So after all the waiting I finally went out and bought a tablet. It's the Asus Vivotab 810C. It's a transformer tablet with a keyboard with extended battery life (something like 19 hours apparently). The processor is the Intel Atom Z2760 an 1.8 GHz dual core that being x86 compatible allows my tablet to not just use Windows Store apps but be a full fledged Windows legacy machine. But I'm not really here to talk about the computer. Most of this will actually be about my experiences with Windows 8 on a Desktop computer.
In fact I've been using Windows 8 since the Consumer Preview came out last February on my desktop. Not as hardcore of those who grabbed the Developer Preview over a year ago but I've gotten quite a feel for it. However, using it on a desktop is only half the story. Mind you it only took a single day with a touch-based device to really put everything in perspective. Now if you've read anything I've written before you know I've been heralding the move to touch-based computing and tablets in general for over a decade now. I've just been waiting for a point when the capabilities would be that we could replace our typical computing devices. As excited as I was by iOS and the iPad I don't believe this has been really true until now with the advent of Windows 8. If Apple had made the move with MacOS I might have been forced to put up the cash and go for it. However, not too common in this company's history, Microsoft actually got here first in what might be considered the riskiest move they've made in ages.
And it has been risky. The critics of Windows 8 are many, and while at first I sympathized I can't get over how narrow minded and plain ignorant the comments are. Still I do have to recognize I am coming at this from a very fundamental viewpoint which doesn't take into consideration nearly enough the specific cases people are having issues with. I mean I haven't even been able to convince my girlfriend to make the upgrade and I feel that is the boat most people are in. The classic desktop aspect of Windows 8 is pretty much identical to Windows 7 except just that tiny bit faster. They basically took Windows 7 and slightly improved it. Visually they got rid of the whole glass Aero look and replaced it with simple pastel blue and reds and a more minimalist (less outlines) look. It's not a big change and to me feels less tacky but that is a matter of taste. No the division point is the lack of Start Menu. From the desktop perspective this is a big blow, but I think the people who are most effected by this are the same people who never really embraced Windows 7 (and likely Windows Vista).
The Death of the Desktop
So let's talk a bit about the evolution of Windows. As a power desktop user (different from a system admin type power user) I got very used to linking commonly used apps to my Taskbar much before Windows 7 came around. The reason was simple, clicking Desktop Icons is a pain when you have a bunch of windows open and finding specific programs in the Start Menu was equally painful. Of course Windows Start menu evolved to show your most used programs which made things easier but by the time Windows 7 came along I found that the only time I ever used the start menu was to trigger typing a search. The room on the Taskbar exceeded the recently opened program list, and the Windows 7 Taskbar allowed increased functionality with right clicking. As I said my Desktop has been clear too since the advent of Windows Vista, Windows finally had a proper user folder structure(much like you find on Unix based systems) where saving files in an organized way made sense. From a modern computing standpoint we consider saving files directly to the C: drive bad form, and Vista also made it so that saving files in the Program Files directory bad form as well. The end result even though it caused a lot of pain is our computers are more organized and more secure.
Vista actually was a huge step forward for Windows and while widely regarded as a failure was one of the most fundamentally important things to happen to Windows along with Windows 95, and Windows 8. The problem with Vista was only minutely Vista's problem. It was a bit awkward to navigate for sure, but the real problem was Microsoft overestimated it's 3rd party device/software makers, and it's user base. The reason we got all those stupid "Are you sure you want to do that?" messages was that programs and device drivers were still being written in unsecure ways and Vista was asking if you wanted to compromise your computer's security. Similarly users felt lost, only because Microsoft was forcing them to adhere better file structures. It isn't that MacOS was simpler to use necessarily or PC users less intelligent but that there was nothing in place previously to prevent the formation of bad habits, and Windows users had some of the worst. When Windows 7 came out it was considered a savior but it was really 90% Vista. It took 2 years for people to understand Vista was the best thing that happened to their PC. Much like with a stubborn little kid instead of trying to convince them they were wrong, it was better just to convince them it was their idea all along.
With WIndows 8 a different paradigm shift is happening and it isn't just the change to touch interfaces. It's the death of the Desktop. Once you realize this the fact there is no Start Menu makes a lot of sense. The difference between a launch Screen and launch Menu is really only a matter of screen real-estate and access. It is only in the desktop experience that you need to share the screen, and have an anchor on the current screen view. If applications are making use of the full screen why would the application launcher not make similar use, since it clearly could use it. It's not like it's any less useful. For those clinging to their classic desktop feel, you pop up your Start Screen(Press the Start key on your keyboard) and start typing and it is very reminiscent as it automatically starts searching. Is rolling the scroll bar on your mouse or making a gesture on your trackpad any more difficult than than navigating through menus and sub-menus in the Start Menu. And as I said before who really uses the start menu with the great Windows 7 Taskbar. You don't see Mac users lamenting their lack of Start Menu they've never had. It's because an active taskbar based system is quite flexible and powerful. In fact if you hover over where the Start Button used to be and right click you get the admin menu where you can access stuff like Control Panel. The Start Menu is basically completely obsolete and this new replacement does everything it could and more better if you so wish. But I'd argue even so this is a very backwards way of looking at things.
