In-Depth

Windows 8 Reader Review: Microsoft's Mixed Bag

While some IT pros look forward to the pending release of Windows 8, many have misgivings about the new UI. Here are the critiques of the reviewers who matter most: Redmond readers.

One year after Microsoft gave the world its first glimpse of the next version of Windows and its new interface, the radically redesigned version of the OS is set for release Oct. 26. Windows 8 has epic implications for the future of Microsoft -- especially because the viability of the company's client software franchise is under siege like never before.

With so much at stake, Redmond wanted to know whether enterprises will embrace or shun Windows 8. To find out, we reached out to readers who have evaluated the various betas over the past year. More than 40 readers shared what they love and hate about Windows 8.

Respondents have a clear stance. There is no middle ground. Redmond readers either love or hate Windows 8, specifically the new tiled interface, which Microsoft has called "Metro" during the one-year series of previews. (Commencing with the Windows 8 release, Microsoft plans to do away with the Metro reference.) Critiques outweigh praise, but only time will tell whether Windows 8 is a massive hit or a devastating flop. One thing is clear: The visceral complaints show that many users shun change.

Sure, Windows 8 includes the old-style desktop interface. But Metro is a sweeping departure from that -- and a clear response to the success Apple Inc. has enjoyed selling millions of iPads since the release of the device two and a half years ago. With Windows 8, Microsoft has effectively slapped its Windows Phone interface on top of desktop, laptop and tablet machines with the hope they all work.

But here's what Microsoft doesn't want to hear. "For a power user it's a royal pain in the butt. For an idiot, it's wonderful," says Ed Novak. "Brings new meaning to the words 'dumbed down.'"

That refrain is unfortunately echoed by many other IT pros. "I hate the Metro interface! I don't want a dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator OS on my PC, especially not on my work PC," says Heidi Bickel, an IT and network manager. "A year ago I had the option of buying a Windows Phone or an Android phone. I chose the Android because I hated how the Windows Phone GUI looks like it's geared toward children with the big, brightly colored buttons."

Many others are struggling to find a case for embracing Metro. "I'm still trying to figure out the value of the Metro interface on a PC," notes Andre Sourdliffe, a technology consultant at Love, Cody & Co. CPAs in Bennington, Vt. "I'm also not as impressed with the Metro apps in this latest version as were some reviewers."

In the early phases of new OS releases, this is the reaction Microsoft is accustomed to and, quite frankly, doesn't see as an omen. "There's a lot of love in Windows 8, I've got to say," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, speaking in a keynote address at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference in July. "I think there's a lot that we can do, there's a lot that you can do, and most importantly there's just a ton our customers will do to really drive forward with the incredible capability packed into the Windows 8 platform."

Stopping Start
Such optimism is overshadowed by those who are happy with the status quo. For example, Microsoft thought it was doing a good thing when it gave Windows 8 Metro backward compatibility with the desktop interface, which looks just like Windows 7. Yet many readers are not impressed.

"I had high hopes for this release," gripes Paul Gibbs from Miami. "I was looking forward to a robust, rich tablet interface and the ability to use both tablet and desktop on a single platform. Microsoft's execution has been enormously disappointing."

Reader Sourdliffe is likewise taken aback. "Changing back and forth between the Metro interface and the desktop is very strange and cumbersome," Sourdliffe explains. "It's almost like switching between two OSes. You find yourself suddenly being switched between the two when a function is needed that's not provided by the Metro apps."

Gibbs has serious misgivings about the Metro-desktop split. "Different interfaces are one thing; that part is fine. But two completely separate Internet Explorer apps? Two control panels? No Start button? I keep having to drop to the desktop to get stuff done because so much is missing from the Metro interface. This is going to drive users nuts," Gibbs says. "Microsoft needs to make zillions more controls accessible from the Metro interface. You should be able to give it to grandma and know that she'll never need to drop to the desktop to attach hardware or install a printer."

