Monday, October 1, 2012

Should I Wait for Windows 8?

Window 8 becomes available in retail in just a little less than 4 weeks.  With computers still shipping with Windows 7 until then, and most vendors not automatically covering the $15 upgrade charge, does it make sense to buy a Windows 7 computer now, or wait a few weeks and get on with Windows 8 from the factory?

I’ve been using Windows 8 a bit here and there since the first preview release nearly a year ago, and I was given access to the final release version of Windows 8 back in August.  So I’ve had a little time with it now and have had a chance to formulate an opinion on it based on actual hands-on time rather than just by reading articles on the Internet.  I haven’t used it as my primary operating system, but I have spent quite a few hours with it.

So instead of making you read a long drawn-out article that covers every little change that has been made, let’s just get down to brass tacks.  Should you wait for a computer running Windows 8?  Let me answer that question with two of my own: Does the computer you are looking at buying have a touch screen?  And would you be happy running a tablet-style interface?  If the answer to either of these is “No” then sticking with Window 7 is likely your better option at this point in time.

But isn’t Windows 8 supposed to be the latest and greatest version of Windows?  Isn’t Microsoft betting the farm on it?  Yes, and yes.  And while they changes they have made give them the opportunity to provide the best experience on a tablet device, they’ve really sacrificed ease-of-use on computers that are still going to be used primarily with a mouse and keyboard.  The user interface they’ve created is just awkward with traditional input devices, even if it is very well designed for touch-friendly devices.

For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, Windows 8 completely ditches the Start menu that we’ve become used to since it first appeared in Windows 95 just over 17 years ago.  If you’re used to launching your software from the Start menu, you’re in for a real shock as you discover that your precious Start menu is completely gone, being replaced by an entire Start Screen with very large tiles to start your applications.  Even on a large, high-resolution monitor, you’ll only see a few dozen tiles at best.  On a smaller screen, you’ll have to scroll horizontally to find anything that doesn’t in the initial view.  And scrolling is kind of a problem… the only way to scroll efficiently on the keyboard is with the Page Up/Page Down keys (which many laptops have now abandoned), and the mouse’s scroll wheel doesn’t scroll horizontally either.  So you have to use the scrollbar at the bottom of the screen, which is a little awkward. 

Once you’ve started a traditional Windows app, the way to get back to the Start screen to launch another just isn’t apparent.  There is absolutely no visual indication on-screen for how to get back.  Only if you know to move the mouse down to the very bottom left corner of the screen can you figure out how to get back to the Start Screen from the desktop.  It’s mind boggling to me that something so necessary to efficiently use the computer has no button or other visible way on-screen to get to it.  You’ll get used to it, but it seems weird to me that Microsoft didn’t provide even a single button to navigate to the most important part of its interface.  Odd choice.

The good news is that once you’ve gotten used to the strange new interface, that Windows 8 is very fast.  There is as much of a speed improvement going to Windows 8 from Windows 7 as there was going from Vista to 7.  Yep.  It’s just that much faster.  One one of my computers, running an SSD, I was able to get Windows 8 to boot in under two seconds.  I’m not talking about waking from a sleep mode of some kind, I’m talking about a full reboot.  Once the computer got past its system check screens, and the Windows 8 logo first appeared, the login screen was visible and fully usable in under two seconds.  Most computers won’t see that kind of performance, but boot times in less than 10 seconds will be common.

Microsoft has also done a great deal to speed up performance in third party software as well.  They’ve completely revamped all of the graphics code, so everything draws on-screen much faster than it has in the past.  They’ve also done a lot of work to temporarily shut down (or at least pause) programs that run in the background so they don’t slow you down in the software that you’re actually using.  They’ve also dramatically cut back on the number of programs that have to run on the computer in the background for Windows to provide all of its standard functionality… there has been a lot of simplification and consolidation to make sure that everything you need is still there, but that it runs more efficiently.  As a result, your computer will run faster under Windows 8 than it ever has before, and that computers will perform better with less memory (RAM) than they have in the past.

The other nice thing that Microsoft has done is to drastically reduce the price of Windows 8 as compared to previous versions.  If you already have a computer running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7, the upgrade price is just $40.  If you purchase(d) a computer after June of this year, the upgrade is $15.  So if you do decide to go with Windows 8, at least it won’t cost you that much.

Bottom Line

So bottom line is… if you’re comfortable with Windows 7 and don’t want to struggle with a completely new user interface, and you aren’t going to be running it on a tablet anyway… and the computer you’re looking at buying is already plenty fast, I’d skip Windows 8… at least for now.  You could always pay the $15 to buy a license for it, but not actually install it just yet. 

As for me, I’ll be keeping one computer around with Windows 8 so I can test my software on it, but other than that I don’t plan to upgrade any of them, and I don’t have any plans to buy a computer with Windows 8 on it.

The other thing to be aware of is the new Windows RT tablets that will be available at Windows 8 launch.  It’s important to know that Windows RT is not Windows 8, and these devices cannot run traditional Windows software.  They can ONLY run Windows RT apps (sometimes also called Windows 8-style apps), so you’re talking about a completely new investment in software, very little of which will be available for a little while yet.  Try thinking of Windows RT as “Not Windows” because it doesn’t even remotely resemble the Windows you are used to.  The software you already own won’t work on it no matter how hard you try.  If you need to run Windows software on a new tablet/computer, Windows 7/8 are your ONLY options.

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