Windows 8 review, Part 3: The Metro Compromise

In the first part of this review, I mentioned that the new Metro interface Microsoft has created runs side by side with the desktop world we have come to know and love. Clearly, while the Redmond-based company is focusing on expanding to tablets, a part of their goal includes maintaining compatibility between both the future and past. In Windows 8, this pays off in a very bizarre way, with a mixing and matching of 2 very different interfaces. While Microsoft itself frowns upon the word Metro, I will use this term throughout this review to form distinctions between what exists.

It could be stated that Windows 8 is still a version 1.0 product, especially when it comes to this new environment. Unfortunately, there now exists a giant gap between the new and the old. This is demonstrated by the presence of 2 control panels, the inability of newer metro apps to interface with files on the desktop, and on the flip side, for desktop applications to share content via the new mechanisms in place. However, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

First Windows 8 Experience

When you are booted into Windows 8, the start screen will always be your first point of interaction. Here, all of your programs and apps are displayed in tile form. I must stress the difference between an app and a program. An app is what one would consider very web-based, and the type of software which runs on any mobile operating system today. A program marks the traditional style of interfaces – very menu driven, with toolbars and buttons. Both of these are presented on the start screen, with programs you install receiving their own group. Tiles on the screen can be dragged around with your mouse for easier organization, and can also be resized either through a right click or with the mouse. Keyboard users can hit shift+f10 or the applications key to resize, uninstall, or run a program as an administrator. One key difference between app and program tiles is the ability for apps to display live content. For example, if you have unread mail, the mail tile will always flicker through messages, and similarly the messaging tile will show chats which you have not read. All of these provide a “one-glance” experience, where you can gain a lot of information on what needs to be done at the time just by looking at your start screen. It’s a concept which certainly is not present on any other platform besides Windows Phone 8, and no doubt has been inspired from that system.

Similar to the Windows 7 start menu, you can begin typing and find a list of results right away. Unlike the start menu search ability, however, Windows 8 categorizes results into settings, files, and apps you have installed. This means that if you typed in “pandora” on the start screen, and clicked or tabbed into the categories list, you could choose “store” to search the Windows store for a pandora app. This separation might be difficult to get used to for some, as Windows 7 presented all the items in one easy to navigate list.

The First Compromise: Start Screen items

Using the start screen is very easy, and I suspect that many will get the hang of it right away. Although it is much simpler than the Windows 7 start menu, and could even be thought of as very “2-dimensional”, it can get cluttered very quickly. This is less of a case when using it for apps, however programs will place useless group items on the screen. These could include such things as uninstallers, readme documents, and anything in general which would be present on a start menu. While previously these would be considered very useful, the fundamental issue lies with the lack of first-letter navigation on the start screen. Since it is also a very full-screen experience, start screen groups are not like start menu ones; You cannot open or close them, for example. Each item is displayed in the grid, with 56 or so shown on one screen. While you could go through every item, and “unpin from start” each of which you might not need, this is a rather consuming task. It should be noted that unpinning an item from the screen will still allow it to show up in search results. Sadly, desktop programs have no way of letting Windows know to not place certain elements on the start screen.

Charms: Are they Lucky?

Another key importance to the new Metro experience is the creation of Charms. Swipe in from the right of your screen with the mouse, and a bar will appear with options to search, share, use devices, and open settings. You could similarly place the mouse on the right side of the screen and right click with it, or, if you prefer, simply hit Windows+C to bring up the charms bar.
Charms are always universal — that is, you will always find those 5 no matter where you open them — yet their functionality is not always useable. You could open the metro web browser, choose the share charm, and send a link over to mail. However, if you were to use firefox or a desktop browser, you would get a message telling you that sharing is not supported in desktop programs. This is because charms are specific to the metro design. The great thing about them, of course, is that if you were to install a twitter app, you would be able to share content to it right away, without having to manually copy and paste a link to it. The devices charm allows you to send content to a device, such as a printer or fax. Similarly, settings and search perform contextually depending on the app you are in. To bring up settings easier, you can always press windows+I, and windows + K to bring up settings and devices, respectively. Windows key + W will also bring up the search box, with focus on whichever app you are in.

