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Windows 8 has the potential to be the best OS on the market, but is held back by learning curve, legacy UIs

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has earned some fans with the ambitious operating system overhaul that is Windows 8.  But the touch-centric operating system has also earned condemnation from some critics -- even some of Microsoft's own fans.

The more I use Windows 8 the more I feel that my opinion lies somewhere in the middle.  It's full of good ideas, but I don't love it.  It has its shortcomings, but I don't hate it for them.  Ultimately, I feel that Windows 8 is a release similar to Windows Vista  (albeit for different reasons) -- an overstretch on Microsoft's part that's partially successful, but that will be forever loathed by some for its flaws.

With that in mind I wanted to offer up some insight into what Microsoft needs to fix (and how to fix it), while countering what I feel is some of the false criticism about Windows 8.  Here we go.

What to change:

1. Eliminate the Desktop Mode

The Desktop and Windows 8 GUIs feel like oil and vinegar -- they don't want to mix.  With Windows Blue we see Microsoft moving to fully port the control panel to a Windows 8 GUI style format.  It's my opinion that Microsoft should continue this process for all other desktop vestiges (administrative panels, file browsers).

With snap you can have an easy file browser than sits beside your running app(s).   A cloneable file browser Windows 8-style app with up to 4 "panes" each representing a different navigator, should be more than sufficient to replace the legacy file browser.  Few users are going to have more than 8 separate folders actively operated on at once.

Desktop Mode
[Image Source: TechNet]

A robust terminal app for Windows 8 should do the trick for power users, who are unlikely to rely on the noisy traditional file browser GUI, anyhow.

2. Tutorials

Windows 8 has some basic tutorial features, but what struck me was that when I installed the OS during my test of iBuyPower's Revolt system, that the new OS went live with nary a peep on how to use it.

Let's face it -- Windows 8 is a big box of unknown.  Gestures implement new and old functionality.  Items have been relocated into new metro menus.  There's new concepts like Live Tiles.

Revolt -- Windows 8
Windows 8 comes up for the first time with nary a tutorial.
 
Consumers know Windows, but most consumers don't know Windows 8.  Windows 8 is pretty intuitive once learned, but I think a major problem is that there's no built-in guidance forcing users to seek out on their own how to use the operating system or try to figure out is functionality via experimentation.  Either way a certain number of users will quit out of frustration.

Video game makers have long figured out that the key to getting a novice to learn a new GUI is a good tutorial.  Microsoft should borrow a page from the gaming world and teach users how to use its radically reinvented operating system, so that they can appreciate it better.

3. Multi-touch Pads

Touch is critical to Windows 8.  Thus every Windows 8-compatible keyboard or laptop should have to ship with a multi-touch pad.  

For desktops, that means a keyboard plus multi-touch pad combo device, such as this one from Logitech Int'l SA (LOGI).  For laptops, it means a multi-touch compatible trackpad.  
Logitech K400
Logitech K400 Multi-touch external keyboard

The Logitech K400 keyboard costs about $11 USD more than the similar model without touch (the K360).  If $11 USD represents, to some extent, the difference between Windows 8 being crippled versus fully usable, that's a pretty small price to pay.

System builder discs should be shipped bundled with a compatible external keyboard, such as the K400.

What to keep:

1. Touch

Touch is crucial in Android and iOS -- the world's two most used mobile operating systems.  Anyone who says touch has no place in a desktop is wrong and clearly has never used a multi-touch trackpad.  While it's true touch can be overdone on the desktop or put in the wrong place (e.g. a large screen that taxes arms during long periods of use), a small multi-touch pad is absolutely a very useful tool for the desktop user.
Windows gestures
[Image Source: Microsoft]

As Microsoft's OS evolves it will surely find ways -- just as Google Inc. (GOOG) and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) have -- to add new touch-based functions.

