A Mac User’s First Reaction to Windows 8

| Analysis

I have been taking a look at the current Windows 8 Developer Preview (DP). I elected to install the 64-bit version in Parallels 7 on a quad core i7 iMac with 8 GB of RAM, and that went very well. The idea was to size it up from a first-look standpoint, especially in light of Apple’s recent release of OS X Lion.

Apple customers have been in a bit of a tizzy lately talking about how Apple has introduced what it thinks are some of the best ideas from iOS into OS X Lion. I think it’s interesting that the questions of what “the best” means as well as the agenda of Apple doesn’t come into sharp contrast until you look at this new OS from Redmond. There’s nothing like comparing two OSes to put each one into proper context.

Too Many Options

Apple is famous for keeping things simple. It gives the user a feeling of self-confidence and empowerment to be able to do a few things well and not be overwhelmed by confusing options. For example, the iPad, aside from the Settings, presents a very simple user interface (UI). Touch an app, and it runs. Do your thing with the app.

By comparison, the desktop of Windows 7 or OS X Snow Leopard is an imposing place. There are so many things you can do, and for many users, especially new users, it’s hard to know where to start compared to an iPad. Here are the things you can do in Snow Leopard.

  • Click on an item in the Dock
  • Pull Down a Menu
  • Click an item in the Menu Bar
  • Double-click a disk icon
  • Double-click an item on the desktop
  • Launch the widget page from the keyboard

I’ve probably missed a few things, but you get the idea. Confronted with this array of options, many users who are new to a computer feel somewhat dazed, while old-timers just jump in, having never known anything different.

One way to approach this problem, if you agree that it’s a problem, is to introduce yet another layer of abstraction on top of the desktop. Apple did that with Launchpad in OS X Lion, and Microsoft is doing it in Windows 8 with the new Start page that has active tiles. By active, I mean the tiles are mini windows that summarize the information from the full application. For example, when you see “Denver, 72 degrees” in a tile, there’s no doubt that if you select that tile, you’ll get some weather information.

Windows 8 start

Windows 8 Start Page

More importantly, this Start page gets away from the dizzying array of options I listed above and focuses the user on just a few common tasks, like e-mail, browsing, games, weather, Twitter and so on. If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s what Apple does with the iPad, and it’s Microsoft’s philosophy about how to marry a desktop interface with its sister interface, Windows 8 for tablets. The underlying OS is the same, but tablets introduce the ability to, of course, touch the tile.

Expert Windows users will probably be outraged and insist that this is a dumbing down of the interface that keeps them from getting to work. In Apple’s case, it makes sense to think about an exponentially growing population of new users; just look at the relative sales of iPads compared to Macs. However, for Microsoft to do it, especially when the prospects for the company look like either saturation or mild decline, it gives one pause. But it’s either that or have two distinct UIs.

That all said, my first reaction to Windows 8 on the desktop was one of pleasant surprise. It was easy to get started, and it was easy to move around. I think this is especially helpful when Windows isn’t your “native language.” For example, like an ice skater in the Arctic, you can skate around on the surface of the ice, enjoying the sights and sounds, or you can cut a hole in the ice and explore the depths along with the seals. This kind of gradual exploration and learning is indeed annoying for the expert user, but I surmise that both Apple and Microsoft are setting the stage for a post-PC world and millions of new users.

Discoverability

One of things that I noticed about Windows 8 is that the movement towards an uncluttered interface tends to suppress visible navigation controls. As Mac users, we are very accustomed to an intuitive UI that suggests how to go back, drill down, and escape. Windows 8, at least in this Developer Preview, seems to think that on screen navigation controls are a nuisance. For example, on the weather page, you have to muck around pretty hard to find the “Charms” popup on the bottom left corner in order to escape. Rather than menus at the top, a bar of icons can be made to slide open at the bottom (right click) with some useful options. The evaluation of whether a menu or a right click at the bottom is better or not must be deep in the bowels of Microsoft’s user testing vaults.