Compromise #2: Being left uncharmed.

A lot of newcomers to Windows 8 might find the idea of this a bit jarring. IF you buy an app from the store, charms will undoubtedly be useful, especially if you want to print a page or item. However, on the desktop side, you would have to press print from the menu, rather than using the charms to send content to a device. It’s a super confusing mess, especially because a lot of people might use the store to find apps, the majority of which will be the newer metro-style type.

apps: worth it on the Desktop?

This leads me to another interesting question. How much will desktop applications be used if you are on a regular computer? Most PC users today will be running Windows 8 on their primary non-touch devices. On these, desktop programs are still the way to go, as they offer the familiar interface you use everyday. On the newer Arm tablets and those convertibles which feature support for both programs and apps, a mixing of the 2 could be useful depending on the environment. This, to most, is a very jarring experience on it’s own. Not being able to send content from Internet Explorer to Outlook 2010 or 2013 through a charm might frustrate people, as it’s a desktop program. In the same light, the inability to browse the files on a computer with a metro app such as photos will lead to even more confusion. My recommendation, therefore, is that people stick with a majority of one software type. There are some instances where grabbing a metro app could be useful. Take the Pandora search example earlier. If you wanted, you could still use Pandora’s app to listen to your favorite tunes while working in Microsoft Word, or playing a game. If Foursquare releases one of their own, you could use this to checkin from your desktop rather than using the smartphone. There are a few cases such as these where using an app over a program might prove productive. In others, such as deciding between a desktop or metro Twitter tool, the choice is more obvious.

mail app: Presenting it all full-screen

An important factor with apps is that they always run in full screen, with no presence of a bar or menu. You can trigger an “app bar” from any app, by swiping up from the bottom of your screen, or pressing Windows+Z. This opens up a menu on the bottom of the “page”, allowing common tasks for an app to be performed. Metro apps are visually beautiful to look at, as they are clutter free and offer an organized, easy to scroll interface to work. In the mail app, for example, your folders are displayed on one side, and the message list on the other, with the message being place on the bottom in a pane. For screen reader users, these are more like HTML 5 apps, as they are navigated with standard tab+shift tab, along with arrow key commands. In fact, thinking of an app as a website is a highly good analogy, since they sort content into a web-based design.

The mail app itself is very simple, and in some ways intuitive. It requires the use of a Microsoft Live account, which could be one of the first gripes, especially if your hotmail account is filled with spam which gets sent into your inbox. You can add other accounts in the settings window, which is a great example of where invoking the charm with the mouse or windows+I is useful. Messages can be sorted on a per account basis, which can come in useful and creates less clutter. In general, the interface of Mail is simple. Click on a message and it appears in the pain. You can even use keyboard shortcuts such as control+D to delete Control+R to respond, and so forth.
When composing a message, your folders are always displayed, allowing you to switch between views quickly and efficiently. It integrates with the people app, allowing you to paste in contacts into the to and CC fields.
If you were looking for advanced options, such as filters, don’t try to find them somewhere deep within the mail app, it just won’t be there. This is a very simple mail client, and will get the job of reading and replying to messages done for most people.

Compromise #3: The Internet Explorer Confusion

The metro VS. Desktop personality crisis of Windows 8 gets worse with the presence of 2 browsers. If you were to launch Internet Explorer from the start screen, you would be using the metro version of the browser, which has no menu bars, is full screen, and cannot run plug-ins or add-ons. Flash is built in to this browser, which can be useful for websites which present videos. Should you use the run dialog to quickly jump to a website, though, you’ll find out that the regular full-featured IE is run instead. There is nothing wrong with the metro version, of course, but the 2 are not compatible. If you save log-in information or cookies in one browser, it will not be there in the other, and you’ll have to log-in again on both for the website. It’s almost as though the 2 are separate completely, even though they share the same name. When it comes to memory usage, the Metro IE outwins the desktop version by far, though it also has the annoying habit of restoring every website you opened at launch, since apps resume from their saved state. There is no Control+O open dialog here, or any dialogs for that matter – asides the presence of back/forward buttons and your address bar, it’s a very clean interface


The Windows Store: What’s in store?

