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Windows 8 tryout foretells how it will play on a new desktop
The phone call made me think twice about Windows 8. "It's driving us all crazy," my displeased wife said the morning after I'd swapped the...
Seattle Times staff columnist
The phone call made me think twice about Windows 8.
"It's driving us all crazy," my displeased wife said the morning after I'd swapped the family computer with a Windows 8 test machine.
As an experiment, I had loaded a preview version of Window 8 onto a sleek new Sony touch-screen desktop computer. Then I switched it with the Windows 7 system in our living room and left for work. The call came within an hour.
The Sony looks terrific, with a big, bright screen that's perfect for displaying and touching the blocky "Metro" style apps that are the Windows 8 signature.
Looks only go so far, though. The software switch can be jarring to people who haven't been closely watching the changes coming to Windows. I belatedly realized the need for a quick tutorial to ease the transition.
My family kept a Windows 7 laptop nearby as a backup.
But they grew attached to the Windows 8 system and were upset a week later, when I brought it into the office for a photo shoot.
Now I'm wondering if that's how consumers will react after Windows 8 goes on sale Oct. 26: Initial shock and frustration, a shakedown cruise and then gradual acceptance — with Windows 7 systems kept on hand, just in case.
Much of the attention given to Windows 8 has been on tablet computers, where the software is expected to finally give the PC industry a fighting chance against the iPad and other tablets that are cutting into sales of traditional computers.
Yet Windows 8 is also bringing major changes to desktop computers, which are still a mainstay in homes and businesses around the world.
Starting this fall, computer buyers will face not only a radically new operating system but new hardware, including unusual new desktops and laptops controlled with touch-screens, as well as keyboards and mice.
I've said before that Windows 8 may change perceptions of tablet computers. Notions of a "desktop" computer will also be updated this fall.
The nicest Windows 8 desktop options will be "all in one" systems that do away with the boxy computer tower. They're basically a large monitor with the computer hardware stuffed in back and a DVD drive on the side.
Apple's iMac is the best known all-in-one. Windows PC makers have experimented with this concept for years, initially pursuing a market for "kitchen computers" that serve as a family console.
Now the category is really taking off. All-in-one sales should grow 20 percent this year, while the overall market for traditional desktops grows just 0.2 percent, according to research firm IHS iSuppli.
Sony stopped making tower systems a few years ago, and now the only desktops it sells in the U.S. are in the TV-like L Series.
I saw a prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and guessed it was designed for Windows 8. A product manager confirmed last week that that was the plan with the hardware.
The L Series went on sale last month, with Windows 7, but Microsoft will give buyers an upgrade copy of Windows 8 for $15.
(To fast forward to October, I loaded the release preview of Windows 8 on a virtual hard drive on the Sony, using the great instructions that developer Scott Hanselman posted at hanselman.com. This gives you the option to start a PC in either Windows 7 or 8.)
Sony also is getting a jump on the long-awaited Apple TV set. The L Series is a full-blown Bravia TV set, with 1080p resolution, a remote control, a tuner inside and a coaxial cable jack on the back. To use it as a TV, you press a button and it bypasses the PC functions entirely. A different button starts the system as a PC.
It's also a boom box, with a subwoofer and two speakers. Ports include USB 3.0 and HDMI in and out.
The base L Series costs $1,300 and comes with a 24-inch widescreen display, an Intel Core i5 processor, 6 gigabytes of RAM, a 1 terabyte hard drive.
Sony loads the system with video, photo and music editing software.
In Windows 7, Sony provides a Mac-like horizontal menu bar with big icons for its proprietary applications. A Sony product manager wouldn't discuss how these apps will be presented in Windows 8, but they would benefit from using Microsoft's modern design template.
For the touch-screen, Sony uses an advanced system that tracks 10 fingers, not just one or two. Still, it was sometimes balky in my test in both Windows 7 and Windows 8 modes.
It's still early to be nitpicking things in Windows 8 — especially since I glued preview software into a loaner PC, then ran beta apps. But there were a few frustrations and the domestic-learning curve was steeper than I expected.
The first hurdle was the user account system, which prompts you to sign in before using the computer, and binds apps to users. That's fine on a tablet or a phone, but doesn't translate as well to a shared home computer.
Microsoft hasn't provided many details on how Windows 8 apps can be shared among users.
My sense is they won't be able to be shared the way they are on a Windows 7 system with multiple user accounts.
That means people sharing a computer may need to buy copies of apps for each user or have everyone share an account.
New users will need a quick tutorial on navigating the new operating system because it's so different.
Mostly they need to learn the new controls, especially the sideways flick that calls up the essential controls — dubbed charms — which surface along the right side of the screen.
That's where you'll find the all important "home" button that you use all the time, just like the button on an iPad, to exit apps and get back to the desktop.
Photo handling wasn't as good as I expected. I wanted to "pinch and zoom" photos everywhere with touch controls but couldn't, and found myself going back and forth between different photo apps too often.
New mouse and touch gestures used with Windows 8 aren't the same, so at times it feels like you're learning two languages at once. For instance, I frequently moused the cursor to the lower left corner to call up the "start" button, but I couldn't do this when touching the screen.
There are a few Windows 8 features that work fine on tablets but don't translate as well to the bigger screen. When you're holding a tablet, it feels natural to flick with a thumb and call up the charms, but it gets tiresome to extend your arm out and then flick the side of a big display. Perhaps the addition of "charms" keys to keyboards will help.
The new browser has its address bar at the bottom of the page. This works well on a 10-inch tablet but I disliked it on a 24-inch desktop, where it's out of the line of sight.
That said, the Metro desktop style works well on the big screen. It makes the PC seem modern, fresh and accessible.
It's easier to find and launch applications when each one has a matchbox-sized button on the desktop.
I'll bet people end up using a bigger variety of applications because they are more visible and enticing.
We'll have to see how much tuning and tweaking Microsoft and PC makers do between now and the arrival of Windows 8.
I hope they get it right because I can see one of these Sony desktops becoming my family's next computer. And I don't want to get another one of those calls.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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