Win 8 weather

Denver Weather (The water is animated)

I have another issue with discoverability plus navigation. The classic Mac OS has rather clear guidelines for how to present navigational controls and how to visually prompt the user that you can click on an item (and something will happen). On the Windows 8 Start page, which I generally like, there’s some text: “Start” on the upper left and the user name on the upper right. Both are naked text on the green background. But if I click on “Start,” nothing happens. If I click on “john.” I am presented with some options.

That idea of naked text, that is, not surround by some kind of button that suggests click on it, is an emerging theme in Windows. It’s beautiful, artistic and unnerving all at the same time. Here’s a great example from the Control Panel page.

Win 8 controls

Control Panel (Very texty, very unlike OS X icons)

Note that there is indeed a button, called “Browse” but all of that text on the left is also clickable. I am guessing that the motivation is derived from the fact that so much of what we read on the Internet is text that we click on, but even browsers have their UI methods to distinguish plain text from clickable text.

Glimmers of Creativity

Despite my observations above, I can appreciate various glimmers of creativity in Windows 8. A myriad of potential options has been replaced by the tiled Start page. The roller coaster wait-cursor is beyond cute and also mesmerizing. The effort to make menus an option cleans up the UI and adds extra room for those cases when you want to focus on just one task.

The Metro version of Internet Explorer, designed to be plug-in free, comes up by default in the DP. It’s for developer testing for tablet deployment, and if you go back to the standard display of IE in a window, you can’t get back to it except via recalling it from your recently launched apps. I have a feeling that many users may like the Metro version of IE and want to use it in that mode. One irritant, however, is that when you use the Metro mode to install new software, solid visual feedback on what’s happening is rather abstract. In other words, its informational rather than representational. Often, we like to see things go somewhere we can identify.

I liked the idea that devices have their own controls. For example, in the OS X Finder, you have a menu item to empty the trash. The menu is one corner and the trash can is far in the other corner. On the other hand, in Windows 8, you right-click the recycle bin to bring up a contextual menu. Actions for manipulating files remain in the menu bar of the Explorer. The option to shut down is on the start page. So when you start thinking like that, you realize the OS X menu bar could be made superfluous. It’s the long sought benefit of not having the app’s menu pinned to the top of the screen. But it’s not for everyone.

Bizarre UI inconsistencies

Just when you thought that the Windows 8 experience had been cleaned up, top to bottom, you realize that it’s all really just a surface enticement. The cleaner UI at first gets you going, but deep in its DNA, there still lingers some pages that are a shock by comparison. Take a look at this UI for the Explorer.

Win 8 Explorer

Explorer

When you see something like that, you realize the clean look of Windows 8 is intended to make the OS more friendly, but certain Microsoftian ideas about toolbars run deep to the bone. On the other hand, veteran users will feel right a home. There’s no pleasing everyone all the time. Still, some design aesthetics seem to be missing on a page like that shown above.

And don’t forget. OS X has its own bizarre inconsistencies. Like dragging a disc icon to the trash to eject it. Or the historic awkwardness of merely moving a file. All OSes live in their unique glass house.

Summary

This first look is not even what we would call a Quick Look review. I didn’t get into any details of the operation of the OS under the hood. I didn’t delve into security. The set of installed applications in the DP is minimal. And it’s not a finished product.

Instead, I wanted to give you a feel for what Windows 8 is all about on the desktop. Most importantly, when one sees how far Microsoft has gone in its evolution of the desktop UI, one can better appreciate the finer aspects of OS X Lion. Mission Control and Launchpad, for now, are optional. The basic elements of the Macintosh UI remain intact. The jump from Snow Leopard to Lion doesn’t seem nearly as great (to me, anyway) as from Windows 7 to Windows 8.

All in all, what we have to remember is something that the iPad taught us. Ninety-nine percent of users spend 99 percent of their time doing something of interest to them. They’re immersed in Twitter or writing a novel with Scrivener. Or they’re researching medical information on the Internet. And so, both Apple and Microsoft are discovering that a lot of the housekeeping and representational items, files and devices and disks and settings are not something that need to be constantly in the user’s face.