How often are you really not maximizing the application you are working on? The most fundamental aspect of computing interface currently is that we work on single panes at a time. Whatever has input focus is where we type. If we select something with the mouse, it is where we are currently working. I may have multiple programs open at the same time but generally unless I'm doing some sort of comparison, consuming some sort of media, or using some sort of communication program I don't need more than one visible program at a time. And pretty much never more than 2. And honestly even 2 is often a stretch. I mean you can watch a video while typing up a report but full screening the video is a much better experience most of the time. I didn't realize this fact at first until I realized how I never used the max and min buttons anymore. It might just be because Windows snap is so effective. You just grab the title bar and pull the window to the top and it maximizes and then pull it off the top and it restores. And if you stretch the window to an edge it expands the full screen on that axis.
So if the desktop remains mostly blank, the start menu is not very important to the desktop experience given the power of the Windows 7 Taskbar, and you really aren't viewing more than 2 Windows at a time generally why even bother with the Desktop? It's obvious to support legacy software and the Windows 8 Environment is still a bit of a work in progress. But on a whole as an approach to computing the Desktop has truly become antiquated.
A Tale of Two Computers
Right now I have 2 computers running Windows 8. A classic desktop with mouse/keyboard and a 24 inch monitor, hooked into a TV via HDMI, and a 11 inch Tablet with watcom stylus, and optional Keyboard dock. I'm going to run over my specific experience with each platform and how they contribute to the Windows 8 Experience. Both are set up quite a bit differently although they are both completely capable Windows machines. The desktop is set up to primarily use the classic desktop feel, while the tablet is setup to use the new Windows 8 feel where it can.
The desktop machine serves as my primary home machine. I play my games on it, and play content on my TV from it whether movies and TV shows, or video games I'm running off my computer. The computer isn't touch capable so everything is mouse and keyboard. Things like my internet browser launch in Desktop mode on this computer. I have to admit I don't spend much time in the modern interface on this machine although I do have them as my default Media players. As I said before going full screen is intuitive and useful. I would actually prefer to use the Modern version of every app if I could other than File managers. I actually prefer the Windows 8 experience to the Desktop Experience on this computer. Using the mouse to close and move Windows is just as intuitive as using snap on the legacy desktop. There are 2 things preventing me from using the modern architecture to the full extent. The first is a lack of good Windows 8 App support. It will take some time but for many apps I need to use the legacy versions. If they offered an modern version I'd be all over it (think about that app developers). This will take time but I'm sure within a year or so we will start to get there. It's troubling that Microsoft themselves haven't completely made the switch. Even with things like Visual Studio or Office. However maybe they don't have to be so stringent on the Modern look. Google Chrome in Windows 8 is one of my favorite apps and it keeps the desktop look flexibility even when running in the modern environment. There will probably be a happy medium. Windows 8 has shared Context Menus but they need a bit of work to provide the flexibility that the ribbon bar menus have in the desktop.
The second problem is much more of a pain for me and probably my biggest gripe with Windows 8. The dual monitor support sucks. It doesn't suck exactly, but it isn't made for multitasking. It isn't that you can't work around it but you are basically forced back into traditional desktop usage. You can only have 1 screen at a time run the modern interface. Some people comment on how the Desktop appears like an App on the Start Screen. Don't kid yourself. The Desktop view is the default for this OS with modern built on top. So if you use the video player to play a movie and pull it over to your 2nd screen as soon as you go to use the Start Screen on your primary monitor the movie closes and the start screen shows up. It isn't that the movie actually closes it's that the modern interface was yanked off your 2nd monitor on to your first. Now if the Devices tab worked ideally in Windows 8 you could just assign the Video App to the 2nd monitor, but we aren't there yet. Even if you avoid the Start Screen it means I can't view any modern app while trying to play a video on the other screen. Of course I can always just not use the modern video player but you see the problem. This encourages you to not use these modern apps from the Windows Store.
