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Windows 8 : In Depth Review of Microsoft’s Greatest Gamble

October 28th, 2012 by

TechSplurge was invited to Reliance Digital Store at the Mantri Square in Bangalore, on Windows 8 launch day to review Microsoft’s latest and greatest Windows Product offering. I spent a good two hours checking out Windows 8 on the Sony Vaio, which is one of the earliest devices at the store to ship with Windows 8. Please note that this version of Windows is slightly different and updated from the RTM version released in the mid of August.

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The Backdrop

Windows 8 clearly is Microsoft’s greatest gamble ever. Come to think of it, it has risked one of its most affluent sources of income : Windows. If a complete redesign for the first time in over two decades for a flagship product is not your idea of a brave-heart risk, then I don’t know what is. Of course, Microsoft was forced to innovate though, thanks to the PC sales which were going flat or heck lets say somewhat downhill due to the introduction of consumption devices like the iPad.

Everybody knows how unsuited Windows 7 was for touch-centric devices. There had been quite a lot of Windows 7 based all-in-one’s and touch screen laptops that were shown during Windows 7 launch. We all know they did not really take off. The reason being simple, a shoddy touch friendly layer and couple of touch optimized apps are not what users going to settle for when they buy a touch PC.

Enter Windows 8

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Windows 8 , is perhaps one of the most controversial and innovative redesign’s for a product of its magnitude. Change, no matter where you bring it, no matter good or bad, is always resisted and that is the case with Windows 8. Be it the Developer, Consumer Preview or the Release Preview, Windows 8 was clearly met with sharp criticisms from various quarters and that was expected from the traditional desktop users. Clearly forcing a touch based UI down the throat of millions of users, redesigning completely a UI which existed mostly unchanged conceptually barring cosmetic improvements for over 20 years does not sound like such a good idea on paper after all.

But Microsoft was a lot more agile this time than during its Vista days. Early adopters witnessed the snappy performance of the Windows 8 previews, which  simply blew away  most of the typical Windows 7 installs out of water. Despite the entry of the Start screen and the removal of the start menu, the core parts of desktop were still intact and had a number of enhancements to begin with. On the top of that , Microsoft announced aggressive upgrade pricing that enticed even long stuck Windows XP users to upgrade for a very cheap price, which will was a smart tactic to make sure the OS will not go the Vista way. Does Windows 8 deliver on what it promises? Let’s find out

Boot

When I switched on the review laptop, the first thing that blew me away was the insanely fast boot. I was anticipating that it would take a tad bit longer as I expected lot of bloatware from Sony, but boy was I wrong. It took me just 5 seconds to boot. Sounds unbelievable right? But you have to see it to believe it. I redid the tests but I was greeted with the same stunning boot time. And please note that the laptop I tested did not even have a SSD, but rather a humble 500 GB regular hard disk. This is way better than, Windows 7 where the boot could take you as long as a full minute to atleast 30 seconds. Clearly Microsoft has put a lot of efforts here in cutting short the boot time dramatically.

Greet the Metro  Modern UI

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One of the shocking changes any accustomed Windows user will experience is the Start screen. This will boil down as a rude shock to a lot of die hard Windows users. Let me not make any false claims that the start screen is very easy to get accustomed to. It is not. Especially when you are on a non touch, keyboard , mouse device, it will frustrate you to the hilt for a while. But once you start using it, you will get the hang of it, and it actually makes your work a lot more productive.

Launching apps is agreeably very simple thanks to the large tiles and the very fast search which is well integrated throughout the OS. However the transitions from searching a Desktop app from the start screen and launching feels inconsistent and distractive, but you will get used to it. A better solution is to pin the apps to the taskbar or create desktop shortcuts. At worse you can always use a good start menu replacement for Windows 8.

Coming to switching apps, Flip 3D is completely replaced with a flat task switcher which appears on the left, which unfortunately lets you switch only among the Metro apps and the desktop. Thankfully Alt-Tab still works as expected.

The Metro Elements

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The new charms bar acts as your one stop location for many activities. Sharing between the apps, searching within an app or web, customizing app and PC settings, managing devices and finally using the start screen. While the concept of Charms bar is very thoughtful, many Modern UI apps don’t still keep their Settings accessible from the charms bar which makes the whole OS experience sometimes feel pretty chaotic. However having said that, this is a problem with application developers and the situation will gradually improve over the period of time.

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Particularly as to say, Search feature in the charms bar is a boon in disguise. Not only can you search and launch apps, but you can also search within the apps. For example, within the Search bar, you can search for books within your Kindle library. As more and more metro apps leverage this feature, this will be an incredibly fast way to search the stuff you need very easily.

sharing content

The Share option works particularly well among the Modern UI apps, and you can share a whole bunch of content among the apps, somewhat similar to Android and iOS implementations. This is of course very useful on the PC’s too , but a minor disadvantage is that you can not share anything from the Desktop.

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Lastly the major core metro element is the all revamped metrofied PC settings interface. These settings are surprisingly not tweakable in the normal desktop control panel. The most notable additions apart from usual suspects such as Metro interface settings are the options to Refresh and Reset your PC. These options were much needed for Windows, which have been thankfully added.

Default Metro Apps : A Quick look up

metro Mail

To begin with, the bundled Mail app does the job fairly well. The three paned interface is especially spacious and clean. Ideal for checking in your mail everyday, but not too feature packed. Gets your job done.