Modern OSes are all grown up now. They can generally take care of themselves. So the design of a modern OS, especially a mobile one, leans towards task focus rather than maintenance and visual diagnostics of the state of the OS. I can’t say I disagree with that, and I certainly see that movement in Windows 8.

Indeed, if you drill down far enough in eiher Lion or Windows 8, you get to the real nitty gritty. Modern expert users will just have to either get used to that or find ways to cut through. Given that, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction for users who just want to skate on some very thick and pretty ice. I’ve enjoyed exploring it, for starters. I’ll continue to report on it as it nears launch, perhaps in 2012.

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14 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

I have another issue with discoverability plus navigation. The classic Mac OS has rather clear guidelines for how to present navigational controls and how to visually prompt the user that you can click on an item (and something will happen).

Is Apple getting away from that? In Lion highlight a word then control-click to bring up the contextual menu. Choose “Lookup” which brings up a minimal dictionary. I miss the way that Snow Leopard would open up the Dictionary app. Now under Lion you get this short version, unless you click on the gray text of “Dictionary” or “Thesaurus” that brings up the full Dictionary app. Clicking on gray text, text that is not prominent, doesn’t seem intuitive. I found this dictionary trick by accident.

All of that aside, thanks for the first look of Windows 8. Sooner or later I will need to upgrade my PC and will be replacing it with one running Windows 8

prl53

Harry,
Before you commit to W8, I’d look deeper into John’s analysis and also check other reviews to see how much of a mess W8 really is. I had the same problem trying to get around W8. Once I clicked on one of those huge icons, I couldn’t find a way back to the home screen. When I started it up, I was presented with a screen that didn’t allow me to click to do anything. I clicked everything and it wasn’t until I simply hit a return that I got the logon screen. I’ve also heard crazy things about apps for W8. I can about guarantee that corporate and government installations won’t be using this interface for regular desktops (or tables since they’ll all have iPads). They’ll remove it and use the standard Windows desktop (probably just W7 anyway). I’ve read a lot of articles saying how nice this mess is. Look past the eye candy and it’s a really big mess. Of course, it isn’t going to be released for another year, by which time, the entire product will have changed.

Lee Dronick

I?ve read a lot of articles saying how nice this mess is. Look past the eye candy and it?s a really big mess. Of course, it isn?t going to be released for another year, by which time, the entire product will have changed.

True that. No hurry on my end, unless my Toshiba running XP croaks.

steve

You are critiquing a “Developer Preview”? The UI, including core elements like Windows Explorer are far from final.

The sole purpose of a “Developer Preview” is for a “Developer” to get a jump start on developing for that OS.

This is not RTM, RC or even a Beta.

scott

I’ve been trying to install with Parallels 7 but it keeps saying it can’t find a CD/DVD driver so it won’t go any further.  How did you get past that problem?

rosswell

Huh??

I right-click the trash to empty it in Mac OS X for like .. some years now.

I can’t trust your conclusions if you don’t know about right-mousing the trash in OS X.

Maybe you think your mouse is not capable of a right click?
Just enable it in System Preferences.

dc

It does not appear that the Aero (windows 7) interface is going to go away.  Rather users will be able to choose whether they want to use Aero or Metro.  I am thinking Aero will be the default for desktops and laptops and Metro will be the default for tablets and touch screen enabled desktops and laptops.

At least this is what I am hoping because if Metro comes up on a non touch enabled device it will be a disaster.

I would like to see Aero go away and be replace with a theme that matches Metro but in a classic Windows mode.  Right now it’s a mess going from Metro to Aero and back.

d'monder

Widows 7 on the desktop is a Windows that actually works.  MS shouldn’t mess with it.

That Windows 8 start page is truly awful.  Say I need to shoot off an email.  NOW.  What am I supposed to click on?