Longtime reader C. Marc Wagner, a services development specialist at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., explains how Metro works. "Metro serves two purposes," Wagner says. "Windows 8 replaces the Start menu with a Start screen in the form of the Metro screen. From the Metro screen, by right-clicking, you can select a view of all installed applications and individually select which Windows/Metro applications to leave on, or remove from, the Metro Start page. You can also place Windows applications on the Desktop Task Bar."

That's the theory. In practice Sourdliffe finds it more awkward. "If you don't have a Start menu, you need to access the Metro tiles to find the software you installed," he says. "That's nowhere near as easy as opening the Start menu and opening a program. And you again find you're back on the desktop when the software opens. Granted, you can start typing in Metro and open a program, but that's not as convenient as a Start menu. As hard as I try, I can't conceive of why they felt it necessary to remove something as easy to use and as functional as the Start menu."

Gibbs is likewise struggling with the two interfaces. "Some things are controlled in the desktop Control Panel, other things are controlled in the Metro Settings app and some things are mixed together. Take setting network connections -- you can't right-click on connections or copy/paste passwords into a VPN setup without restarting the entire thing, because once you click off the right-side Metro pane to select or copy your username or password, the pane disappears, and the task that you were doing disappears with it," complains Gibbs, who despite his criticisms actually likes the Metro touch interface.

If there's one clear objection to Metro, it's the absence of the Start menu, a mainstay in the OS since Windows 95. "I miss the traditional Start menu and the nature of the Metro Start screen is such that nested folders are just not an option," Wagner says. "I don't like having three steps to get to Shutdown and Restart. You can always put a link to these commands -- and many others on the Desktop, as well as on the Metro Start Page -- but these need to be more accessible."

Metro Fan
Kevin Lutz is a Metro fan and particularly likes it for typical tablet apps such as Twitter, e-mail, news, sports and weather. "I love having the ability to switch between apps and productivity software like Office," says Lutz, senior vice president of technology for Feeding America. "Once I became used to switching between Metro and the desktop, I don't find it to be an issue at all. I love the Metro interface. It's clean, simple yet stylish. Some of the apps like news and weather have great interfaces. Live Tiles, split screen and ease of use put it far ahead of the iOS interface."

Despite giving Metro the thumbs up, Lutz does have issues with the new interface. "I'm still struggling with settings," he says. "Some are done in Metro and other times you're thrown into the desktop. I like linking to my Windows Live account, but I have a personal account and a work account. I haven't figured out how to link both so I can have my personal photos but also my work calendar, and both my work and personal SkyDrives. I'm not sure if it can be done with a single login."

Microsoft has proven with Xbox, Kinect, Windows Phone and now with Metro that it can make cool consumer software. But what consumers and IT pros find cool are two different things. Windows 8 for IT is a mixed bag. "As an IT support person, refreshing the OS without reinstalling may turn out to be the coolest thing," says Sourdliffe. "The apps might have been the coolest thing if their functionality and usability were up to par, but they come up short at this point. Also, the apps store is sadly lacking with a poor search feature and still too few apps."

Browser's New Split Personality
Like the Windows 8 OS itself, Internet Explorer 10 has two personalities: the older desktop interface, which looks like Internet Explorer 9, and a Metro version. Beta testers of Internet Explorer 10 are not bowled over by it, either. "I can't see anything that's an improvement," says Sourdliffe, who admittedly prefers Firefox. "It would be great if the browser users are using most was the most secure and performed the best. I'm glad Microsoft is enhancing Internet Explorer security and it appears they've done a great job. I used to call Internet Explorer 6 a security hole waiting to happen but they've made vast strides since then."

"I miss the traditional Start menu and the nature of the Metro Start screen is such that nested folders are just not an option".

C. Marc Wagner, Services Development Specialist, Indiana University

Internet Explorer might be secure, but polished it is not, at least for Sourdliffe. "The Internet Explorer app on a PC is an exercise in frustration," he says. "When you open a page in another tab it hides the new tab and you have to right-click in the browser to reveal the open tabs so you can select the one you just opened. It isn't user-friendly."

