What It Is
Microsoft Windows 8
What It Does
A single operating system for all computers, with a focus on touch
Where to Buy It
What It Costs
$69.99 (new), $39.99 (upgrade, through January 31, 2013)
Microsoft has lagged behind Apple in terms of coolness for years now, with the shiny Mac OS X and the iOS-powered iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices capturing more users’ imaginations. But Microsoft is hoping to change all that with the latest version of its ubiquitous operating system (OS), Windows 8, and it just might succeed—provided it can overcome a couple of huge hurdles.
What Windows 8 gets unquestionably right is its concept: a single OS for both traditional and tablet computers that smoothly simplifies interaction and sharing across devices. With a bright, tile-based interface, a streamlined design, and new native apps that blend functionality and visual attractiveness, it’s poised to give Apple’s joint OSes a serious run for their money, and give you deeper computing functionality in a convenient-size package than you’ve probably had access to before.
Above all else, Windows 8 is a superb touch OS, in many ways even better than iOS: Its sensible gestures take just seconds to master, and let you sweep intuitively through software. There’s a bit more to learn on Apple devices—such as what functionality you invoke when you touch a certain corner of the display, or swipe your finger in each of the screen’s edges—but once you’ve got it down, the interface is powerful and efficient.
Unfortunately, these benefits evaporate on any other kind of computer. Using Windows 8 with a non-touch laptop or, worse, a keyboard-and-mouse desktop is a roiling nightmare. Moving the cursor everywhere you need it, and trying to get the various interface elements to appear when you need them, is slow and confusing; apps’ occupying the full screen makes no sense, and torpedoes productivity, on a high-resolution display; and good luck figuring out why you’re required to flip between the new Start interface and the Desktop environment so frequently.
Another big problem at the moment is a lack of apps. The Microsoft Store simply doesn’t have a robust selection yet, so even if you think the OS is usable, you might have trouble finding the software you want. (Forget about finding most of what we’ve covered here other than Evernote, for example.)
So if you’re considering buying a new Windows 8 device, there’s no reason to be apprehensive—Microsoft’s smart choices for the touch market will make tablets using the OS more like real computers than, say, is true with the iPad. But if you’re happy with the Windows PC you already have, there’s no compelling reason to upgrade—the slight uptick in performance you’ll enjoy doesn’t justify the additional headaches you’ll have to endure. This may change with future updates and service packs, but for now: If your computer doesn’t do touch, don’t touch Windows 8.