Windows 8 review: still a two-headed beast

New 'fit and finish' enhancements in the final RTM version of Windows 8 don't ease the underlying tension between the interface formerly known as Metro and the traditional Desktop.

Launched today, Windows 8 Release to Manufacturing (RTM) offers only minimal changes to June's Release Preview version, including new graphics (what Microsoft calls "tattoos") for the Start screen and Lock screen backgrounds and interface polishing for some of the Windows 8-specific apps that ship with the operating system. In addition, there have been a variety of bug fixes and performance enhancements, as well as some minor tweaks to the operating system's look and feel.

Apart from that, though, Windows 8 remains essentially the same: a two-headed operating system featuring a new Windows Phone-like tiled interface and Start screen (once called Metro, but now apparently called simply Windows 8) as well as the traditional Desktop interface. As with earlier preview versions of Windows, these two interfaces uneasily coexist, with the new Windows 8 interface better suited for tablets and touch devices, and the Desktop the better choice for desktop PCs and laptops.

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The Start screen in Windows 8 RTM hasn't changed much from the Release Preview.

I tried Windows 8 RTM on a tablet that can do double-duty as a traditional PC with the addition of keyboard and mouse, and tested it in two ways: solely as a touchscreen tablet and solely as a traditional PC.

As a tablet interface, Windows 8 serves its purpose beautifully, its large tiles with constantly changing information inviting interaction via touch. Designed from the ground up to display information, it provides a significantly different experience from using an iPad or Android tablet -- information-centric rather than app-centric. (While Android widgets do offer live information, they're much smaller than Windows tiles and feel like an afterthought to the bounty of apps that typically take up the screen.) Windows 8 falls short on tablets only when you want to get to the Desktop, but considering that tablets are generally used to consume content rather than create content, you likely won't need to go there.

But Windows 8 RTM on a traditional computer still feels like a kludge, because the Windows 8 Start screen and its apps feel more natural with a touch interface than a mouse-and-keyboard one. I found myself continually bypassing the Start screen to get to the Desktop, and then once I was there, frequently looking for the dearly departed Start button, which no longer exists.

The Windows 8 native apps themselves are beautifully designed, though. Even on a traditional computer, some of them, such as the People app, are useful. But others, such as Mail, remain underpowered compared to traditional desktop apps like Outlook.

What's new: Small 'fit and finish' tweaks

There have been no major changes in Windows 8 RTM compared to the Release Preview. One minor change, though, appears the moment that you boot into the OS: There's a new default lock screen background showing the Seattle Space Needle, a lake and mountains. There are other arty new lock screens available on the PC Settings --> Personalize Windows 8 screen. Similarly, there are new designs for the Start screen, many of them complex and baroque-looking. In all, Microsoft says there are 14 new ones.

Windows 8 RTM features a new set of backgrounds for the lock and Start screens that are artier than those in the Release Preview.

Windows 8 RTM also has a new, moderately useful tool for switching between apps, but only for touchscreen devices. If you swipe from the left edge, you'll switch to the most recent app you had been running just before the current one. This not only works with Windows 8 native apps, but also with Desktop apps. To control whether this feature is active, go to PC Settings --> General, and then toggle "When I swipe in from the left edge, switch directly to my most recent app" on or off.

It's now also slightly easier to search through the Windows Store. When you're in the Windows Store, you can simply start typing to initiate a search, the same way you can on the Start screen. Previously, you could only use the Search charm, the built-in tool for searching through Windows apps and files.

Some app changes

Microsoft has also done work on several Windows 8 native apps (previously called Metro apps). The People app has gotten a minor makeover for the better, with slight navigation changes and a new notification feature. You can now see all of your notifications from Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets in a single, easily viewable list.

The best addition to the built-in People app is the ability to see all of your notifications in a single easily viewable location.

In addition, the overall navigation has been cleaned up in People. In the previous version, navigation links for areas such as "What's new" and "Me" were strung across the top of the page. Now they're stacked vertically on the left, with smaller text. All in all, it's a nice makeover, albeit not a major one.

Navigation in the People app has been cleaned up.

The Music App is now called Xbox Music, and aside from some small interface changes, such as adding icons in places where there used to be only plain text links, it looks largely the same.

