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Microsoft was once the ubiquitous face of personal computing, but has mostly shluffed through the mobile revolution of the past decade. Yet, in an effort to reclaim ground, the company has just issued the most radical reimagining of its flagship OS since the Clinton administration.
Windows 8 represents the latest salvo in the once-dominant company's bid to step up into today's touchscreen-enabled, cloud-based, app-centric, mobile-friendly, poly-gadget technosphere. And the media has had a year to poke, play, and fiddle around with early incarnations of Windows 8. Now the reviews for this polished, final version of the OS are in, and they happen to be timidly glowing. But is that enough to convince you to upgrade?
Users who grew up using Windows-based systems will find in Windows 8 a very different experience. While Win 8 lacks a Start button anchored to its usual corner, it does actually still exist: it is hidden and only prompted by hovering over the lower left corner or by activating the "charm bar" on along the right side of the screen (where universal controls also manage settings, devices, sharing preferences, and search options).
In addition to the newly housed Start function, the OS consists of an array of large blocky clickable live tiles that represent various apps, adjacent to which are smaller, more traditional program icons. The live tiles are "live" in the sense that they are synced with a user's email, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. However, for those who are less connected, each of these tiles' notifications can be turned off.
This tile-centric experience had many reviewers gushing, including Mashable's Pete Pachal: "Anyone who likes push alerts on their smartphone will love live tiles, which takes that experience to the next level.... The tiles are a big part of what makes Windows 8 (and Windows Phone 8) so compelling."
Users can still run traditional PC programs (as opposed to apps), through the OS's desktop interface. But Windows 8 also boasts a part-mobile design as well. However, this duality is a "cognitive burden," says "usability expert" Raluca Budiu. Not only is this dual desktop/mobile approach to personal computing misguided, but it requires users to "remember two different interfaces. They will learn Windows 8, but won't be able to forget Windows 7."
Like the Start button in the lower left corner, all of the screen edges and corners can can be made active and house shortcuts and controls when swiped with a finger or hovered over with a mouse. Users can also swipe through various pages of tiles and files a la the Android or iOS interfaces. There's even a pinch-to-zoom feature that displays the entire Windows 8 ecosystem.
How very smartphone, right? Certainly many of these changes will take some getting used to, especially for users unfamiliar with touchscreen environments. The Verge's Tom Warren commented that, while the new UI is "as stunning as it is surprising," it still has "a steep learning curve." However, most reviewers found the interactive experience enjoyable and that which follows a certain intuitive logic. "Not being able to click on the Start button is an adjustment, but we're also confident you'll fall into a rhythm pretty quickly," commented Engadget's Dana Wollman. "After all, hovering where the Start button used to be isn't that different from clicking it, and hitting the Start key with your pinkie feels natural as well."
Meanwhile, CNET's Dan Ackerman goes on to say that the interface will be easier for touchscreen users to adapt to than for traditional mouse-and-keyboard setups, commenting that the new OS "is eventually navigable after some trial and error.... It's those non-touch users who will have the most trouble."
Overall, reviewers found Windows 8 to be a captivating experience that will indeed involve growing pains for some users. As new programs or apps make their way into the ecosystem and as hardware manufactures adapt to the hybrid touchscreen environment, we will be able to see if Microsoft's attempt for relevancy will be a Kinect-like success or a Zune-like flop.
Ready to give Windows 8 a try? We've seen a constant stream of Windows 8 laptop deals lately, including even touchscreen models, as well as the occasional discount on software upgrades. The latter is a little less frequent, so consider setting up an email alert to receive notification as soon as we post a price drop.