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The Music and Video apps are well made as well, but they lack  lot of features which the Windows Media Player boasts of.  I would rather recommend using Windows Media Player for your media needs if you are a Desktop / Laptop user.

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A welcome addition is the Calendar. Recall that previously Windows never had a good built in calendar with reminders and thankfully the Calendar app fills that void nicely. Adding appointments is as easy as double clicking an empty slot. One of the few bundled apps which I found to be very productive and likeable.

There are other bunch of apps, like Weather, Sport , News etc  which while useful for reading and keeping yourself informed, are not any worthy of a special mention at least for me. The Games app shows a lot of promise, but going by the number of available titles there is nothing to write home about.

Keep in mind that unlike early times, Microsoft is constantly updating all the stock Modern UI apps which imply features may be continuously added over the period of time, following the Windows Phone 7 pattern.

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Surprisingly, I particularly liked Sony’s Message Center which was bundled with the machine which I was given for review. This lets you check on your machine’s warranty, get some tips on using your laptop and other offers etc. Now if the bundled vendor apps with the new devices go this way, it will ease the pain of bloat significantly as Metro apps tend to be usually very light and non obtrusive for the laptop user who typically spends most of his time working on the Desktop.

Improvements to the Desktop

This is crucial for those of us who spend most of our time still dealing with the traditional x86 apps. To begin with, Aero has been done away completely and you will be quite sad to see the lovely transparencies gone when you make the switch from Windows 7. However that said the flat appearance are very less distractive while being merciful on the battery. The desktop looks much cleaner and more productive as well.

As mentioned earlier, Start menu is not missed at all if you get accustomed to the tiled start screen. Pinning the apps to the task bar still works well, but you may want to try out one of the dozens of Start menu apps out there if you insist. Some go as far as to totally hide the charms bar, and the task switcher if you hate the Modern UI interface so much, but I would ask you rather try out the interface yourself at first.

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The ribbonised File Explorer (formerly Windows Explorer) does take up a lot of screen space but has a lot of handy options within its kitty. I have always noticed a major productivity boost when using the Windows 8 File Explorer compared to its predecessor.  Options for showing the file extensions in one click save you at least 8 – 10 clicks that would have been spent otherwise in Windows 7. The ability to now pause the file transfers is definitely going to eliminate lot of third party file copiers which were out there for Windows and will also spare the Redmond giant a lot of curses from frustrated users. The changes made to the File Explorer can happily span over multiple articles. In simple words, the new File Explorer is godsent!

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The task manager is another gorgeous visible improvement to the desktop. It is redesigned to be very clean, and the information displayed in the Performance tab is really a lot more than what was shown in Windows 7 while keeping it tidy. Something, power users are going to love.

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I am sure the new Network Connections manager will anger a lot of desktop users at first, because it looks extremely out of place.  But come to think of it, Microsoft clearly wanted the connectivity options to be accessible from Metro and Desktop apps alike. Also you can set bandwidth and data cap among other options which are very welcome.

The Windows Store

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The Windows Store is another major addition to Windows 8. And contrary to earlier rumors, you can find both Desktop and Modern UI apps for Windows from the store, although you can only install the latter within the store though.

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While being very utilitarian, the speed and performance of the Windows Store always left a lot more to be desired. I had to restart the Windows Store app a couple of times to get going, and despite this the overall UI was very sluggish.

As a relief, the Modern UI apps are very lightweight , both in size and resource consumption. Usually the app sizes hover around 1 to 5 MB which is impressive for a PC. That said, there are apps which weigh over hundreds of megabytes as well.

Performance

Windows 8 feels every bit snappier than Windows 7 and I am saying this from my experience with the RTM version of Windows 8. The laptop which I used at the store though came pre installed with Windows 8, the gains in speed for normal user operation when you would compare them with windows 7 was definitively outstanding. This also has to be credited to reduced vendor bloat in this case. In case you are upgrading your existing PC to Windows 8,  you will be positively surprised at how snappy Windows 8 feels.

Gamers do have their own reservations though, but I feel Windows Driver Model 1.2 will bring in heavy graphics driver and stack optimizations from Graphics card manufacturers. In fact AMD has been releasing Windows 8 optimized drivers for quite a while.

Also , early testers have reported improvements in Windows 8 battery life when compared to Windows 7 especially on modern hardware. While I was not able to personally check out the battery life due to limited time permit at the store, the battery life reported was over 3.5 hours, which is impressive for a laptop with 15.6” screen and discrete graphics.

Pricing

This is perhaps the best time to upgrade at a very economical price of 14.99$ under the Windows Upgrade Offer for Windows 8 Pro. Perhaps Microsoft plans to generate the revenue lost in the OS sale cost by app sales in Windows Store. Note that you need to upgrade from an existing version of Windows ( XP, Vista or 7 ) and you can not perform a clean install. For the latter purpose you are going to need  the OEM builder copy. This will set you back at a whopping $139.99. However most of us will not be needing this.

Verdict

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If you love Windows 7, you are going to love Windows 8 even more. If you take the Modern UI out of the equation, it just feels like a turbocharged Windows 7 install sans Aero which boots up even faster than a typical smartphone. Indeed, all the hard work gone into optimizing the solid Windows 7 core has come to fruition for Microsoft and kudos to them for this. But I must warn you, that to get accustomed to the Modern UI gestures, it will take a fair amount of time. It will be worth it all the way though, and if you still want your Windows 7 feel back, you can always get a third party Start Menu. Overall, a very solid OS for consumers.

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