Windows 8 review: Yes, it's that bad

A desktop OS for tablets and a tablet OS for desktops, Windows 8 is guaranteed to disappoint nearly everyone

We've been examining and dissecting beta versions of Windows 8 for almost a year. In that time, a few traits have become eminently clear. First and foremost, no matter what you think about Windows 8's design, it's a towering engineering achievement: Microsoft managed to bolt a very capable, modern, touch-friendly interface (I'll stick with calling it Metro for now) onto a stalwart (some would say stodgy) workhorse, coming up with a product that's familiar to more than a billion users, and forward-looking at the same time. That's quite an accomplishment.

But sometimes engineering achievements are appreciated only by the engineers. From the user's standpoint, Windows 8 is a failure -- an awkward mishmash that pulls the user in two directions at once. Users attracted to the new touch-friendly Metro GUI will dislike the old touch-hostile desktop underneath. By the same token, users who rely on the traditional Windows desktop will dislike having to navigate Metro to find settings and apps they intuitively locate in Windows 7. Microsoft has moved the cheese.

[ Windows 8 is here! InfoWorld can help you get ready with the Windows 8 Deep Dive PDF special report, which explains Microsoft's bold new direction for Windows, the new Metro interface for tablet and desktop apps, the transition from Windows 7, and more. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Now that Windows 8 has arrived (today for MSDN and TechNet subscribers, and tomorrow for Microsoft Partner Network members and Volume Licensees), the harsh analogies -- "Windows Frankenstein," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde operating system" -- may be applied conclusively. While Windows 8 inherits many of the advantages of Windows 7 -- the manageability, the security (plus integrated antivirus), and the broad compatibility with existing hardware and software -- it takes an axe to usability. The lagging, limited, often hamstrung Metro apps don't help.

In this review of the final, RTM version of Windows 8, I'm not going to reexamine what's come before; almost everything discussed in my Release Preview review and in my Consumer Preview review still stands. There's no Start button on the desktop, and the utilities that managed to graft Start onto older beta versions don't work with the final RTM Win8. The new Metro Start screen remains relentlessly two-dimensional with flipping tiles that look like LEDs on the Vegas Strip. Moving from Metro to desktop and back again, especially on a large and touch-deprived monitor, will have you reaching for the Dramamine.

I can confirm after months in the trenches and talking with many hundreds of testers that anyone who defines "real work" as typing and mousing won't like Windows 8 one little bit. Let's take that as a given and move on from there.

Big changes in appearance In RTM, the transfer from the Vista-era Aero interface to the boxy, opaque, shadowless, glowless, and shine-free flatland style pioneered in Windows 3.1 seems complete, with one small exception: I don't know why, but the desktop taskbar still shows a bit of transparency (squint at the flower stalks in screen image below).

When the window border color is set to automatic -- as is the case in the screen image, the default -- the shade of window borders and the taskbar changes, depending on the hues in the desktop background. Some people like the new layout, some don't, but Aero is gone for good, apparently a victim of its power-draining excesses.

Windows Aero is no more, except for a trace of transparency in the Taskbar.

On the other hand, the Metro Start screen offers a surfeit of choices, with 20 swirly background patterns (including, mercifully, one option with no swirls at all) and 25 predefined color combinations. The result is a Start screen that greets seasoned Windows desktop fans with all the visual subtlety of an overflowing Bass-o-Matic. (See the Windows 8 Photo Gallery.)

Bigger changes in Metro apps Every version of Microsoft's Metro apps that we've seen to date -- Mail, People, Calendar, Messaging, SkyDrive, Weather, News, Finance, Travel, Sports, Games, Camera, Music and Video -- has been labeled Preview, for good reason. With few exceptions, the apps showed tortuous lapses and manifest bugs. That's changed a little bit.

Metro Mail brings up a yeomanly three-column display when viewed on a Metro-size 1,366-by-768 monitor, with folders, a message list, and a viewing pane that works as you would expect. There's still no ability to add new folders or to drag messages to a specific folder. (Moving a message to a folder entails a down-flick or right-click and a manual selection of the destination folder.) In a head-to-head comparison with Microsoft's Hotmail replacement, Outlook.com, Metro Mail doesn't even come close in any identifiable category. Metro Mail doesn't consolidate inboxes for multiple email accounts, but it can work in a pinch as a small, light email application.

Metro Mail can connect with Hotmail (including Outlook.com, Live.com, and MSN), Exchange (including Office 365 with EAS), and Gmail. It'll also hook into IMAP mail accounts, but it still doesn't recognize POP3. Most damning, it won't import anything from other Microsoft mail programs -- none of the stand-alone versions of Office Outlook, no Windows Live Mail, no Windows Mail, no Outlook Express.

Metro People syncs contacts with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social networking integration is one area where Windows 8 really shines.

