Review: Windows 8
The new Microsoft Surface tablet running Windows 8. Photo: AFP
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It's called Windows 8, but it might be simpler to think of it as Windows 7 + 1. Underneath everything you'll see at first is the same Windows that anyone who has been using Windows 7 since October 2009 is used to seeing.
But it's that +1 that you'll see first - and that's where, for many people, the surprise may start. Microsoft has completely rethought the initial experience - the process by which we start interacting with a computer when its screen comes on - and replaced the "desktop" with a series of large tiles which you swipe (with a finger or mouse) from side to side. "Modern UI", as it's called, involves big tiles without the fussy Close or Minimise or Maximise buttons.
I've been using the final version of Windows 8 for a couple of months on a Samsung tablet. After a while, the new version feels relaxing; natural, even.
The Start screen, as Microsoft calls it, consists only of those big tiles, and completely replaces the desktop you first see on Windows. That old Windows desktop is still there, it's just hidden one layer down, and if you want to jump down into it there's a perfectly good fireman's pole in the form of a tile called Desktop. Click or touch that, and you're in Windows 7.
The Start screen houses whatever you want it to on those tiles - which can be "live", so the weather tile shows the forecast, the mail tile shows the mounting unread toll, your calendar tells of the next meeting ... it's a helpful, innovative experience. You can "pin" Windows apps to the start screen, and you can also download free or paid apps from the built-in Windows store.
Using Modern UI apps does take some getting used to. It's a minimalist experience which does away with the clunky windows and scroll bars of the "old" Windows. The screen is filled with whatever you're doing, whether it's Internet Explorer, or the "social" app (which ties together your social networks in one place), or the mail app, the whole thing takes up all of the screen. There is a neat system that lets you view two windows at once – a second one can be dragged in from the right, and then takes up roughly one-fifth of the screen; you can't do that with an iPad. However, two is all you get; you can't pull in another window and have three apps in view.
The control buttons are hidden, and the navigation to get you around the rest of the system - back to the Start screen - is squirrelled away off the right-hand side of the screen.
But it's around this point that the "+1" nature of this all gets slightly uncomfortable. If, for example you want (for some reason) to change the date on your computer, you won't be able to do it in the big Modern UI tiles. You'll have to take the fireman's pole down to Windows 7. And there it's all suddenly ... the same again. It's like Bobby stepping out of the shower in Dallas. All those Close, Minimise, Maximise buttons. Title bars on windows. Resizing. All that stuff you've been doing since Windows 3.1.
You'll find that Windows 8 - or 7+1 - runs quicker, more securely, and much more like the operating systems we're used to on tablets and smartphones, which are themselves becoming the principal way people do computing.
So for Microsoft, Windows 8 is a huge leap forward - and yet it's doing it while holding all the baggage of the "old" Windows.
Expect some cries of pain as people adjust. However, viewed more broadly, it couldn't do anything else: the desktop paradigm is getting tired, and the tiles approach is fresh and quickly becomes intuitive. That Windows 8 will be a huge hit is a given. What will be fascinating to watch is how it is received.
The Guardian, London