Wagner, a regular user of the Microsoft browser, tried both flavors of Internet Explorer 10. "It took a while to get used to Internet Explorer 9, but Internet Explorer 10 for the desktop seems almost identical to Internet Explorer 9," Wagner says. "I'm not all that fond of Internet Explorer 10 Metro. It's missing too many features that I use regularly on the desktop."

That lack of interoperability is not sitting well with Gibbs. "I'm disappointed the desktop and Metro versions don't work together," he says. "You should be able to switch an open tab -- with all its history and current session -- from Metro to desktop when you encounter a Web site that needs a plug-in. You shouldn't have to switch to desktop, launch the desktop Internet Explorer, re-navigate and log back in. Likewise, you should be able to switch a current desktop Internet Explorer session to Metro."

Reader Aaron Faulkner is still in learning mode. "It's not bad, but getting used to the way it seems to keep previous pages is a little confusing," he says. "If you want to go back 10 pages or so, you can't just jump there like you could previously, drop down and select the 10th previous page. You have to go back through each one and it tries to reload them."

The New Administration
There are two versions of the new client OS: Windows 8 for x86/x64 hardware runs on Intel and AMD processors and is managed through Active Directory, and Windows RT runs on ARM processors and can't be linked to Active Directory. Instead, Windows RT is managed by Windows Intune, the Microsoft cloud-based remote PC management offering.

"With the exception of the Task Manager, everything which was previously in Windows 7 looks the same as it did in Windows 7," Wagner says. "Task Manager is completely redesigned and is probably an indication of things to come. What's remarkable about the new Task Manager is it reports that Windows 8 is very light on RAM usage -- typically around 600MB on 2GB systems, and under 1.2GB on 4GB systems."

Sourdliffe sees much the same. "There are some nice built-in diagnostics and troubleshooting tools," he says. "It seems to have all the same tools that Windows 7 has but they've moved things around and added things." For example, he notes Microsoft has added local security policy to the Administration section, and some of the diagnostics have been updated and improved.

The Windows RT management move, however, has one reader seething. "It's mind-numbingly short-sighted of them not to make ARM machines domain-joinable," Gibbs complains. "App deployment should be part of a standard Active Directory infrastructure. I shouldn't need to use another control panel to control what goes onto them. I simply can't believe they did this and expect us to manage ARM tablets with ActiveSync. I'm speechless at this decision. Active Directory and unified enterprise control is their main value-add. Why would they do anything to jeopardize this?"

Will They Buy?
The $64 billion question is: Will you buy, and will your shop migrate to Windows 8? A survey of 1,400 Redmond readers responding to an online poll back in May predictably showed only a handful, 4.9 percent, saying they will deploy Windows 8 in their organizations upon release (see the July 2012 Redmond Report story, "Analysts See Hurdles Ahead for Windows 8"). Almost half, or 49 percent, were unsure, while nearly 35 percent said they would deploy it either within the first or second years following the OS release.

"If this is the way it will be in final form with no Start button and menu, absolutely not," answers Sourdliffe. "I see us staying with Windows 7. There's no reason to move to an OS that's Windows 7 at its core, but with some very strange choices made for the interface."

Reader Bickel, still horrified with the new Metro interface, can't see her company or herself making the move. "Personally and professionally, absolutely not," she says. "I'm the IT and network manager for an engineering firm, so we don't have average- or below-average-intelligence people here. As with most businesses, time is money and I can't justify turning their computing worlds upside-down. Windows 8 has no future in my organization. Windows 7 works very well for us and is such a vast improvement over the prior OSes, particularly for a small business. I don't understand why they're throwing out the baby with the bathwater to roll out an OS that belongs on a tablet and force it down the throats of every personal and business PC user."

Gibbs doesn't see his company moving to Windows 8 anytime soon, either. "I'm supposed to install this on the enterprise desktop?" he asks. "We won't be installing this on our desktop computers -- which is almost everything -- and will be downgrading any desktop machines that ship with Windows 8."

