Windows 8 review: Still a two-headed beast

New 'fit and finish' enhancements in the final RTM version of Windows 8 don't ease the underlying tension between the interface formerly known as Metro and the traditional Desktop.

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The Windows Store is slowly building up its collection of apps and no longer seems as barren of goods as a Romanian grocery store during the depths of the Ceauşescu regime. The number of apps is still tiny compared to the number of iOS and Android apps available, but at least it's growing. For example, as I write this, the Productivity section has 34 apps, compared to a dozen in the Release Preview and just five in the Consumer Preview. Thirty-four apps is nothing to brag about, but it's certainly better than a dozen. One can expect that number to grow, possibly significantly, as Windows 8 nears its general release.

Surprise! The Desktop looks the same

The Windows 8 Desktop remains one of the most controversial parts of Windows 8. The Start button was eliminated, and Microsoft has worked to make sure that workaround hacks that people have developed will not work in Windows 8 RTM.

One tool that does still work, however, is the free app Start8 from Stardock. It adds the familiar Start button to the Desktop (but not to the Windows 8 Start screen), and allows you to go directly to the Desktop when you log into Windows 8. But this Start button doesn't include most of the features of the old Start button, such as quick navigation to the Control Panel or the ability to see all the apps on your PC and then run them. Still, those who do most of their work on the Desktop will be pleased to find a way to bypass the new Start screen.

Stardock Start8 app
The free Start8 app adds a Start button to the desktop, although it doesn't include most of the old Start button's features. Right-click it to see the options it offers.

One surprise is that the Desktop has not been changed at all from the Release Preview. Microsoft had previously said that there would be changes to the Desktop in the final, shipping version of Windows 8 -- notably that it (and apps that run on it, such as Windows Explorer) would abandon the familiar 3D Aero interface in favor of a flatter, sleeker look.

Although the Release Preview made some steps in that direction, eliminating the "glass" look and introducing windows with squared-off edges, a blog post from Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the Windows 8 User Experience team, made it sound as if more changes were coming: "While a few of these visual changes are hinted at in the upcoming Release Preview, most of them will not yet be publicly available. You'll see them all in the final release of Windows 8!"

However, I have been able to detect no changes in the RTM's Desktop UI. Since the RTM code is what will ship with new Windows 8 computers this fall, the changes we already saw in the Release Preview are apparently as far as Microsoft intends to go.

The bottom line

In its final version, Windows 8 remains a dual operating system, one designed for tablets and one designed for the Desktop, with few links between the two. Used on a tablet, it represents an excellent alternative to iOS and Android, with an information-centric approach to user experience, rather than an app-centric one.

Used on a PC, though, it's a mixed bag. Traditional computer users will find some Windows 8 apps useful. But they'll likely be frustrated by having to spend more time on the Windows 8 Start screen than they want, and will in particular be unhappy about how the Desktop has been made less useful with the elimination of the Start button.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is making a bet that it can please both tablet users and traditional computer users with a single OS. That bet didn't pay off for me. On a tablet I find it an excellent operating system. On a traditional computer, it doesn't work nearly so well.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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