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RetroUI tries to fix Windows 8's usability woes, but only makes them worse

Erez Zukerman | March 13, 2013
Despite good intentions and an innovative proposition, RetroUI is slower and clunkier than the competition.

Windows 8 is doing quite a job of alienating longtime Windows users. No more Start button, but a whole Start screen full of distracting live tiles; a double interface (Desktop and "Modern"); low information density on Modern apps; and the list goes on. For many companies, this isn't a disaster but a golden opportunity: The market is full of applications rushing to fix Windows 8, from Stardock's Start8 and Decor8, through open-source Classic Shell, through $5 utility RetroUI. Although RetroUI 3.1.1 does offer an interesting feature for running Modern apps in a window, awkward implementation keeps it from being the cure-all it could be. In fact, the current version brings its own headaches.

Much like Windows 8, RetroUI is bisected into two distinct parts that bear almost no relation to each other: a Start menu replacement, and an innovative feature called Enforce. The Start menu replacement is hardly unique, but Enforce does something I've never seen before: It lets you run Modern apps in a window. If you've used Windows 8 for any length of time, you probably realize how exciting that is.

Enforce couldn't be simpler to use. It actually works like Windows 8 should have worked in the first place, if you ask me. With RetroUI installed, Modern apps just start in a maximized window. You can then resize that window, drag it around, and generally work with it like you would with any other windows.

There are a few caveats and oddities remaining: It won't show up on your taskbar, and you won't be able to have two Modern apps on-screen at the same time. You can have two Modern apps open at the same time and switch between them using Alt+Tab, but you won't see them both on the screen simultaneously. That's sometimes frustrating, because even the default full-screen Modern interface lets you have two applications on-screen concurrently (a primary app taking up most of the space, and a secondary one taking up a vertical on the side). Adding to the frustration is the fact that whenever you Alt+Tab back to a previously open Modern app, it will maximize itself to take up the full screen, even if you've resized it before. And finally, Modern apps don't show up on the taskbar, even when they're running in a window.

By default, RetroUI takes over several function keys: F3, F4, F7, F8, and F9. This means if you do anything with these keys (such as use F7 to create a new folder in Total Commander), you'll no longer be able to do it, at least until you visit RetroUI's Settings screen and disable this behavior.


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