The Windows you know now is not the Windows of the future. Microsoft's taking a bold step in a new direction this Friday with the launch of Windows 8, an update that brings tablet-style apps in a newfangled Windows Store and replaces the traditional desktop with a grid-like "Modern" interface composed of Live Tiles for each installed program. There's no two ways around it: Windows 8 is a complete reimagining of the tried-and-true operating system. But should you upgrade to Windows 8? It depends.
Meet the new look, nothing like the old look
Windows 8's Modern interface is colorful, fun and touchscreen-friendly, tailored more for tablets than traditional computers. Windows 8 apps form the backbone of the new-style Start screen; they're written specifically for the new Windows 8 and Windows RT (for lower-powered tablets) operating systems, and they're only available through the Windows Store app. The thousands of programs available for current Windows 7 (and prior) PCs will never touch Windows 8's tiled Start screen.
If you upgrade your PC to Windows 8, you can still install classic-style programs, however. They'll appear in the new Desktop app, which looks and performs just like the desktop found on every Microsoft computer released since 1995 -- only it's missing the oh-so-familiar Start button.
How will you find Solitaire and Paint without the Start button? Head back to the Modern Start screen and just start typing the name of the app or file you're looking for. A list of results will appear out of nowhere. Once you get the hang of it, it's actually much faster than using the old-school Start button, but it also highlights a few of the major faults reviewers -- including yours truly -- find with Windows 8.
Meet the new controls, nothing like the old controls
Jumping between the Modern touch screen's Windows 8 apps and Desktop mode's classic-style interface can be jarring. Even after a year of using early Windows 8 previews on my PC, it still feels weird, and far from seamless.
That's made worse by Windows 8's touch-focused control scheme, which forces users to learn a whole new interface just to be able to get around their PC. It's a major change, and one usability expert goes so far as to claim the leap is "a cognitive burden" for users. You'll eventually overcome the steep learning curve -- my wife, my AARP-aged mother, and my third-grade daughter all have -- but it'll take a while, and even once you've got the hang of it, Windows 8's controls simply aren't as streamlined as Windows 7's when you're using a mouse.
Things get better if you have a touchscreen monitor or a laptop with a touchpad that supports multi-touch gestures, but you'll still need to get used to the new commands.
Under the hood
Windows 8's fresh coat of paint isn't the only change. Microsoft made a lot of changes under the hood, and a lot of them add a lot to the PC experience. Coding optimizations have made Windows 8's startup and wake times incredibly fast. Microsoft's move to cloud-based Windows Account logins means the look, feel, and SkyDrive-synced files on your PC will be available on any Windows 8 device you log in to. Windows 8 includes robust Microsoft Security Essentials-based security features out of the box. For geeks like me, the multi-monitor support and file manager have been tweaked and much improved.
The list goes on. DigitalTrends has a good overview of Windows 8's new features if you want a more in-depth explanation.
So should you upgrade to Windows 8?
That's enough hemming and hawing. Microsoft is offering cheap $40 Windows 8 upgrades to existing Windows PC owners (as long as you are running Windows XP or later) through the end of January. Does that make it a good idea to spend your hard-earned cash to upgrade your PC to Windows 8 right away?
If you're a casual user who just wants your PC to work, the answer's a solid NO. Windows 8 requires conquering a gigantic learning curve and it simply isn't as good as Windows 7 on a traditional desktop, as VentureBeat's Sean Ludwig elegantly explains. (Actually, he calls it "terrible.")
New operating systems also tend to suffer from driver issues in their early days. If you have no idea what that means, you probably don't want to upgrade yet. The simple act of upgrading to a new operating system may be daunting for less-technical types, as ZDNet points out, and Windows 8's benefits don't outweigh the upgrade risk for home users. The Windows Store also looks a little barren at this early stage, negating one of Windows 8's big benefits -- apps.
Hardcore, geek-type power users have a more interesting decision. Navigating the Modern interface proves less tricky using keyboard shortcuts, and the nuts-and-bolts improvements offer intriguing performance gains for enthusiasts.
If you're a frequent traveler, the cloud-connectivity is enticing, though Microsoft's SkyDrive storage service supports most major operating systems. Laptop owners whose notebooks support multi-touch gestures will find the switch easier than people who need to mouse around the OS.
If you're on the fence or think you're interested in upgrading to Windows 8, I suggest heading down to a brick-and-mortar store like Best Buy or Staples and giving the operating system a live test run. You'll know quickly whether you love it or hate it.
Me? My multi-touch laptops are getting the upgrade, though I'm strongly considering buying a hybrid-style touchscreen laptop that offers the best of Windows 8's different worlds, instead. My main desktop PC is staying Windows 7 all the way.