Not everyone is so adamant against deploying Windows 8, even if they haven't made the decision to move forward. Reader Lutz, enamored by Metro, looks forward to making the upgrade. "For personal use I'll be upgrading my PCs to Windows 8 and picking up a few convertible laptop/tablets for my teenage kids," he says. "In the office, I don't see a significant benefit, but there may be administrative benefits. We still have more research to do. We upgraded to Windows 7 the day it was released, so we'll seriously consider Windows 8."

The question of migration may presuppose the old style of migration, replacing PCs with PCs. But what if Microsoft is trying to replace PCs with touchscreen tablets that can secondarily function as PCs? Readers might be buying into this concept without fully realizing it.

"In my organization, a growing number of middle managers as well as executives use iPads as auxiliary devices when they don't need a Windows or Macintosh notebook. I expect many will switch to Windows 8 tablets, or go to Windows RT tablets and keep their Windows 7 notebooks when they need a more robust solution," Wagner says.

Form Factor
Metro runs on desktops, laptops and tablets, but only pleases those with touchscreen devices, our reporting found. "The Metro concept is horrible for a regular laptop/desktop scenario," says Derrek Kim, an IT vet with 20-plus years experience. "The use of Metro on a laptop makes no sense to me."

Gibbs agrees. "For a desktop, it's absolutely abysmal. Atrocious," he says.

Metro will undoubtedly reshape the type of PCs and tablet devices released. Even most desktop computers will likely have touchscreens. But Bickel doesn't see the appeal of Metro on a traditional desktop or laptop. "Unless touchscreens become the norm on PCs and laptops and drop significantly in price, the only places that Windows 8 belongs on are phones and tablets," Bickel says.

Meanwhile, the move to tablets has fans, foes and those on the sidelines. "Tablets offer the best of all possible worlds in an efficient form factor -- especially for consumers, where Windows RT will dominate," Wagner says. "Executives will turn to Windows 8 on Intel tablets, and I think most will purchase Bluetooth keyboards as accessories for content creation."

iPad iOS vs. Windows RT
There's no mistaking the fact that the success of the Apple iPad took Microsoft by surprise. The iPad is a superb tablet. But it's just a tablet. It's not designed for day-to-day productivity computing. Metro is different. Convertible PCs that can function both as traditional laptops and tablets will appeal to those who want both form factors in a single device.

"The sad truth is many people with an iPad also travel with their notebook," Lutz says. "In the end, you're gaining weight, not saving it. A convertible Windows 8 tablet might solve that problem. I'd dump the iPad in a minute if a nice convertible Windows 8 tablet is released."

"The real taste test will be with app compatibility. I think that's where the rubber will meet the road. If the apps work, the users will come".

Aaron Faulkner

The question is, will those partial to the widely used iPad warm up to the Metro interface? Wagner says Metro has some distinct advantages. "Metro is not as sexy-looking as the iPad iOS, but Metro tiles can be live, displaying weather, or shuffling through headlines or photos. Some are adjustable to be double-wide or single width," he explains. "Because the iPad is limited to a sub-10-inch screen, it will not likely deliver as good a Windows desktop experience as Windows 8, especially on 1366 x 768 screens larger than 10 inches."

The key variable will be cost. "Price-points will be critical," Wagner warns. "Windows RT tablets are going to need to start at $399 or less if they're to become iPad killers. Windows 8 tablets are going to have to start under $800 to compete at the high-end of the iPad line. Windows 8 Ultrabooks and convertibles are going to have to beat out the MacBook Air price-point."

Faulkner is looking forward to a good old-fashioned slugfest. "This has potential to out-do the iPad, with greater functionality, more options and apps, and more finger gestures," he says. "But the real taste test will be with app compatibility. I think that's where the rubber will meet the road. If the apps work, the users will come."

Microsoft, long strong in apps, has some catching up to do when it comes to tablets. "The iPad is so much more mature and there are lots of apps that drive its ability to be successful. The Windows Store is a really small shop that has about nothing compared to the one-stop shopping experience of the Apple Store," says Kim.

