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Gadgets & Home Improvement

My Windows 8 adventure has just begun

When I first started on my Windows 8 journey just over a year ago, I was very apprehensive about Microsoft's new operating system.
The Straits Times - October 24, 2012
By: Oo Gin Lee
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My Windows 8 adventure has just begun While most travel sites start with a booking page, Microsoft’s Travel app shows you beautiful panoramas of your dream destinations. -- WINDOWS 8 SCREENSHOT BY GIN LEE

When I first started on my Windows 8 journey just over a year ago, I was very apprehensive about Microsoft's new operating system.

That was when the first beta version of Windows 8 was made available and I downloaded it to test it out. I never forgot my 10-year-old daughter's (she was nine then) comments after I asked her to play with the software for 15 minutes.

"Papa, can I please have Windows instead?" she asked.

My daughter has known only Windows all her life. She has never used the Mac OS, Linux or any other computer operating system. She probably started using the PC independently when she was about four years old, but her experience actually started earlier as an 18-month-old watching me play World Of Warcraft.

She has been using my wife's Windows Vista PC and her (as well as my) Windows 7 PC and is able to switch effortlessly between the two different versions of Windows. She can surf the Web, use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, copy files, log into my Steam account to play games and install programs from a DVD.

But to her, Windows 8 was not Windows. At that time, we tested it on a non-touchscreen PC and she totally detested the new interface. We both agreed that it looked gorgeous, but she refused to relearn how to use a PC.

And this is the challenge Microsoft will face when it launches the next version of its flagship software on Friday. The computing giant has been hibernating for far too long, watching idly as Apple and Google Android touchscreen devices grow from strength to strength.

Windows 8 is designed from the ground up to use the touch interface and boasts a new tile-based Start Screen at boot-up, instead of the Desktop we have all grown accustomed to.

Like the iPads and Android tablets, users can go to the Windows Store to download apps and arrange them on the Start Screen.

But the Start Screen is designed to run only the new touch apps. If you want to play Diablo III or launch any other existing Windows software, they will not run on the touch-based interface.

Instead, you have to run them in Desktop mode, which is essentially good old Windows 7 as we know it.

Here's the kicker - the new Windows 8 is merely a shell over the reliable Windows 7 engine.

REINVENTING THE WHEEL

The problem with Desktop mode is that Microsoft has taken out the good old Start button that generations have grown accustomed to. And that is why it was hellish for me and my daughter to use. (See page 10 on how to get the Start button back.)

By forcing this new interface upon users, Microsoft risks alienating its faithful followers. New consumer PC models launched after Friday will only have Windows 8 and consumers will not be given a choice.

But in the last two weeks, my opinion started to change.

As I went into overdrive to test Windows 8 on the HP Envy 4 touchscreen laptop, I got to like the new touch interface.

I am a huge fan of the Xbox 360 and Microsoft has completely overhauled Windows to make it feel like an extension of its game console.

With the new Xbox Smart Glass app, I can now play a game or watch a movie on Xbox 360 while getting additional information about the content I am enjoying. It even turns my touchscreen PC into a remote control for the Xbox 360 console.

My friends call me a sucker for Xbox achievement points (which you earn from playing games) but these points are a gamer's street cred and I am proud to say I passed the 30,000 mark over the weekend.

Currently, these points are earned mainly from Xbox 360 games, although there are a handful of PC and Windows Phone 7 games that allow this.

At the launch of Windows 8, there will be around 10 touchscreen PC games under the Xbox Live label, which give me points for playing them, and I expect more such games to follow.

I can also buy movies and songs on my Windows 8 PC and enjoy them on both my Xbox console and other Windows 8 devices.

All of this is possible because Windows 8 is making use of cloud services. I need only one Microsoft account to log into all my devices and all my preferences and content will be synced across everything.

I am also a Netflix user and have been renting movies and TV shows to watch on my Xbox 360. With the Netflix app on Windows 8, I can now watch a movie in the living room and continue from where I left off in the bedroom, using another Windows 8 device.

For non-Xbox fans, there are some cool apps that make Windows 8 worth the switch. Sports lets you create a your own news channels of your favourite teams (think Manchester United and the LA Lakers), complete with the latest fixtures, team standings and much more.

Travel is not the most comprehensive travel app available, but I was blown away by how beautiful it is. While most travel sites start with a booking page, Microsoft's Travel app shows you beautiful panoramas of your dream destinations. The booking part comes later. (For more apps, see pages 12 to 16.)

EMBRACING CHANGE

Learning to navigate the new Windows 8 was a challenge and it took me some time to get into the groove. But once I dove deep into it, it became second nature.

With the right know-how, you can get the best of both worlds, from enjoying the luxuriant new finger-swiping goodness of the apps to switching over to good old Desktop mode when you need to get some serious work done.

But Windows 8 is far from perfect. Pictures, for instance, are now set to be viewed with the new Photo app. The problem is that this app does not let you move on to the next photo in the folder. I had to right-click on the photo and change the default photo viewer to Microsoft Photo Viewer, which is an existing Desktop program, before I could perform something so simple.

There are also two versions of Internet Explorer 10, one for the Start Screen and one for Desktop. The Start Screen also has its own version of Control Panel, called PC Settings. It looks slick but it is really only a subset of the original and offers very limited capabilities.

And shutting down the computer now involves four steps, instead of just the usual two.

The biggest challenge for Microsoft is that its Store has roughly only more than 1,000 apps at launch, which is insignificant compared to the more than half million offered by its competitors, Apple and Google.

While I am confident this will build up in future, the question is why anyone would buy a Windows 8 machine with so paltry an offering, even if the quality of some of the apps is outstanding?

And this is why Microsoft decided to come up with the two-systems-on-one-device plan. You may not buy a Windows 8 touchscreen tablet, but sooner or later, you will certainly need a new Windows PC. Thus, the touchscreen apps become a bonus that you can get accustomed to and perhaps even pine for in future.

Windows 8 on a touchscreen device has started to have an effect on my daughter. After watching me spend hours playing the new versions of Solitaire and Minesweeper with my fingers instead of the mouse, she has finally started to show interest in the operating system.

Still, the journey to convince millions of other users will be a long one, especially if Microsoft hopes that Windows 8 tablets will become as popular as iPads and Android devices.

But at least it has taken the brave first step in this new fight, instead of simply watching its rivals dismantle its once almighty empire, piece by piece.

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