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Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Galen Gruman | Oct. 24, 2013
Although you can now hide some of the Windows 8 dissonance, Windows 8.1 doesn't leap forward enough

Despite its simplicity, the Metro environment can be befuddling; the Store app and Internet Explorer are difficult to navigate, for example, and easily let you run in circles. One reason for this: There's little apparent hierarchy in Metro apps, and you often have to use the application bar to navigate to specific functions rather than move laterally among them via the visible navigation controls. It's a bit like being forced to walk through a maze when you actually want to get somewhere as directly as possible.

However, IE11's copying of Apple Safari's iCloud Tabs is a nice touch, letting you access recently opened websites on other PCs linked to your Microsoft account. Windows 8.1 also nicely reworks the PC Settings app to bring in more functions, but you'll still rely on the separate Control Panel in the Windows Desktop, which provides much more control over the PC.

The Windows Desktop part is the Windows 7 you know and probably love. The good news in Windows 8.1 is that you can set your PC to boot directly to the familiar Windows Desktop, rather than having to go to the Metro Start screen, then clicking the Desktop tile. Still, you can be popped into the Metro environment unexpectedly by double-clicking a file and finding it opens a Metro app instead of a traditional Windows one. Microsoft wants people to switch to Metro, so it has set the default core apps such as email and media players to be the Metro versions.

Also, the Start menu remains missing in Windows 8.1, so it's hard to get to your Windows 7 apps quickly. Microsoft has brought back the Start button, but all it does is switch you between Metro and the Windows Desktop — as if you pressed the Windows key. Clearly, Microsoft doesn't get why users are so frustrated. (To get the handy Power User menu, you now right-click that Start button, or you can continue to use the Windows-X shortcut.)

Just as Metro works nicely via touch and poorly via traditional input methods, Windows Desktop works well via traditional input methods and poorly via touch — Windows 8.1 does nothing to fix that. Icons and menus are often too small to read on a tablet screen, as well as too hard to touch or tap reliably. Plus, touch equivalents for common actions such as right-clicking do not work reliably in the Windows Desktop.

Ultimately, you're switching between two different computers that share a file system and a few core services, and each computer is optimized for a different set of input methods. As InfoWorld suggested earlier this year, it would have been better to leave Metro for tablets and Windows 7 for laptops and desktop PCs, and slowly merged the UIs as Apple is doing with OS X and iOS. For most users, Windows 8.1 will be a confounding mess, even if now the two piles can be kept a bit more separated.

 

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