Those 2 issues aside though I definitely feel that it won't be long before there is no need for the desktop environment at all even on a typical desktop computer. When the core admin functions can be ported to modern (like Command Prompt, Control Panel, various Admin panels) the whole desktop experience won't be needed. Even using Windows 8 for a few weeks it becomes clear just how much easier it is to work with the modern apps. Simple intuitive gestures even with the mouse makes it very easy to navigate, and the benefit of fully utilizing your display should not be underrated. Anyone remember the first time they used Google Chrome and how open it felt. This is the same thing even more so. The difference between clicking the X in the corner and moving your mouse to the lower edge of the screen to select a new program and dragging a window to the bottom of the screen to close it are about on par. The use is just simple and intuitive.
Now the tablet is a completely different experience. I knew it would be as this is what WIndows 8 is made for, but I didn't really appreciate it after using the Surface for a few mins at a Microsoft kiosk in Metrotown. It's completely different when you have true access to all the desktop and access to the keyboard. Truthfully after using the keyboard I just wanted to pack it up. Using the finger or the stylus was so much better. Unless I was intending to write something (like this post) or a program I'd likely just use the built in one. It's perfectly fine for typing 500 word emails etc.. I mean I've typed a 2000 word forum post on an iPhone before. It isn't the lack of keyboard I find annoying but the lack of space to be able to see what you've written. And attempting to navigate further up to edit etc.. this isn't a problem on the tablet. I almost wonder if buying the keyboard was a waste of money. You really notice it when you just want to short cut by touching the screen instead of trying to use the mouse and trackpad (even with the gestures).
I was concerned navigating the desktop by touch would not be pleasant either. It wasn't the best and the stylus was definitely better for it, but not having to bother with the keyboard was definitely worth it. The general tablet experience was good. Since I only have the one screen to worry about going full modern on the apps was no problem and the experience is much more solid. You feel like the Desktop is just an after thought and you can live in this brave new world. Honestly I have almost no complaints with the OS on a tablet. Obviously it would prefer more modern app support so it would never have to go to the desktop but any Windows 8 machine would in my opinion. It isn't that the desktop experience is bad, but rather once we free ourselves from it everything will run so much smoother.
I've been pretty impressed with Windows 8 so far. It requires a shift in how we view computing but it's a good one. Until we get to a point where computing is fundamentally multi-user and component driven this sort of approach to a OS seems the right choice. Still the experience could use some improvements not only with the apps but with the peripherals. Multi-screen support needs work. This is an area that needs work in general. We have stuff like PlayTo using DLNA but it needs to be much tighter integrated with the OS itself including over wireless protocols. Not just for selection for the machine but on a per application basis as we leave the classic desktop.
It also became clear to me Windows 8 was not designed for Laptops. This OS sucks on trackpads that don't support the gestures. I think this might be the real killer, since a lot of people use laptops these days. If I were to give the Tablet Experience about a 90% right now and the Desktop Experience about 80%, the Laptop experience would be like a 60%. Ultimately I think this is why I haven't been able to convince my girlfriend to upgrade. If you've read my writing before you know I've pretty much always considered Laptops the worst form factor and represent a complete backwards way of how computing should go (ie, take everything with you versus take what you need). I've never bought a laptop purely on principle (although I've used them for work and there is a convenience factor). I believe while the first impression would be to blame the OS for the shortcomings, I think we probably should blame unintuitive form factor and move on and let laptops go extinct. Mind you for those with Trackballs Windows 8 probably won't be nearly as bad and be the same as the desktop experience.
The final thing I want to say is that having used Windows 8 in both environments and with the tablet getting a glimpse of what a Desktop less full functional computer would look like, there is one area that severely needs better apps on all touch based devices and OS's. File Managers are absolutely horrid. It doesn't matter if you are using iOS, Android, or Windows 8. This hasn't been as much of an issue until now but it will be increasingly so. It isn't that I find myself using advanced options that much. It's that it's the one application where you really do benefit from having multiple instances of the same program open and visible at the same time. Current File Managers are reminiscent of the File Open Dialog where you can navigate through folders to find files. You select files and perform actions on them. It's about as fun as doing file copy's in DOS. Atleast in DOS if you knew the path you could just type it in. The current File Managers work like that on modern OS' but you can open up multiple side by side on the desktop. Another problem is that with Touch Based interfaces there is always a bit of conflict between navigation and manipulation since it tends to work on the single click versus double click opens premise. There needs to be easy ways to multi select items and even if doesn't make sense to have 2 unique panes open, that the main app look more like the classic File Manager where you can access the full folder tree and the contents of a specific folder at the same time. Then copies and moves can be as simple as drag and drop. I don't know how that looks in the Modern UI or any touch OS's UI since it's a lot of information on one screen but it is currently by far the biggest argument for the desktop I think. And none of the modern touch OS' are good enough at it yet. Whoever breaks this for Windows 8, will probably have the best App for the platform period.