Where to start? I have been trying to change the habits of a computing lifetime in a trial run with a new version of Windows on a laptop. The start button has always been central to my computing experience, like the ignition key in a car. Remember Windows 95? At the bottom left of the screen sat a Windows symbol and the word “Start”. Microsoft even pointed the way with the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” in its commercials.
Start is still there in the current Windows 7 – run your cursor over a circular logo and the word “Start” pops up. Click it and the familiar menu appears.
But Windows 8 has left me disoriented – the Start button has disappeared. I have been trying the Consumer Preview of the new operating system (OS), which anyone can download ahead of its full release later this year.
In the context of the challenges to the established order of computing on a desktop PC or laptop, this is the most crucial release yet of the dominant OS.
Understanding the new version is easier if you are used to smartphones or tablets, which indicates how topsy-turvy things are in this post-PC world Apple likes to talk about, where our daily computing seems to start on those smaller, more mobile devices.
Windows 8 is the first combined version of the OS. It is designed for both tablets and regular PCs, and for the first time is compatible with ARM-based processors, which dominate the smartphone and tablet world, as well as the usual Intel chips.
I can understand Microsoft has to hedge its bets on the future of devices and has been slow to respond to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android as tablets and smartphones have taken off. But it risks being increasingly irrelevant if it fails to come up with a better way of working for us across both worlds.
In trying to cater for the two experiences, Microsoft risks not doing the best of jobs for either category. That was certainly the case in my early trial.
There is no easy way of putting the Consumer Preview on a tablet right now and most screens are not optimised for it. While I dabbled with Splashtop’s Win 8 Metro Testbed app, which mimics Windows 8 on an iPad, I ended up installing the OS on an Asus Zenbook X31E laptop provided by Intel as a sample of the new thin ultrabook category it is promoting.
Unfortunately, this has an awful keyboard that kept missing letters as I typed. Worse still for Windows 8, its trackpad was unable to mirror key touch gestures of the operating system, such as swiping up and down. The lack of specific driver software for the Asus may be to blame, but it contrasted sharply with the gestures I can use smoothly on the trackpad of a MacBook Air in Apple’s operating system.
Windows 8 opens with a start screen rather than a start button. It is a mosaic of coloured tiles representing different options, applications and information services. Typically these are for photos, music, videos, games, books, shopping, social network messages, weather, stock prices, maps and services such as email, calendar and remote storage.
This “Metro” interface will be familiar to users of Windows Phone 7 smartphones. Its big square buttons can be pushed easily by fingers, in contrast to the menus and lists we are used to accessing with a mouse. While the tile mosaic can be personalised, it looked confusing – like sitting down at a desk covered with papers, rather than a clean desktop.
Microsoft seems to assume people want these distractions of tweets, headlines and stock information when they sit down at a computer. In practice, I prefer this on a mobile device when I am on the go and catching up with things.
Another problem is that bringing Windows 8 fully to life in the way Microsoft envisages – the tiles are “live”, showing current information – requires the user to sign up for its services, such as Windows Live, Xbox Live, SkyDrive and Hotmail.
I found I could get to a clean, familiar Windows desktop by clicking on one of the tiles, but then finding my applications without the Start button was a problem.
A new feature called Charms – pop-up sidebars – was little help either. These are context-sensitive, so they offer features such as search that are pertinent to what you are doing at the time rather than the global overview that Start provides.
I finally got my bearings when I found that right-clicking in the bottom left of the screen in the tiled Metro view brought up a bar with a view of “All Apps”, a full screen list of every program and service.
Many users have criticised the complexity of navigating Windows 8’s radical look, and this is clearly getting in the way of appreciating its new features. In trying to be post-PC, Microsoft is in danger of leaving behind the needs of traditional users.
Take your desktop on the road: apps bring Windows favourites to tablets
• CloudOn (iPad, free)
Windows 8 is expected to be accompanied by a version of Microsoft’s Office specially designed for touch and tablets. But there are already ways to use this familiar suite on mobile devices. CloudOn’s free iPad and Android app allows online connection to authentic versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint for creating and editing documents in the cloud. They can be saved and opened from online storage services Dropbox and Box. The menus, though small, respond accurately to touch.
• OnLive Desktop (iPad, Android, free)
OnLive is known for its console-quality cloud gaming, but its new Desktop app serves up a touch-enabled Windows 7 desktop on Android tablets and the iPad with Word, Excel and Powerpoint icons to tap and open fully featured programs.
Others are also provided, including Paint, Calculator, Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader. OnLive offers 2Gb of free storage for your files, while monthly subscription plans offer more space and faster speeds.
• Splashtop Win 8 Metro Testbed (iPad, $49.99)
Splashtop apps offer remote control of a desktop PC or laptop and this pricey Win 8 Testbed version requires you first to install the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 on one of your machines. You then access it remotely, with the iPad app giving a full-screen view of your desktop, effectively turning the iPad into the Windows 8 tablet yet to appear in stores. Splashtop has enabled touch, meaning tapping on Windows tiles and swiping rough menus transforms the experience.