Those that already own iPads might be reluctant to start using Metro-based tablets. Take Alice Stefaniak, a life coach and online professor who owns an iPad but has looked at Metro. "I dislike that I have to hunt for the programs I normally would see in the Start area," Stefaniak says. "The many apps that come up on my screen seem a little mind-boggling, and I can't find the one I want. There's no comparison. The iPad is intuitive. Windows 8 on a non-touch laptop is nothing."

Others see room for both. Gibbs is quite happy with his iPad for personal use but believes Windows 8 will have its place in the enterprise. "I use an iPad every day," he says. "We haven't invested in Apple technology because of the lack of enterprise Active Directory management and software deployment features, the lack of quality Office apps and the lack of driver installation features -- installing local or network printers."

But Gibbs realizes it won't be that simple, because Windows RT will lack the manageability of Windows 8 and prior versions of Windows. "I had high hopes for Windows on ARM, and now I see that it represents only a 33 percent fulfillment of my hopes for that platform," says Gibbs. "The Intel platform doesn't have the robust battery life and weight factor I've come to expect from ARM, so this is a disappointment. We'll just have to use Intel."

Training Day
As IT pros come to grips with Windows 8, how will end users fare? Many shops with users who aren't tech savvy might require some level of training and support. Wagner says: "The greatest challenge is bridging the gap between Metro and the desktop. Windows RT tablet users will have little trouble, and with a minimal amount of work, Windows desktop users will be fine. But moving between them will be tricky. The physical keyboard will be missed and will be a common add-on for tablets. Touchscreens won't help much."

Lutz, who has found Windows 8 rather intuitive, believes employees will either use Metro or the traditional Windows interface. "What you do in Metro and what you do in the desktop are distinctly different in an office setting," Lutz says. "Office users will stay in the desktop almost exclusively unless they want to check the weather or news, or something that's not likely work-related. This may change over time as more business-focused apps are released, but for now I don't see Metro as significant in the workplace."

Yet the biggest issue will be Microsoft's hotly contested elimination of the Start menu, which could require the bulk of training and support. "The absence of a Start bar will be a huge issue for the common user," says Kim, adding that deeper OS issues are just as much a concern. "Getting to simple things like network config, printer config and the control panel are all very strange and different," he says. "The changes may be too big."

Compatible So Far
With OS upgrades, even the slightest of incompatibilities can be deal breakers. "I've been extremely pleased with Windows 8 compatibility with legacy applications," Wagner reports. "I found only one incompatibility with the Windows 8 consumer preview, and that has been fixed in the release preview." He's running Office Professional 2010 with no problems.

More recently, Wagner began running software from Citrix XenApp servers, which delivers virtualized applications to his Windows 8 client. "I'm using the Windows 7 version of the Citrix Enterprise Receiver. The Enterprise Receiver adds all available XenApp applications to the Metro Start page," Wagner says.

Lutz has a Dell Latitude XT2 laptop with a touchscreen display, and did a clean install of the latest beta. The OS recognized all of Lutz's hardware and runs just as fast as the Windows 7 it replaced.

"Windows 8 feels at least as fast as Windows 7," Wagner says. "Because booting takes you into the Metro interface, I think the key is a portion of the code is always in memory. I've been running in dual-boot mode alongside Windows 7 so the bootstrap loader may be masking some of the process. Boot up, cold or warm, feels a lot faster than Windows 7."

Wish List
Windows 8 released to manufacturing Aug. 1, so the company will have to address any changes in a future release or service pack. Here's what users want to see added, changed or chucked. Wagner wants the Metro Start page to support grouping app tiles, which he says the iPad handles simply. He also wants to see Microsoft tweak the Snap mode feature. "My only criticism of Snap mode is it sometimes resizes the Window so as to make it unreadable," he says.

One item might be an easy fix. "I wish they'd make it easier to exit the Windows Store and return to the Metro interface, as most of the time that's what you'll be doing," Sourdliffe says. "Instead, you have to move the mouse to the upper left and wait for the previous place you were working to appear. Then you have to move down to the lower left to get back to Metro, if you don't want to return to where you were previously."

