows 8 very difficult to use without a keyboard and pointing device. And, of course, the lack truly touch-optimized versions of Word, Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint make Microsoft’s claim that only Windows 8 tablets can run Office an empty boast. The double-headed nature of Win 8 also gets badly in the way of discoverability. Modern adds maximize screen real estate by hiding nearly all of the “chrome”—the buttons and controls that make things happen. On all applications, Modern or Desktop as swipe from the right edge of the screen or touchpad–on the HP, this worked consistently only on the screen ((That wasn’t the only issue I had with the Envy’s Synaptics touchpad. Tapping the touchpad often brought up the right-click context menu for no apparent reason.))–brings up the system-level “charms”: search, share, start, devices, and settings.

In many, but not all, Modern apps, a swipe from the bottom of the screen brings up app-specific charms, such as what you would expect to be the most common menu items in the Mail app. The system charms work in inconsistent ways that take a lot of getting used to. For example, if you start typing with the Start screen open, the search charm opens for a search of apps. But if you type on an empty Desktop, nothing at all happens. And since there is no Start menu, you have to open the search charm manually to choose application if its icon is not on the desktop or in the task bar. If you are in the Mail app, the Search charm lets you search through all your messages and ctrl-F opens a new message window. In Internet Explorer, the search charm opens a Web search (though you can accomplish exactly the same thing by typing in the address bar) and you must use ctrl-F to search through the content of a page. Of course, that’s only in the Modern version of IE. In the completely separate Desktop IE (different bookmarks, different history, different preferences) the search charm activates the app search—as best as I can tell, system charms never work within Desktop apps. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. All of this wouldn’t be so bad if there were more and better Modern apps so that you didn’t have to switch between the two UIs so often. But the build in Mail app lacks basic features, such as saved searches or smart folders, that we have taken for granted in mail programs for more than a decade and there are so far no third-party alternatives. This forces you to use Outlook or another Desktop mail application.

There are also serious UI consistency problems with third-part Desktop apps. A two-finger swipe down on the touchpad should cause text to move down on the screen, as it does if you touch the display directly. But in Google Chrome, it moves txt up, as you would expect in older versions of Windows. At least when Apple switched the scroll direction in OS X Lion to make it work the way people had come to expect on iPads and iPhones, it managed to make the change work for everything. More than eight months after Windows 8 shipped, there’s still no official Modern Facebook app. You can use Facebook in IE, of course, but Facebook serves you a standard version that is not optimized for touch. This renders Facebook all but unusable without a keyboard and mouse. In general, few websites recognize Modern IE as a touch browser that requires differently configured pages. I hope that Blue, which is supposed to be out in a preview version at the end of June, addresses the worst of these problems. Windows 8 As it exists just plain makes you work too hard to be even a little lovable.

Next week: Trying To Love a Google Chromebook.