Windows 8: beautiful but bewildering

Microsoft is betting big on an operating system that tries to serve every kind of computing device. But there is a chance that Windows 8 might end up satisfying no one.

Does Microsoft risk confusing consumers with an operating system that tries to serve every kind of computing device and may end up satisfying no one?  With its dual- interface, dual-purpose, dual-processor, mixed-up thinking, Windows 8 is a pushmi-pull­yu, half-man, half-biscuit, weird and occasionally wonderful creation that is guaranteed to bewilder - at least initially.

And that’s just the Microsoft end of the operation. The hardware makers have responded with their own Whirligig 8 - sorry, Windows 8 - of swivelling, swinging, sliding and snapping hybrid devices that veer from tablets to notebooks. Everyone is trying to cover everything while they wait to see what we consumers will go for. Meanwhile, Google and Apple tried to steal Microsoft’s thunder this week with updates to devices promoting their own operating systems - notably the iPad mini and a cheaper version of the Chromebook laptop.

I used two dev­ices to write this column: first, the Toshiba Portégé Z935 Ultrabook, a fairly standard laptop running the new operating system; and Microsoft’s shape-shifting Surface - a tablet with notebook pretensions.

With the laptop, I instinctively started off tapping on the screen before remembering it was not a touchscreen laptop. And that hints at a problem. Microsoft thinks Windows 8 will cope with the ever fuzzier distinction between smartphones, tablets and PCs. But combining everything could just be confusing and risks driving consumers towards Apple devices that, in contrast, have an admirable clarity of purpose.

For a start, Microsoft is offering two very different interfaces within Windows 8 - the usual Windows desktop and a tiled-button screen users touch, tap, pinch, click, swipe or scroll.

Then there are two versions of the operating system: one for computers using x86 processors, commonly made by Intel, and another called Windows RT that works with ARM-designed processors, which have dominated smartphones and tablets. You cannot install your Windows 7 or earlier programs on the Windows RT version.

I have been trying out Windows 8 for a while, by upgrading Windows 7 machines with pre-release versions. Inevitably, there were bugs: brightness and volume controls froze and trackpads could not handle the sideways scrolling gestures for the tiled interface. So I would urge anyone thinking about switching to be very cautious in upgrading your existing PC to Windows 8 unless you back up everything and check out compatibilities beforehand.

A new way of working

Then there is the big question of whether the new way of working is worth learning. I have not had such a big jolt since I switched from MS-DOS to Windows 3.1 two decades ago.

As I have written before, the first sign that things are really different is the disappearance of the traditional desktop from the initial view, apart from a button that takes you to that familiar - but hidden - environment.

I do like the tiles of the “Modern” initial user interface. They can be customised and dragged around, apps can be added from the store and they have a live look because of the way the weather, sports scores, stock prices and social updates show up. But while this look was appealing on a tablet, on the laptop it seemed like clutter getting in the way of work.

Another difference to hit users will be using these apps in full-screen mode rather than as part of a desktop. Having said that, it can be pleasant using touch gestures such as those that let you zoom in or out with a pinch or spread of the fingers.

There are also fresh gestures to learn to reveal new menus and choices that come out from the side, the top, the bottom and the corners. If you do eventually get to the desktop, you discover that the most familiar menu of all - Start - has gone.

On the Toshiba, there was a disturbing tendency for the screen to split into two views or bring up a big clock and a “charms” menu bar the moment I made a wrong move on the trackpad. So I attached a glass trackpad accessory - Logitech’s Touchpad T650 ($79.99, £69.99) - to make my finger swipes more ac­curate. I also regularly use the Windows key on the keyboard to switch between the desktop and the tiled home screen if I get lost. Toshiba, with some foresight, has also provided Desktop Assist, which mimics the old Start button and its menu.

Scratching the Surface

I have now switched to writing on the Surface, specifically designed to showcase Windows 8’s features.

The tablet has a built-in kickstand and I have snapped a Touch Cover accessory ($119.99, £99.99 in the UK) on to it, which has an integrated keyboard. Despite the Surface’s keys being moulded into the cover it works surprisingly well, if a little shakily, on my lap.

For $10 (£10) more, there is a Type Cover with keys that resemble a more conventional keyboard, but which make the cover flex more. However, the kickstand is not adjustable and my chin is nearly in my chest to try to see it at the right angle.

This first model runs the ARM version - Windows RT - and features Microsoft Office. Other exclusive features include a new version of Skype, and the Xbox music, movies, television and games services, as well as a SmartGlass app that allows Windows 8 devices to be linked to a TV through an Xbox.

The Surface, with its 10.6in screen is priced at $499 in the US (£399 in the UK), one of seven other countries where it is available from today) for a 32Gb version, making it $100 cheaper than a comparable 9.7in iPad.

The Surface feels well engineered and a Microsoft executive has tweeted a picture of himself riding it with wheels attached as a skateboard, thanks to its toughened glass screen and magnesium casing. It has a full-size USB port, microSD memory card slot, two high-definition cameras, front and back, and weighs 1.5lbs.

Using it as a mini-touchscreen laptop for writing, it has served me pretty well, while being far less ergonomic than the Toshiba with its angle-adjustable screen and larger, backlit keyboard.

The tiled interface makes perfect sense with touch on a tablet compared to PC mouse clicks and scrolls, and the keyboard is a useful adjunct for utilising the Windows desktop view, making Surface the more acceptable face of Windows 8.

Apple’s iPad mini: handheld with a classy design

An iPad with a 7.9in screen that can be held comfortably in one hand, the new iPad mini finally gives Apple lovers a device in the 7in category that has until now been dominated by rivals Amazon, Google and Samsung.

Having handled the mini at Apple’s launch event this week, I think that it could be on to a winner. The wider screen, aluminium casing and 275,000 apps set it apart from the competition.

It feels very light (at 0.68lbs) and works very well as an eReader with Apple’s updated iBooks app.

However, the mini has an older processor and lacks its bigger brother’s high-resolution Retina display. And with a price starting at $329 (£269 in the UK), it is costlier than competitors’ offerings.

Apple also bolstered its defences against Microsoft’s Windows 8 with updates to its Mac line this week - by introducing a thinner all-in-one iMac, a Retina display 13in MacBook and an upgrade for the Mac mini computer.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012