2. Metro UI

If you ever watch Chopped on the Food Network you'll recall that there's a presentation scoring criteria, where chefs are rated based on how their food looks. Sometimes a dish will look good, but one particular judge (or multiple judges) will cite a personal distaste for its style.  But at the end of the day it's clear the chef put effort into the presentation.

That's how I view Windows 8.  The criticism surrounding Metro/Windows 8 UI is mostly, I would argue, due to the usability issues (lack of touch in some systems, legacy desktop functions, etc.).  I think the graphical style itself is clean and good-looking.

Metro UI Windows 8
Metro UI is not the main problem with Windows 8. [Image Source: Microsoft]

It could certainly improve -- by the inclusion of smaller Live Tiles, for example (which is coming with Windows Blue -- but the problem is less with the general look and more with the aforementioned fixable usability issues.  If you hate the style, that's your own problem.  Microsoft can't please everyone -- maybe it can't please you.

Apple demonstrated that customers prepare a well marketed, clean/minimalist design.  I think Windows 8 meets that criteria (except maybe the well-marketed part).  Microsoft can't please everyone, but if it just made Windows 8 more usable, I think it would please most users.

3. Performance

Ironically Windows 8 excels in the area where the analogous Windows Vista release goes most awry -- performance.

Windows 8 keeps the process list, memory footprint, and CPU usage lean.  It's better than Windows 7, generally, in fact.  Critics can cherry-pick a handful of cases where it backslides, but in general Microsoft has delivered progress on the performance front.
 
Windows 7 memory usage Windows 8 memory usage
Windows 7 SP1 (left), Windows 8 test build (right). [Source: Microsoft]
 
Again, some critics get carried away and extend their usability criticism into a more general (and fallacious) attack on the operating system's general performance.  Windows 8 is not slow -- it is fast. 

What do YOU Think?

I think if Microsoft adopts those three former changes, while sticking with the latter three strengths, it will have the best desktop operating system on the market.  Don't agree?  Tell me what you think I missed -- what do you think Windows 8's strengths and weakness are, and how do you suggest fixing them?

I'll update this later to discuss the problems/strengths of Window RT, but for now let's keep the discussion to Windows 8 x86 (Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro).




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I can't believe it won't work on older Pentiums
By johnsmith9875 on 3/27/2013 9:30:18 AM , Rating: -1
The technical preview worked fine, but with the execute bit requirement in the production build, it doesn't install in older Pentium 4's.
What's the point of that? How are people supposed to enjoy Windows 8 when its unavailable to a huge bloc of Pentium systems already out there?
Windows 7 BTW installs just fine, go figure.




By Denigrate on 3/27/2013 9:38:26 AM , Rating: 3
Really? This is your complaint? If you are still rolling on a P4, you really should look at an upgrade simply because you are probably spending enough over time on electricity usage to pay for a new desktop that supports Win8.


RE: I can't believe it won't work on older Pentiums
By Spuke on 3/27/2013 10:03:43 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Microsoft locks down its Operating System needlessly by tying it to a specific intel hardware feature.
Except it works on AMD's CPU's too. MS is pretty good at dragging along old stuff but don't expect them to do this forever. That's just asinine. P4's are ancient and it's about time they get sliced off. I would prefer a secure OS to one with holes just to support ancient hardware. Be glad they supported you this long.


By Mitch101 on 3/27/2013 10:58:26 AM , Rating: 2
If hes complaining about Windows 8 resource requirements I wonder how he felt about Vista?

Pentium 4 I would replace just because of the heat and fan noise.


By johnsmith9875 on 3/27/2013 11:10:09 AM , Rating: 2
Its a 2.8Ghz Northwood and runs extremely cool. The Athlon 64 I also have runs fairly cool.
The real space heaters were the Prescotts, they were as bad or worse than the Athlon XP's.


By hubb1e on 3/27/2013 2:14:25 PM , Rating: 2
Dude, the # of people attempting to install windows 8 on a P4 is extremely small. Most people don't ever install a new OS on an older computer, let alone a P4 2.8ghz.


