Review: Windows 8 a daring vision of the future -- but are you ready?

Windows 8, the bold, inventive new operating system from Microsoft is almost certain to power your next computer. It’s a strong statement about the future of computing -- But are you ready for it today?

Microsoft’s new OS, officially released on Oct. 26., is the company’s effort to reshape the computer industry it built for a new future, one in which tablets and smartphones are the dominant way we get online and computers are almost an afterthought.

That future isn’t so far off, of course.

While sales of desktops and laptops have ground to a halt, Apple has sold more than 100 million iPads. Add in the Kindle and the Nook, Samsung’s Galaxy gizmos, and the world of Android-based tablets and it’s easy to see an active revolution in the world of computers.


Oct. 26, 2012: Windows 8 officially goes on sale

Aug. 22, 2012: MS begins accepting orders for Win 8

July 09, 2012: It’s a date! MS announces launch date

May 31, 2012: Near final “Release Preview” posted for free download

Feb. 29, 2012: MS offers “Consumer Preview,” a first glimpse at the software

Sept. 14, 2012: At Build conference, Win 8 is announced

Microsoft has taken a massive gamble on that change, making Windows 8 both a wonderful interface for tablets and a fresh and inviting face for the wholly new device designs the company is pushing -- an array of hybrid gizmos that act as both laptop and tablet.

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But what about your laptop today? That’s the real problem.

The Basics: tiles
Windows 8 rewrites the conventions of computing, throwing out the “desktop” paradigm and such silly nonsense as drop-down menus and the Start Menu. Instead, Windows 8 introduces a colorful, touch-friendly collection of tiles used to launch apps.

Log in to a Windows 8 device and you’ll see not static rows of familiar icons but a fluid, brightly hued collection of tiles, one per app, that constantly wink and flip, inviting you to click them.

The conventional desktop still exists, of course. It’s easily accessed by clicking one of those rectangles. And many apps still use that old desktop interface -- Microsoft Office, for example. You can easily toggle the two with the Windows key on your keyboard. But Microsoft envisions these new “Metro” apps in your future.

And to its credit, the ones Microsoft has written are amazing.

A People app offers an entry to your social media world, aggregating info from Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks and letting you post and share information back onto them. The tile flips over every few seconds, with photos of your friends and college roommates, begging you to click on them. What’s Uncle Phil up to? How’s Nancy?

A Weather app offers a gorgeous look at the current and future forecast. Scroll side to side -- because Microsoft has done away with that antiquated “up and down a page” convention too -- and you’ll get far more meteorological information than you could possibly want.

But it’s so damn attractive you’ll find yourself captivated by the changing barometric pressure.

Other tiles work in a similar way: Money, Photos, Music, Maps, Mail, Video and more. Use them for a few and standard applications will look lame in comparison. Why have we put up with ugly for so long?

The Basics: Controlling your PC
Tiles are a smart way to interact with your data on a tablet, using your fingers: Swipe down from the top to close an app, in from the left to bring up a list of running apps, or in from the right to bring up “charms” -- five common controls for dealing with your device.

But on a PC? Not so much.

Users will find this new language of interface as shocking as a bucket of water to the face. Dragging the mouse from top of screen to bottom is anything but an intuitive way to close a program. Right clicking the mouse used to bring up contextual menus; now it sometimes brings up a menu bar at the bottom or top of the screen.

But remember, the laptop and desktop are dead in this brave new world -- and with them went the mouse. Fingers are the future.

Other standards are very different in Windows 8 as well. Printing, for example, requires a trip to the “Devices” charm, where your printer is now hidden. And when those new apps are running, they do so full-screen; how to switch between them?

Learning these new conventions isn’t particularly hard, it’s just different. Study the user guide when you first set up your account and you’ll probably be okay. But they’re clearly polarizing. Some will find the change welcome, others will find themselves on the phone with tech support after half an hour spent hunting for a “shut down” command. (Hint: just push the power button on your device.)

Tomorrow vs. today

The real problem Microsoft faces is its customers.

There are over a billion computers running some version of Windows today, most ill-suited to an upgrade. Yes, Windows 8 is faster than ever before, substantially so, but it offers little else of benefit to existing computers.

Yes, you can find ways to work around the changes. If the touch interface bothers you, it’s easy enough to never enter it, for example. Pin the apps you use regularly to the menu bar on your desktop and you can limit those winking, Windows 8 tiles to your log on experience.

But the people using those billion or so computers will want to get something new at some point, and the fabulous new designs -- including the gorgeous new Surface tablet/laptop from Microsoft itself -- are clearly Microsoft’s vision of where computing will be tomorrow.

Take for example the Sony Duo 11 ultrabook: Slide the screen on this convertible tablet up and it reveals a full-size keyboard. The iPad can’t do that. Or consider the HP Envy x2, an $850 hybrid laptop that snaps away from its keyboard to become a standalone tablet. Or the Dell XPS One 27 Touch, a giant, 27-inch all-in-one that essentially folds down into a flat surface, perfect for that fingerpainting app.

Windows 8 makes the competition look stale and boring -- the dull rows of icons on the iPad and Windows 7 will seem antiquated to most eyes after just a few minutes with Microsoft’s latest.

But perhaps antiquated is good enough for your current gear.