If (and that’s a big IF) MS had any sense, they’d leave Windows 7 as their desktop OS, and go all-out in getting their tiles and Windows 8 stuff onto a tablet.  Apple could use competition, and MS could stop making themselves the industry’s laughing stock.

webjprgm

Is Apple getting away from that? In Lion highlight a word then control-click to bring up the contextual menu. Choose ?Lookup? which brings up a minimal dictionary. I miss the way that Snow Leopard would open up the Dictionary app. Now under Lion you get this short version, unless you click on the gray text of ?Dictionary? or ?Thesaurus? that brings up the full Dictionary app. Clicking on gray text, text that is not prominent, doesn?t seem intuitive. I found this dictionary trick by accident.

Hmm, nice, I hadn’t tried that before.  I actually like that it doesn’t leave the current app to open another one.

The lookup popup may use “naked text” for the Dictionary and Thesaurus options, but on mouse over they change color, which is a well-known browser UI guideline for clickable things.  Usually clickable text in a web page is also blue, but at the very least it should change when hovered over.  So Apple has done the minimum here.

Bob

You only need to know 3 things to use Windows 8 with mouse. 1) Lower left corner is Start and Charms menu.
2) Right click mouse is Apps menu
3) Left edge of screen is previous App selection
That’s it. It’s the same for every app. It’s dead simple. It kind of helps to have a “Windows” key on your keyboard wink

Lee Dronick

The lookup popup may use ?naked text? for the Dictionary and Thesaurus options, but on mouse over they change color, which is a well-known browser UI guideline for clickable things.? Usually clickable text in a web page is also blue, but at the very least it should change when hovered over.? So Apple has done the minimum here.

That is how I discovered it, by mousing over and seeing the text change to black.

I am seeing more and more body copy on webpages in a shade of gray instead of black. Sometimes gray on a colored or lighter gray background. I like color, I am visual, but for the life of me I don’t understand why the lack of contrast.

Anyway, this minimal dictionary is fine for checking the meaning of a word, but I like to use the full app for finding synonyms, antonyms and such.

I stumbled on a few other gems in Lion.

I am very much liking the new TextEdit.

John Martellaro

Steve:  I had the full blessing and cooperation of Microsoft’s PR agency in the preparation of this first look, (not a review) including permission for screen shots.  If Microsoft didn’t want me to publish this first look, they wouldn’t not have provided technical assistance.  Plus, as I noted in the review:

“it?s not a finished product.”

Roswell: I didn’t say you couldn’t right-click to empty OS X trash. What I said was, after you start thinking in a certain way, direct actions on objects can supplant (duplicated) menus.

ipaqrat

Mr. Martellaro,

Maybe I haven’t been paying due attention, but I think this is a better than average article, exhibiting a pleasant balance of grammatical style and creative license. I found it readable enough that I could concentrate on meaning and implication, rather than on my petty irritations from poor semantics and structure.

I’m keenly interested in Windows 8 on tablets; I now own a TM2T, a slate 500 and an iPad2, and have owned Motion and HP slates ca. 2004, all of which are wanting in some respect. I wish the Newton’s load could be polished, colorized and made to run on a 7-inch iPhone… I digress.

Thanks for your… Just Thanks.

Robert Swift

I have been using the developer preview on the Samsung developer tablet for the past couple of weeks now along side my iPad. Interestingly, my iPad now feels like it is broken.  I keep trying to swipe from the left to switch my apps, and keep trying to swipe from the right to bring up the charms…funny how quickly we humans can be trained.

Actually, it isn’t really appropriate to compare the iPad and the Windows 8 tablet.  The iPad is a companion, consumption device….without a real mac or pc to pair with, the iPad is a game playing, web surfing, eBook reader.  I would never leave my laptop home and just take my iPad on a business trip….I take both.

Having used the Windows 8 tablet for a few weeks now, I realized that I could take the tablet on a business trip and leave my laptop home.  This makes the Windows 8 tablet a replacement not only for my iPad, but also for my laptop.  In this light, I think it is important to evaluate
Windows 8 differently. 

I like that I can dock my tablet and use dual displays, keyboard and mouse, but when I’m wanting to watch a movie, undock it and lay in bed watching a movie…without having to spend a bunch of time converting it through iTunes….just load the file and watch it (xvid).  Very cool transformable device.

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