Windows 8 is the next generation of Windows Operating Systems and a lot of hype is surrounding it and the new “Metro” interface Microsoft has developed. The biggest thing that sets it apart from earlier versions of Windows is the design and optimization for touch screen interfaces. Much has already been written about how Windows 8 performs on tablets and touch screen PC’s, but I was curious to see how it would affect most current users who still use mouse and keyboard as their primary form of input. I wanted to see how it might be received by people who aren’t computer or IT professionals and if it would be worth the $40 upgrade for the average user.

Installation:

Windows 8 SetupCredit: Screen Capture by Julien ChambersI installed a developer’s pre-release of Windows 8 on a virtual machine. The installation was surprisingly quick (less than 20 minutes) with minimal interaction on my part. One feature that is a major departure from all earlier versions of Windows is the option to use a Microsoft account to log in instead of the traditional local user account. Logging in this way connects you to Microsoft’s cloud service which allows you do some pretty cool things like synchronizing your user settings to the cloud so they follow you regardless of which Windows 8 device you're using. If you’re not interested in all that you can still create the usual local user account.

First Impressions:

Windows 8 Start MenuCredit: Screen capture by Julien ChambersAdmittedly my first impressions of Windows 8 were less than enthusiastic. While I think the Metro interface will work well for tablets, smart phones, and other touch screen devices the user interface is a nightmare for most users who will be using a traditional keyboard and mouse interface. The interface design doesn't make intuitive sense for users familiar with the traditional Start menu of earlier versions of Windows. Even a simple task like shutting down the computer took a frustrating turn as I hunted for the "shutdown" button located on a hidden menu accessed by hovering over the lower right corner of the screen.

There is a "Desktop" application that looks like the traditional Windows Desktop. Opening files yielded windows like the ones I'm used to seeing. Unfortunately the elation I was feeling was short-lived when I realized there was no Start button. Hovering the mouse over the lower left corner of the screen caused a hidden button to show up for the Start menu, which simply took me back to the original Metro screen (which is apparently now the Start menu). I still could not access the control panel or "My Computer". After a few minutes I discovered the hidden menu on the left side is different for the desktop as it is for the start menu. It has the Control Panel and a few other items, but is still not intuitive to use.

Technical Assessment:

Hidden Menu in Windows 8Credit: Screen capture by Julien ChambersFrom a technical perspective Windows 8 has a lot going for it. The initial installation of the OS was surprisingly fast. Menu response times were impressively quick, and installing a fairly substantial program (Apache's OpenOffice Suite) took almost no time at all. At first glance it seems that the overall file structure is the same as it was under Windows 7. This means technicians and system administrators should have a fairly easy time locating user profiles and other system files if they're already familiar with Windows 7.

Tablet PC and Smartphone users will find the tiled Metro interface a vast improvement over previous menu driven versions of Windows for those types of devices. The tiles are large enough to touch with a finger eliminating the need to use a stylus for accuracy. In fact, it is very obvious the user experience was designed with the touch user in mind.

Conclusion:

The purpose of this experiment was to see how Windows 8 is likely to impact the average user. I tried to place myself in the shoes of someone who had arrived at work to discover his or her computer had been suddenly updated to Windows 8. While the OS has a lot of nice technical and performance enhances over earlier versions of Windows most users will find the huge learning curve involved in this new OS quite frustrating.

The user experience is so unfriendly to the average user I am wondering if Microsoft actually took users into the equation when designing the new interface. While there is a basic tutorial that displays just after the first installation of Windows 8 it isn't helpful to anyone in, say, a work environment where someone else installed and configured the OS.

This assessment of Windows 8 is based on a pre-release version which is subject to change in the coming months up to the official release. I am hopeful some of the issues presented here will be resolved by then. At $40 for an upgrade it might be tempting to switch to the new OS, but I'm not convinced it's worth it for the steep learning curve and inevitable frustration that will come from trying to be productive in a substantially new environment.