Should You Step Up to Windows 8?

Huzzah! After 3 years of development, Windows 8 is finally here.

As someone who used to work at Microsoft, I want to congratulate everyone involved – I know firsthand just how hard it is to ship an operating system.

These days, I’m the editor of eHow’s Tech channel, and I’m here to tell you that Microsoft’s latest creation is a bit of a mixed bag.

Usually, the decision to upgrade from whatever version of Windows you have to the newest one is pretty easy. The move from Windows 98 to Windows XP was a no-brainer, for example, as was the upgrade from Windows Vista to Windows 7. But Windows 8 isn’t so cut-and-dried. You probably have heard some of the controversy about the new user interface – for the first time since about 1995, using a new version of Windows requires a significant learning curve. But since you can now buy it (either on its own, so you can upgrade your existing PCs, or as part of a new computer), I thought we should look at some of the pros and cons of the new OS.

Pro: It’s really cheap. Microsoft has never been especially shy about how it prices Windows upgrades. When Windows 7 was released, for example, it cost about $200 to upgrade from XP or Vista. Windows 8? You can download it for just $40 (or $70 to buy it in a box). That’s quite a deal.

Con: The user interface is radically changed. Windows 8 has a new “modern” interface, which most people agree is fun to use. But it’s optimized for touch devices – slates that are like the iPad – and the jury is still out on how awesome it is on a regular desktop or laptop. Personally, I can attest to how cool it is to use Windows 8 on a slate, though I am far less impressed when I use Windows 8 on my computer back in the office. It’s not that it’s bad or hard to use… it just feel like it doesn’t belong there. Windows 8 begs to be touched, not moused.

Pro: The desktop is still there. And it has even gotten a bit of a facelift. The familiar desktop hasn’t gone anywhere, despite what you might have heard, and you can still do all the stuff you used to do with all the programs you’re used to. Some features have even been improved; Explorer folders, for example, now have convenient ribbons just like WordPad, Paint, and Microsoft Office.

Con: It’s schizophrenic. Like I said, the desktop is still there, but it now competes with the new modern UI. Modern apps only work in the modern UI, and old-style desktop programs only run on the desktop. That means you’ll spend time in both places and have to switch back and forth between the two. It reminds me of when I had to run programs both in DOS and on the primitive desktop back in the earliest days of Windows. You certainly get used to using both interfaces, but it can be frustrating.

Pro: The Windows Store makes it easy to get new apps. The Windows Store is a store – like Apple’s store for the iPhone – built right into Windows where you can download and install modern apps. If you’ve gotten addicted to trying new apps for your phone, then you’ll love doing it for Windows. Even better: the Windows Store lets you try apps, something you can’t do on your iPhone or iPad.

Con: The modern experience feels limited. Modern apps tend to run only at full screen (though you can run two apps at once, with one app taking up two-thirds of the screen and the other app occupying the remaining third). That’s a cleaner and simpler way to work, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are no Explorer folders in the modern world, for example – you can’t drag and drop files or leave a document you’re using lying around on the modern desktop, because there is no modern desktop. Working in the modern half of Windows 8 is a lot like using an iPad in that sense, and as modern apps become more common and desktop programs fade away, using the PC will start to feel like you’re working in an oversized iPhone. Some people might like that, but geekier folks who have a Serenity poster on their wall or who lust after a replica Portal gun – like me – will mourn the loss.