Every company, it seems, has their own app store in some form. Google has the Play store, apple the App store, and even Blackberry customers have their own market. Windows joins the crowd with it’s own Windows store, which is simple and easy to navigate. When you launch the app, you are dropped into the “featured” category, with an updates link at the top alerting you to any new apps which need updating. You can pick other categories, such as top free, new releases, social networking, and other categories. Again, it’s very minimal, and gets the job done with letting you find and install apps you want. Some of them also include an accessibility rating, which allows those who use assistive technologies to know whether a program is compatible or not with screen readers or magnifiers. However, even those apps which have “yes” by their name for accessibility can often not work, and it’s honestly a trial and error process for knowing how each app works. For example, the Pandora app is actually very usable with all major screen readers (JAWS, NVDA, and Window-eyes Beta), and each of these reports the same amount of information on it’s contents. The station list is not accessible with titles of stations in all cases, suggesting that your experience on accessible apps from the store will be similar across whichever screen reader you use. Some other apps, such as netflix, are completely unusable, to the point where only unlabeled links or buttons are spoken. Of course, visually these appear fine and could come in handy for even non-tablet users. Desktop programs are also allowed in the store, though with severe limitations – such as the inability to host trial or free programs. Presumably, photoshop and other desktop programs will be in the store for those who wish to buy them conveniently.

Bing apps

I decided to categorize these in one sections, as news, weather, sports, and bing are all in the same app umbrella. The bing app allows you to search for any term, and shows trending results in it’s tile. The news app, meanwhile, displays a panning list of top news, and does allow for customizing categories and locales if one wishes. These are all html-based apps, and the settings charm lets you customize certain aspects of your experience. In the weather app, you can clear weather searches, while news allows you to select a locale for viewing of items. Sports goes even as far as to letting you customize the refresh interval for the app, which defines the amount of time it fetches data in.

Messaging: Conversations Unified!

I wanted to touch on the Messaging app, as it’s one which I use daily for my chatting needs. It works surprisingly well, and creates a chaotic mess within the people app with the amount of contacts it adds to your list. Once you open it up, a list of your conversations is displayed, along with a new message button. Choosing new message will actually open up people, where you can select from the hundreds of contacts you might have accumulated from all over chatting services. For me, Facebook and Windows Live are all hooked up to messaging, and combine to create a rather large list of people. To add accounts, use the setting charm. For now, only Facebook and Messenger are supported, though I’m sure it would be easy to add other services in the future.

Other Metro apps

There are a few other preinstalled apps that come with Windows, and it’s worth it to give a quick rundown on these, as they are well-designed. In the calendar app, you are presented with a list of days. Selecting a day will pop up a new event dialog, where you can specify options such as meeting times, length, and can even send invites to people from your contacts to share it with. For a “web-based” calendar app, it certainly is not bad.
By default, Music and Video are set as the media playback program in Windows 8. This can be quite an annoyance, as they can take a while to load and display clutter such as the Zune store for purchasing Music. It’s highly simple to reassign another player of choice for music files, either from default programs or by manually right-clicking a file and choosing open with. Still, the presence of the music app is a bit less useful on the desktop side, unless you have music that you wish to buy from the store or have already used it for previous purchases. The app is highly accessible, allowing you to preview tracks and use your XBox payment information to make purchases.
Playing XBox games is also possible with the games app, and this could be thought of as Microsoft’s take on Apple’s Game Center. The idea is that some apps will be in the store which will allow for leaderboards and score matching across the desktop and XBox consoles.

Final thoughts on Metro

As mentioned previously, desktop users will most likely not use many metro apps, unless it’s for a practical reason. There are at least 3 compromises which I have detailed, and many more minor annoyances within Windows 8 which are a sacrifice to this duality which Microsoft created. If you use your standard Windows 7 apps, keep using them on Windows 8, and you will probably not have to face the Metro confusion. However, if you are more inclined to purchase apps from the store, you might have to put up with the transitional differences between running something designed primarily for touch versus the classic computer.

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