Sharon Machlis

My move to Windows 8: Day One

December 17, 2012 6:49 PM EST

I did it. I took the Windows 8 plunge.

After vowing to buy a new desktop PC with Windows 7 -- I balked at the idea of learning a new OS while also dealing with the hassle of reinstalling applications and moving data files -- I didn't like any of the small crop of systems still available without Windows 8. So, I brought home a new PC last weekend and started learning how to compute in a Windows 8 world.

It's not nearly as painful as some critics suggest. Armed primarily with Preston Gralla's excellent Windows 8 cheat sheet, I was searching with the Charms bar and using keyboard shortcuts in no time.

Bottom line: I'm not sure I'd rush off to upgrade an existing PC without a touchscreen-monitor. But if you're in the market for a new desktop machine anyway, don't let Windows 8 put you off the way Vista might have.

Windows 8 is indeed, as many complain, two different operating systems with little in common. There's the mobile-optimized Start screen and the more traditional Windows Desktop. That's not how I would have designed a desktop OS. However, the point of Windows 8 isn't to satisfy us power desktop users who opt for Android or iOS when buying smartphones and tablets. Instead, it's a transition between conventional desktop operating systems and a more touchscreen-focused one, as well as a push to keep Microsoft relevant in an increasing mobile world.

Windows 8 Start Screen The new Windows 8 Start screen is nice eye candy but not all that compelling without a touch display. The Start screen often requires horizontal scrolling or swiping, which makes sense on a tablet. However, so far I'm finding it somewhat annoying and counterintuitive to have to scroll horizontally with a mouse when I'm using a large widescreen monitor. I'm also not crazy about positioning my mouse at the top of a full-screen app and then sweeping downward in order to close an app; clicking an X is easier.

Fortunately, there are still keyboard shortcuts for many of these Start gestures, such as alt-F4 to close a Start app.

It didn't take long for me to decide to think of the Start screen and its big visual tiles as simply a visual application to access my "regular" desktop. After that, all went pretty well.

The Desktop is similar enough to Windows 7 that I feel pretty much at home there. I can still have multiple windows open here (unlike on the Start screen), and those windows still have menus I'm used to and red Xs for closing. I can still click and drag one window to the left side of my screen and another to the right, and have them automatically snap in place to each take half of my monitor real estate. I can also access the Start Charms bar from within the Desktop if I want to, either by moving my mouse to the top-right or bottom-right corner of the screen or using the Window-c shortcut.

I don't miss most of the snazzy Windows 7 graphics that were removed from Windows 8 Desktop (although I wouldn't mind having window title bar transparency back). Mostly, I miss having a start button at the bottom of my task bar. For now, I'm making do with a combination of pinned programs to my task bar, the Window-x keyboard shortcut that lists some old Start button options (Search, Run and the Command prompt, among others) and a folder I'm creating manually with shortcuts to all my programs. I especially miss the Start button's link to a list of all my programs, now that my applications are scattered about in multiple folders. At some point I may look into one of the third-party apps that bring a version of a Start button back to the task bar -- if Microsoft doesn't finally do so in an OS update.

But to be clear, not all change here is bad. I've already run across some welcome tweaks to the Windows 8 Desktop, such as a more professional-looking Task Manager and an option to pause when copying or moving files -- handy when I was copying more than a hundred gigabytes of photos and videos onto my new system.

I have to re-install all my software since I'm moving from a fairly ancient PC running 32-bit Windows 7. That's not a Windows 8 transition issue, by the way, since re-installation is required when moving from any 32- to 64-bit Windows (even installing 64-bit Windows 7 on a machine that was running 32-bit Windows 7). So far, I've been pleasntly surprised that most of my Windows 7 software has installed without problem. The lone old program that hasn't installed yet is Broderbund's PrintMaster Gold Version 18, which shows as compatible on Microsoft's Compatibility Center but doesn't seem to be. Given my disc's 2007 copyright, though, I'm not particularly irritated.

Ironically, the biggest software issue I encountered last weekend was when I wanted to upgrade my Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Student to Home and Business. After purchasing the upgrade, the e-mailed download link wouldn't work. When I contacted customer support, the initial advice I received to try to fix the problem included "Click the Start button." Even tech support misses that Start button! I ended up asking for a refund. For now I'm using Web-based e-mail, and I'll likely install Mozilla Thunderbird as an email client instead of buying Outlook, at least in the short term.

Overall, I've been able to do what I need to do on my new system without feeling lost or overwhelmed. Without a doubt, reading a guide like the Windows 8 cheat sheet was key. A lot of the changes in Windows 8 aren't particular intuitive or easy to discover, and Microsoft deserves criticism for that. To be fair, control-C/control-V isn't exactly intuitive for copy and paste either, yet most of us have gotten quite used to it. But a lot of people aren't going to be happy with undocumented, unclear new interfaces like: Hover your mouse in the top right corner of the screen and then glide it downward if you want to see a list of running apps. If I were an IT professional, I wouldn't look forward to having to train users on the new OS, especially those who aren't thrilled about technology change. But I also wouldn't worry about putting it on a system of my own.