With Metro Calendar rounding out the PIM triumvirate, connecting any of the three Metro apps -- Mail, People, Calendar -- to Hotmail (Outlook.com, Live.com, MSN), EAS, or Google will bring your mail, contacts, and calendar into the corresponding Metro app. As any database admin will tell you, the problem with consolidating diverse data sources in that way lies in sorting out overlaps, duplications, and obsolete information. While the three Metro apps make a brave stab at consolidating conflicting information, I found the whole exercise overwhelming and the automated tools inadequate, and I ultimately gave up. Of course, that isn't a Windows problem, but it's a very real headache for a lot of customers.

While it's possible to jury-rig some import vectors -- for example, exporting an Outlook Contacts database to a flat file and importing it to Google Contacts -- in general, there's no way I could find to get my existing stand-alone Office Outlook Calendar or Contacts, or Windows Contacts (Vista, Win7), into any of the Metro apps.

There's a new Metro app on the default Start screen called, simply, Bing. Tap or click the Metro Bing tile and you get a Bing search screen that links directly into Bing's Trending list, with current hot news topics such as "Evelyn Lozada of Basketball Wives T-Shirt Shop Entrepreneur." The search screen also gives you one-step-removed search results.

Other Metro Bing apps have seen some improvement. The bug in the Bing Finance app's Russell Index listing that I mentioned previously is gone, although Bing Finance continues to offer only 20-minute time-delayed stock quotes. Metro Bing News now updates its main news item much more frequently than it did during beta.

Metro Bing Travel was dealt a heavy blow earlier this week when Google announced it was buying the travel guide publisher Frommer's. A very large percentage of the travel articles in Bing Travel -- including almost all of the Featured Destinations descriptions, and hotel and restaurant recommendations -- come from Frommer's. That's likely to change shortly, I should think.

The Windows Store expanded greatly with new offerings, including eye-candy Metro versions of Solitaire and Minesweeper, both published by Microsoft Studios, the Xbox developer group inside Microsoft. The legacy version of both programs -- indeed, all of the old Windows games -- have been retired. (No, the new versions don't have the same old cheats.)

Metro Photos and Metro Video remain devoid of any editing capability. Fortunately, Microsoft released a marginally improved Windows Photo Gallery and a substantially better Windows Movie Maker last week. Metro Music continues to amaze with a nearly complete dearth of useful features, although the app makes it easy to order music from Microsoft.

Slight changes to the Windows desktop There are few user-noticeable changes in the Windows desktop programs; as best I can tell, the changes are almost entirely cosmetic.

One exception: with the Enterprise version of Win8 now available, Windows to Go -- portable Windows 8 on a USB stick -- comes out of the closet. In my brief tests with WTG, I was surprised to find that it worked on any machine I could find, as long as it could boot from USB. WTG even managed to conjure up some esoteric drivers. On the downside, it's painfully slow without a USB 3 connection, and the software required to create the bootable USB drive is only available in the Enterprise version of Win8.

In general, Microsoft's programs on the RTM version of Windows 8 run considerably faster than on the Release Preview version. That's true of both system programs on the desktop side and Metro apps. I also found it applied to both traditional mouse-and-keyboard systems and on a touch-sensitive tablet.

One of the most intriguing changes: Internet Explorer 10 still has Do Not Track as a default, but Microsoft put the option to turn off DNT into the Windows setup procedure. (In spite of what you might have read, the option is located in Win8 setup, not in IE setup.) If you take the defaults when you install Windows 8, IE10 has DNT turned on -- a controversial move that puts Microsoft on the side of privacy advocates and pits it against advertising groups. Whether Microsoft's approach satisfies the many conflicting calls for DNT implementation remains to be seen.

Clarification on available versions Last month, Microsoft announced several upgrade routes for moving from XP, Vista, and Win7 to Windows 8. The long and short of it is that every Windows customer qualifies for an upgrade license, and it costs $39.99 until Jan. 31, 2013. Accordingly, Microsoft isn't going to ship shrink-wrapped retail boxes containing Windows 8 upgrade DVDs.

On the other hand, if you don't want an upgrade -- that is, you're installing Win8 on a newly constructed machine or you're using it for dual-boot or you'll stick it inside Boot Camp or another VM -- Microsoft has (finally!) clarified that a new version of Windows, the System Builder edition, will suffice. Unlike the old Windows OEM versions that have been clouded in EULA double-talk for a decade, this edition is clearly intended -- and licensed -- for single use on any PC.

Some people think that Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro tablets will hit the market by storm. Having used Windows 8 on desktops, a laptop, and on a tablet for almost a year now, I'm considerably more skeptical. Although Win8 running on an Intel tablet will undoubtedly solve some specific corporate (and personal) requirements, I certainly don't expect a massive move to Windows 8, either in the office or at home.

Windows RT Surface tablets, based on the ARM processor, may be a different story. We'll learn more about RT's chances in the coming weeks. One thing is for sure: There's going to be significant demand for Windows 7 laptops and desktops for the foreseeable future.

This story, "Windows 8 review: Yes, it's that bad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Windows 8 review: Yes, it's that bad" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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