If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably seen my opinion of Windows 8 vary greatly throughout the operating system’s development cycle. I was initially happy with many of the enhancements due to be introduced with Windows 8, like the OS Reset and Refresh features, streamlined multi-monitor support, revamped CHKDSK tool, and integrated virtualization technology, among many others. I was turned off, however, by Microsoft’s decisions to remove the grace period from most versions of Windows 8, the removal of Aero effects, and of course the elimination of the Start menu in favor of the modern UI, formerly known as Metro.
The elimination of the Start menu in particular stuck in my craw. Microsoft has taken a lot of heat for trying to produce a "one size fits all" operating system that behaves similarly on tablets and desktop systems, which is a fair criticism. I understood what Microsoft was trying to do with the new UI and read all 11,000+ words in the Building Windows 8 blog post explaining the decision to remove the traditional Start menu to force what was then called Metro on all users. But that decision made little sense to me. Metro was such a radical departure from the norm, and was so obviously designed for smaller touch-screens, that it sent me (and many others) into a tizzy. All Microsoft had to do was give users the option to boot to desktop mode and leave the traditional Start menu in place for desktop users and many of the complaints regarding Windows 8 would have never materialized. But that’s not the path Microsoft chose.
Regardless of my fear that Windows 8 would ultimately be a poor choice for desktop systems, I decided to take the plunge, build myself a new rig and dive into Windows 8 head first. If I was to write about the OS in various capacities, I felt I should be using it every day for work and play. So, I retired my Windows 7 system and started fresh with Windows 8.
Before I discuss some of my experiences with Windows 8, let me talk a bit about the installation and hardware compatibility. The Windows 8 installation is about as easy as it could possibly be. Start the installer, choose your destination, answer a few simple questions and Windows 8 is ready to use in just a few minutes on a fast system. Although I used cutting-edge hardware (Intel Core i7, X79 chipset, dual NVIDIA GPUs, and multiple solid state and hard drives in various RAID configurations), the only hardware issue I ran into had to do with a Creative Labs sound card. The default Windows 8 driver worked fine, but when I installed the latest beta driver available from Creative Labs’ site, the system stopped playing audio. There were no errors per say, but I had no sound, so I had to revert back to the included driver for now.
Once my machine was configured and fully updated, I got around to installing all of my most commonly used applications and didn’t run into any issues. I had made the effort to download the latest editions prior to my move to Windows 8, however, which most likely helped. The only weirdness, at first, was finding all of the application shortcuts. There is a definite learning curve navigating the new Windows 8 UI. Finding some things requires a right-click to bring up the All Apps menu and navigating through a screen full of icons. Now that I’ve begun getting used to the new UI and exploiting some if its features, like quick keyboard searches and grouped/named columns, I’m finding it easier to navigate than the old Start menu. You can still have all of your favorite apps launch with Windows, transparently in the background in desktop mode, but if I need an app its tile is right there in the new UI. If you didn’t place something on the Start screen and decide you need it, though, you can just start typing its name and it’ll immediate come up in the search results. Conversely, if you’re already in desktop mode, simply hit the Windows key and then start typing. For me, it ends up being faster than opening the Start menu, navigating to all programs, and finding a shortcut.
The underlying OS itself is also much snappier than Windows 7 in many ways. Boot up, shutdown and wake from hibernation are all significantly faster than Windows 7. Windows 8 also used less memory, less disk space, and includes less bloat overall. The updated task manger is also vastly better than older versions of Windows, as is file handling. Moving files to and from NAS devices is also much better, thanks to more informational windows that show real-time performance data. You can also pause and resume transfers of files if the need arises. Game performance is virtually identical to Windows 7, thanks mostly to mature graphics drivers on NVIDIA’s part. Application performance, similarly, is excellent.
It has only been a couple of weeks since I took the plunge, but at this point I’m happy I did. Windows 8’s new UI is not going to please everyone, but I have adapted relatively quickly and have even begun to enjoy some of the features. Getting news and weather reports from Windows 8’s live tiles as I start my day is handy and one-click access to applications is also a plus, even if I think the interface is overly colorful. The speed improvements and underlying enhancements are there, however, and made learning the new interface worthwhile in my opinion. Unless I stumble across some glaring problem with Windows 8 that has yet to reveal itself, I have no intentions of ever moving back to Windows 7.
Marco Chiappetta is a freelance journalist specializing in PC and consumer device hardware reviews. Or in his words, Marco is a "self-confessed keyboard geek." In addition to covering Microsoft for Network World, Marco's work also appears in PC World and he is an editor at Hothardware.com.