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The user interface formerly known as Metro is heavily inspired by the tile-based UIs of Windows Phone 7, the Xbox 360, and Zune HD. So, the fact that we're now faced with the Windows 8 UI on the desktop isn't completely out of the blue. Microsoft has been pushing this for quite some time.
And yet, many in the enthusiast community are up in arms, labeling Windows 8 little more than a touchscreen interface haphazardly thrown on top of Windows 7. In some ways, it is. But the real truth is that Windows 8 is very much two different operating systems, and your experience depends on how you approach it. If you want a gadget-like experience, Windows 8 is Microsoft's take on the iOS/Android model, and the fundamentals of the Windows 8 UI are exceptionally solid. But only time will tell if Windows 8 can be a player in that market. No doubt we'll be reviewing Windows Phone 8- and Windows RT-based devices to better evaluate the company's execution there. On the other hand, if you're looking for a desktop-oriented Windows experience, it's possible to work around much of what power users claim to loathe.
What the Windows 8 Desktop has over its predecessor is the updated File Explorer, revamped Task Manager, and new File History feature. However, if you're using a traditional keyboard/mouse-controlled desktop and already own Windows 7, those few features aren't worth the $200 that Microsoft's Windows 8 Pro upgrade will eventually cost. I will, however, be upgrading at the $40 promotional price. If you like what you see, now's the time to jump.
If you already have a Windows 7-based PC, I'll concede that there really are no killer reasons to upgrade to Windows 8 today. It's just not as efficient as Windows 7 for those of us slogging away with a keyboard and mouse. And I'm not so simple that switching around from an Xbox to a PC with a different user interface is going to confuse me.
Increasingly, the laptops you find on store shelves are simply going to include Windows 8. Whether that's a pro or con depends on the input hardware your mobile platform of choice sports. The two Windows 8-based Satellite laptops that Toshiba was kind enough to send over are perfect examples.
Although the Satellite S995 sells with Windows 8 installed, it's clear that Toshiba didn't design the hardware for any specific Windows 8 feature. It's equipped with a standard laptop trackpad, which is more frustrating to use than an actual mouse. So, when desktop users complain about navigating Windows 8 with a mouse, just imagine how frustrating it is with a trackpad.
On the other hand, the Satellite P845t-S4310 was clearly conceptualized with Windows 8 in mind (and I'm not just talking about its touchscreen). Using Windows 8 with the P845t's modern clickpad is an absolute dream. It turns out that you don't need a touchscreen to make Windows 8 come alive; just a touch.
I cannot stress this enough if you're shopping for a Windows 8-based notebook: clickpad, clickpad, clickpad. Windows 8 doesn't play well with old-school laptop trackpads, which suffer from jumpy, laggy gestures.
In fact, I was so impressed with the Satellite P845t-S4310's clickpad that I'm now quite anxious to try out some of the Windows 8-based multi-touch peripherals, such as Logitech's Wireless Touchpad, on my desktop. If some of these Windows 8-compatible add-ons can do for Windows 8 on the desktop what Apple's Magic Trackpad did for my OS X-based Hackintosh, I'm sold.
The difference between Microsoft's Windows 8 UI, iOS, and Android is that this latest touch-oriented operating system was clearly built for work. Think about it. Windows 8 managed to avoid the awkward text selection and copy/paste issues that more mobile-focused operating systems had in their early days. Right out of the gate you can snap apps. The on-screen keyboard splits in half for thumb typing, and the app controls are placed along the screen edges.
Windows 8-based devices are meant to be gripped, not held out with one hand and tapped on by the other. You're clearly supposed to perform a lot of input, not just consume content. After getting to use the Windows 8 UI on Toshiba's touchscreen-equipped Satellite, I'll definitely be keeping a close eye on Windows RT devices over the holiday season.
Although Microsoft would like you to think that it's creating a seamless experience across devices and form factors, it's not. Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, and the Xbox 360 are all very different platforms, and technical barriers prevent you from, say, playing Xbox games on anything but an Xbox. Windows Phone 8 is just out there on its own. Windows RT apps won't run on Windows 8 unless they're ported to Windows 8. And legacy Windows software won't run on anything except Windows 8. In fact, you can have a copy of an app in Windows 8 and be forced to buy it a second time for your Windows RT-based devices.
Update (11/03/12): We posted an addendum to this review that clarifies the relationship between Windows 8 and Windows RT from the perspectives of developers and end-users. See Windows 8: Clarifying Codecs, Compiling, And Compatibility for more.
So yeah, Windows 8 basically just replaces Windows 7. The one thing Microsoft does manage to achieve with Windows 8 (and this was really the point all along) is unifying the interface between all of those disparate pieces of hardware.
The software ecosystem doesn't facilitate compatibility between platforms, unfortunately, but the way in which we interact with those devices is basically the same. Live tiles are replacing windows. That's what's happening, and it's a big deal.
Personal technology is deeply integrated in four areas that the heavy hitters are battling to conquer: PCs, tablets, smartphones, and the TV. Apple has PCs, tablets, and smartphones. But Apple TV is a joke. Google has tablets and smartphones. Chromebooks are not PCs, and Google TV is also a joke. Only Microsoft has troops on the ground in all four theaters, and now it has a consistent user-facing experience for them all.
I have no trouble admitting that I started this story very bearish on Windows 8. But as I went, exploring each of the operating system's features, I grew to like it more and more. For all of the reasons covered in the preceding 13 500 words, we're giving Windows 8 Tom's Hardware Recommended Buy award.
Although a missing Start menu is scaring off many power users, the fact is that Windows 8 does everything Windows 7 does, plus some. If you want a familiar Windows experience on your desktop, Windows 8 makes that possible. All of the software you're used to using works the way it always has under the Windows 8 Desktop app. But Windows 8 also introduces the viability of a true touchscreen-only x86 tablet. Not the ARM-based devices currently dominating the market, but an actual PC tablet. Touchscreen-only Windows 8-based devices may very well be what many in the technology press were hoping the original iPad would be: something able to transcend the consumption model and facilitate true productivity. But because we can't give out our Best of Tom's Hardware award based on potential, Windows 8 receives our Recommended Buy honor instead.
Microsoft's latest may be called Windows 8, but it's far more than Windows 7+1. Love it or hate it, this is the biggest thing to happen to Windows since the Start menu. Hell, it might even outrank the window.