By Mitch101 on 3/27/2013 5:10:52 PM , Rating: 2
Ok I know where your at then. Your caught in Intel marketing that re-used up poor chip names like the Celeron. The initial Pentiums and Celerons were duds but later generations were just remarked previous generation chips but branded with names that were initially duds.

Sorry man sell it off on e-bay and cut your losses or make it a media PC. Linux XBMC or Windows XP with XMBC.


By crispbp04 on 3/27/2013 11:00:24 AM , Rating: 3
NX/EDB is a security necessity. Microsoft isn't forcing you into anything. Stop being ignorant. Microsoft doesn't owe it to you to support legacy hardware that nobody in their right mind would be using. Just stick to what the hardware was intended to run on.

There is not a huge user base that has pre-Prescott P4, and that market is not the type to upgrade their OS, and there really is no justifiable case for it.


By johnsmith9875 on 3/27/2013 11:40:54 AM , Rating: 1
I guess I'm just a big dummy, i've only used computers since 1980 and have been a network administrator for 20 years.

Big dummy I am.


RE: I can't believe it won't work on older Pentiums
By Belard on 3/28/2013 11:23:02 AM , Rating: 2
You said it. being a user for 30+ years doesn't make you a god. if you were good at knowing hardware, you would have never have bought the POS Pentium 4 to begin with.


By fteoath64 on 4/1/2013 9:00:37 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah, my Athlon64 and Opteron64 processors were a cracker during their days. Other people's P4 were heating up like crazy even having a cpu fan screaming like a banshee!.

Booted away Windows 4 years ago for the home machines. All doing Ubuntu and now at 12.10 and 12.04 versions running the latest 3.8.5 kernels. Nothing could be sweeter than this OS. Even Mac OS cannot compare. So we heard that Ubuntu Touch is coming to tablets soon, so choice is out there. It is for the people in the know ...


By DeanSch on 3/27/2013 11:46:51 AM , Rating: 2
Ironically (and kind of off topic) at my old job I still had an old Pentium 4 Willamette core (c. 2000) with 512MB of RDRAM (that's RamBus RAM) that we would dust off once in a while to use... It still ran great with Windows XP... Not sure I'd try to install anything else on it though. ;)


By Argon18 on 3/27/2013 12:35:48 PM , Rating: 2
Microsoft is indeed forcing the consumer to buy new hardware, if their existing hardware isn't new enough. How can you possibly claim otherwise?

The latest and greatest Linux distributions install on everything going back to P6. Yeah, a socket 8 Pentium Pro will run the latest and greatest stuff. If you have a modern chip, the Linux kernel will of course use the modern features of it, but it doesn't force you to replace your hardware like Microsoft does. Then again, it isn't all bloated and slow like Windows is, so it actually runs well on older hardware.


By Gurthang on 3/27/2013 12:37:33 PM , Rating: 1
Lets look at this another way shall we. First off we all know MS does not exclude systems from running Windows on a whim they make money by selling Windows licenses not Pentiums. And you know this is a security feature that got put in the final builds of Win8 which obviously they felt was fairly important otherwise it would have been left out or optional. But lets think a second about why Microsoft might have chosen to make it maditory. I see two possibilities right off my head.

(1) It would have cost too much or created issues to make it optional functionality for what they considered a small group of legacy hardware devices.
(2) Having the ability to disable a core security feature becasue it is optional could allow malicious code to disable that checking and thus get further into a system than would be possible otherwise.

Personally I think it is a little bit of both of these. And while I think it can be fun to mess with old hardware and sometimes try throwing newer things on them just for fun I don't fault Microsoft or whoever when something of their's refuses to run on an old box.


By Belard on 3/27/2013 6:28:22 PM , Rating: 1
As much as I don't like MS at this moment and hate Windows 8 and have already started my migration to Linux...

The P4s were always crappy CPUs. All of them. They are very old, well over 8... they run WinXP slower than anything.

So what if MS removed P4 code... As long as they are Core2 tech or newer, they are fine to have that reasonable requirement.


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