There's also a useful addition: the Bing app, whose Start screen tile pipes in constantly changing trending information from social media sites. Without looking at the tile, I never would have known at a glance that "Spice Girls," "Chad Johnson" and "gas prices" were trending on a recent Monday night, or that "Texas shooting," " iPhone 5" and "Evelyn Lozada" were trending on an early Tuesday afternoon. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's progress.

The Bing Sports, Bing Travel and Bing News apps that were offered in the Release Preview are still around, but they deliver specific sports, travel and news content. The new Bing app, on the other hand, lets you search the Web using Microsoft's Bing search engine, but from within the app rather than in a Web browser.

The results are also displayed in the app itself, not in a browser, and are represented as big blocks of text. Because the app provides more information about each search result compared to what you get on the Web, I found myself frequently turning to the app rather than a browser to use Bing. When you click any search result, you're sent to the site in your default Web browser, not in the app.

The Bing search engine now has its own Windows 8 app.

Many other apps, such as Calendar and Weather, are unchanged. Microsoft says that some apps will be updated between now and the general Windows 8 release on October 26, though it hasn't specified which ones or how major the changes will be. At this late stage in the development process, it's likely they'll be relatively minor.

The Windows Store is slowly building up its collection of apps and no longer seems as barren of goods as a Romanian grocery store during the depths of the Ceauşescu regime. The number of apps is still tiny compared to the number of iOS and Android apps available, but at least it's growing. For example, as I write this, the Productivity section has 34 apps, compared to a dozen in the Release Preview and just five in the Consumer Preview. Thirty-four apps is nothing to brag about, but it's certainly better than a dozen. One can expect that number to grow, possibly significantly, as Windows 8 nears its general release.

Surprise! The Desktop looks the same

The Windows 8 Desktop remains one of the most controversial parts of Windows 8. The Start button was eliminated, and Microsoft has worked to make sure that workaround hacks that people have developed will not work in Windows 8 RTM.

One tool that does still work, however, is the free app Start8 from Stardock. It adds the familiar Start button to the Desktop (but not to the Windows 8 Start screen), and allows you to go directly to the Desktop when you log into Windows 8. But this Start button doesn't include most of the features of the old Start button, such as quick navigation to the Control Panel or the ability to see all the apps on your PC and then run them. Still, those who do most of their work on the Desktop will be pleased to find a way to bypass the new Start screen.

The free Start8 app adds a Start button to the desktop, although it doesn't include most of the old Start button's features. Right-click it to see the options it offers.

One surprise is that the Desktop has not been changed at all from the Release Preview. Microsoft had previously said that there would be changes to the Desktop in the final, shipping version of Windows 8 -- notably that it (and apps that run on it, such as Windows Explorer) would abandon the familiar 3D Aero interface in favor of a flatter, sleeker look.

Although the Release Preview made some steps in that direction, eliminating the "glass" look and introducing windows with squared-off edges, a blog post from Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the Windows 8 User Experience team, made it sound as if more changes were coming: "While a few of these visual changes are hinted at in the upcoming Release Preview, most of them will not yet be publicly available. You'll see them all in the final release of Windows 8!"

However, I have been able to detect no changes in the RTM's Desktop UI. Since the RTM code is what will ship with new Windows 8 computers this fall, the changes we already saw in the Release Preview are apparently as far as Microsoft intends to go.

The bottom line

Windows 8 RTM remains a dual operating system, one designed for tablets and one designed for the Desktop, with few links between the two. Used on a tablet, it represents an excellent alternative to iOS and Android, with an information-centric approach to user experience, rather than an app-centric one.

Used on a PC, though, it's a mixed bag. Traditional computer users will find some Windows 8 apps useful. But they'll likely be frustrated by having to spend more time on the Windows 8 Start screen than they want, and will in particular be unhappy about how the Desktop has been made less useful with the elimination of the Start button.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is making a bet that it can please both tablet users and traditional computer users with a single OS. That bet didn't pay off for me. On a tablet I find it an excellent operating system. On a traditional computer, it doesn't work nearly so well.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Windows 8 review: still a two-headed beast" was originally published by Computerworld.

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