The apps, such as the mail client, could use some improvement. "It works as well as the iPad mail client -- complete with ActiveSync -- but neither one comes close to what Outlook does for me on the desktop," Wagner says. "Whether Office 15 on Windows 8 or on Metro does as good a job remains to be seen."

One of the biggest complaints is the fact that Metro, not the classic desktop, is the default interface. "There needs to be a default configuration for PCs that includes the Start menu and has the desktop as the default interface," Sourdliffe says. "Of course, tablets will be Metro interface by default. But it would be nice for PC users to be able to choose which will be their default interface, in case some prefer the desktop over Metro."

Those partial to Metro wonder why Microsoft even kept the desktop mode in Windows 8. "Why keep it in there?" asks Faulkner.

"This release will be just like Office 2007 and the Ribbon. Some will always hate it, but a vast majority will only hate it until they learn to use it -- especially IT pros".

Travis Obrycki, Senior Systems Engineer, Community Health Partnership

Learn to Love
Travis Obrycki, a senior systems engineer for the Community Health Partnership in Eau Claire, Wis., says Windows 8, like many Microsoft products before it, is an acquired taste. A self-described developer at heart, but a systems guy by profession, Obrycki did not have a favorable first impression of Windows 8.

Then he forced himself to install it on every machine in his house, including a Fujitsu convertible laptop with a touchscreen. "After about three months you learn the shortcut keys and flicks -- if you have a touchscreen -- and it runs smooth and fast," Obrycki says. "When I go to my Windows 7 desktop at work, I miss Windows 8. This release will be just like Office 2007 and the Ribbon. Some will always hate it, but a vast majority will only hate it until they learn to use it -- especially IT pros. Oh, and developing for Metro is a snap."

Chad Kempt, founder and president of Hagersville, Ontario, Canada-based Fast Computers, was initially skeptical about Windows 8. But Kempt has used it full-time on his Lenovo T420s, which lacks a touchscreen, since the consumer preview dropped. "After acknowledging what Metro is and isn't, I've grown to like it," Kempt says. "The Metro apps themselves feel a bit pointless on my laptop, but they'll be at home on a tablet or phone. The built-in mail app supports Exchange, which is terrific, and some of the other apps are interesting," he says. "I'm looking forward to introducing it to customers. The initial reactions I get, after a brief training session on what the Start screen is, have been positive."

John Straffin, technical team lead at Duke University, believes critics are missing the primary benefit of using the Windows 8 Metro-based Start menu on a non-touch-based computer. Specifically, Straffin is referring to the ubiquity and speed of search in Metro. "Yes, finding the Start menu by placing the mouse in the lower-left corner of the Windows 8 desktop can be difficult, and swiping through multiple flat Metro screens filled with icons -- instead of navigating nested folders -- can be a pain," he says. "So why do either action? You have a keyboard. Use it! A single tap of the Windows key drops you into the Metro interface. Simply typing any part of the name of the application, setting or document you're looking for quickly filters the Metro interface, showing you anything that matches."

For example, to launch WordPad, Straffin says a user can tap the Windows key and type "wor," followed by Enter. "We don't use drill-down directory sites like the original Yahoo! anymore. We search," Straffin says. "We rarely organize e-mails into folders anymore. We search. Isn't it about time we got used to doing the same with launching the documents and applications on our computers? The technology has advanced to the point where it really does work!"

Mark O'Brien, a vice president at SpectraRep LLC, has held off on buying an iPad because he's hoping to get a closer look at systems running Windows 8. "I'm really looking forward to having a tablet that can also function as a regular PC," O'Brien says. "I'm definitely holding off on an iPad until I get a look."

So what will Gibbs do? "I can't wait to get my hands on the Surface, especially in the educational institution where I work," he says.

Yet some remain skeptical that Microsoft will be able to take Windows 8 into the next era of computing. Says Dan P. Olsen, CCP of Professional Computer Solutions Inc., "I'm contacting my bookie in Vegas and betting that Windows 8 will be the Edsel of the business desktop market."

comments powered by Disqus

Redmond Tech Watch

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.