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Will Microsoft Windows 8 open doors or slam them shut?

  • Microsoft Windows 8 Homescreen

    Microsoft

  • Microsoft Windows 8 Lock Screen

    Microsoft

  • Microsoft Windows 8 startscreen.jpg

    The new Windows 8 Start screen.Microsoft Corp.

  • Windows 8

    Screenshot of the Windows 8 Start screen, as shown at the D9 Conference in 2011.Microsoft

The window to upgrade to Windows 8 is now open, but the verdict is still out on Microsoft’s new OS.

Redmond began accepting orders for the new OS this week, an upgrade most noticeable for its embrace of tablet computers and touch controls through a radical rethinking of the role of the Start button. Rather than simply a button tucked away in the lower-left corner, the Start menu takes over the entire interface with colorful, dynamic, inviting tiles.

But is it inviting or simply confusing? Not even the experts can agree.

“At least for some tasks, the usability is worse,” usability expert Raluca Budiu of the Nielsen Norman Group told Laptopmag.com. The main challenge lies in that exploded and enhanced Start screen, which creates a new way to use the computer -- one many will find complicated.

What is Windows 8?

Windows 8, set to be released to the public on Oct. 26, introduces a new interface for the PC: the tile-based “Metro” look created for Windows Phone. It features tiles that flash information and transform by themselves, and is designed for touch controls, as well as mice and keyboards. 

Learn more at Microsoft's Windows 8 site.

“Users will need to remember two different interfaces. They will learn Windows 8, but won’t be able to forget Windows 7. And they will need to keep track of which app goes with each framework. [It's] definitely a cognitive burden, but not an insurmountable one,” she concluded.

“The learning curve is going to be steep,” she added.

Michael Miller, the former editor in chief of PC Magazine, called that duality “the Metro Mess,” and agrees that many computer users could find it confusing.

“Every time I show it to business users on a desktop, they look confused and ask me what happened to the Start button,” he wrote on PCMag.com. New types of computers, such as hybrid designs that function as both tablets and laptops, might really work well with this interface, he noted. But traditional machines might suffer at the same time.

But many tech enthusiasts have come to embrace the new operating system and all it offers: a new way to interact with apps, the dynamic flash of information that Windows 8 knowingly presents, and the clean, modern new design language.

“I love it,” wrote Gizmodo editor Mat Honan after reviewing the Consumer Preview in February. When the Release Preview came out, Honan described it as “lovely,” noting that it trumped the earlier version he had so fallen for.

'At least for some tasks, the usability is worse.'

- Usability expert Raluca Budiu

“The new Release Preview is an iterative update, inching us closer to final release. It's more mature maturity, increasingly refined, and already possesses a subtle elegance.”

Enthusiasts at tech news site The Verge also gushed over the new operating system, calling it “smoother, faster, and more reliable than ever.” And PC World described it as “highly usable,” noting that “the whole affair seems to hang together pretty well.”

If the experts can’t reach a conclusion, how should end-users feel? Will Windows 8 be right for you? The decision to upgrade will likely be out of your hands. Come December, most new PCs will likely ship with the new interface. If you buy a new computer, you’re getting Windows 8, like it or not.

The emerging class of tablet computers remains an open story, on the other hand. Apple iPads are likely to continue to dominate, and Google’s Android operating system powers most of the other systems. Windows 8 might change that all around, Miller noted.

“[Windows 8 is] a way for the company to leverage the success it has had with traditional PCs to phones and tablets. I understand that approach, I just worry that it's going to confuse a lot of people,” he said.