TECHNOLOGY AND YOU – GARY KAYE– Microsoft is betting its future on its new operating system, Windows 8. This is a dramatic change from previous incarnations of Windows, and while it does have some nice features, deciding whether to upgrade or to get a new Windows 8 computer is not a slam dunk decision. Before you jump in, you need to understand what Microsoft is trying to accomplish. In recent years, Microsoft has seen its dominance in personal computing steadily decline. In large part it’s because more people are doing more of their computing on mobile devices like tablets and even smartphones. The operating systems for those devices are primarily Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, not Microsoft Windows. Apple has developed a complete ecosystem, and even though it uses different systems on its desktop and its mobile devices, it is easy to move from one to the other. Google is also moving in that direction with Android on mobile devices and Chrome as both an Internet browser and a new connected computer operating system.
In addition, while Microsoft built much of its business on boxes of shrink-wrapped software, much of the computing world is moving to using “cloud based” programs, where documents are created, stored, and shared up in the ether, where you can access them from just about any device, no matter where you are. In order to stem the tide, Microsoft is betting on its so-called Metro or Modern interface which looks the same on Windows phones, Windows RT tablets, and Windows 8 desktops and laptops. With their colorful big tiles, they all look the same but they don’t work the same way. On the desktop, Microsoft has new phone style apps, but not many of them. It still has elements of the Windows desktop you’re familiar with, but you have to dig down to find many of them. The old functionality is mostly there, but again, you have to go looking for it. Windows 8 on the desktop does allow you lots of flexibility in terms of pinning your favorite programs to the opening screen. Windows 8 is also optimized for touch, so with a touchscreen computer you can pinch and zoom some programs, you can scroll through websites, music selections, and photos. But if you’re used to some twenty years worth of Windows, this version is going to take some getting used to. And if you don’t have a touchscreen computer, or at least one with a decent sized touchpad, it’s probably not worth the effort to upgrade.
Windows 8 does have some nice accessibility features for those of us with vision issues. By hitting the “windows” key and the “+” key, you automatically bring up a magnifier which is far easier to use than on previous versions of Windows. By using the “live corners” you can pull back the magnifier to locate where you are on the big screen. Microsoft also has a new Narrator function, which will read aloud what’s under the cursor, or your finger. It can be used to read commands, programs, email, documents, or web pages. I also like the ability to use pinch and zoom on web pages and some, but not all, applications.
Microsoft has a second version of Windows 8, called RT, a sort of Windows 8 light. It was built to run on tablet computers including Microsoft’s own Surface. It will run Microsoft RT apps, it will allow you to use documents created in Microsoft Office programs like Word or Excel. But it will not allow you to run your legacy programs, like most of the programs that probably fill your current desktop. Just as with the desktop version, it does allow you to customize the screen, but as of the moment, there are still few RT apps, certainly in comparison to those available from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store.
The new interface does look really good on Windows phones. Both Apple and Android leave you with screens full of apps to sort through whenever you need something other than your phone, contacts, or music player. Windows Phone 8 lets you customize the screen so you first see the tiles or locations or people you access the most. But here too, the customization process is going to take some time.
Windows 8 does take advantage of the cloud. It allows you to set up your desktop, then store all of those settings so you can sign in on any Windows 8 computer anywhere and recreate your desktop. But the new interface does take some getting used to. Well, a lot of getting used to. The old “Start” button in the lower left-hand corner is gone. And while you can find all those functions, you’ll have to go looking for them. You can use all your legacy programs with the desktop version, but you’ll have to “pin” them to your homescreen to use the new pretty tiles, otherwise you’ll want to go back to the classic Windows desktop. All of this takes time. I suggest that before you take the plunge by either upgrading to Windows 8 on your existing machine, or buying a new piece of fancy Windows 8 hardware, you spend some time at a retailer like Best Buy or the Microsoft Retail Store to see if this really makes sense for you. And if you’re considering the Microsoft Surface, or another machine with Windows RT, I suggest you reconsider. Right now there just aren’t enough apps available to justify the move.
Gary M Kaye is an award winning journalist who has been covering personal technology for more than 30 years. He is Chief Content Officer for In The Boombox, a tech site oriented towards Baby Boomers, and also writes regularly for AARP and several other websites