I just tried Windows 8 on a laptop and it was totally baffling

Credit: patchanism via Flickr

On Sunday I had my first serious look at Windows 8 on a laptop PC and I wasn't impressed. I found the tiles an awkward front end. But more than that, I found the overall experience confusing.

Let me begin by saying I've been using PCs and Macs for over 20 years. I used DOS on an original IBM PC, for goodness' sake. I've seen Windows transition a number of times. I've primarily used a Mac for the last 7 years or so, but I still have Windows 7 running in Parallels on my Mac and I still slip into it from time time, mostly for Quicken.

This weekend, I was setting up a new Toshiba laptop for my sister, who is not terribly technically savvy. Just call me family tech support -- I'm sure many of you can relate. I got through the regular gauntlet of Windows setup screens and after a time, the Windows 8 tiles appeared.

I've dabbled with a Windows Phone and a Windows 8 tablet and in my view, Microsoft's new tiled interface works best on the phone and makes some sense on a tablet. But it's completely inappropriate for a traditional PC -- especially on a machine like this that wasn't touch enabled.

[See also: How to fix Windows 8 -- The right strategy for Microsoft.]

As is typical for a new Windows PC, the machine is populated with a bunch of applications you didn't ask for and which you can't pick and choose at startup (although you can delete them by accessing a set of tile management tools). For a novice Windows 8 user like me that was annoying. For my sister, it was just baffling. The tiles went off screen and you had to arrow over to see the ones that weren't visible.

I wanted to download Google Chrome, which I did by opening Internet Explorer. I downloaded the application, and after installing it, I had to hunt for its whereabouts. Windows 8 had placed it at the end of the row of tiles, which were not visible on on a single screen. After locating it, I was able drag and drop it to the first, visible set of tiles, but for non-technical users, finding these programs is going to be confusing at first.

I tried opening a few tiles, like News and Sports. Once inside, there was no way I could see on the screen to find my way back to the start page with its other tiles. I used the tile key on the keyboard as a self-imposed shortcut, but in the world of complex interfaces, getting back to where you started seems like a basic function.

But here's what I found truly baffling -- and I had no idea how I did this. I would be on one screen, say the Start screen with its tiles, and quite suddenly I was in another such as news. And I did this more than once. I'm guessing I made some sort of gesture on the trackpad, but I couldn't repeat it. My sister found the same thing happened to her. So whatever it was, we were repeating it without being aware of what we were doing and without a clear path back to where we started.

I resorted to using <Alt-tab> to move between open programs, including the desktop. Now you might be wondering why is there a desktop and the tiles front end (Start screen), and that would be a reasonable question. The desktop is vestige of the old design model, but having two main screens is confusing, as you'd imagine.

What's more, when I first turned on the machine, the system tray was visible on the Start screen. Later I found the desktop (which is itself a tile), where the system tray is also visible. When my sister got home, I was about to show her how to sign into her wireless network but the system tray was no longer visible on the Tile screen -- it had been replaced by scroll bar. I tried moving the mouse down the screen, thinking it was just hidden, but it was as far as I could tell, just gone.

Another confusing interface element is the set of contextual controls hidden on the right side of the screen. (Microsoft calls these "Charms.")

For instance, when I selected the wireless tool in the system tray, the wireless configuration controls appeared in the hidden configuration panel. But you can also access that panel by scrolling over it with your mouse -- at least sometimes. I scrolled over one time and it appeared. The next time, it just advanced my tiles one more screen to reveal more hidden ones. I had a hard time differentiating between when it would scroll the screen and when moving the mouse all the way to the right would reveal the hidden panel. Whatever the difference, it was too subtle for me to pick up in my tests.

Why would anybody want to work this hard?

I play with different operating systems all the time. I manage to find my way around almost every one I've tried, but this was the most baffling and confusing interface I've seen in some time. Between the tiles and the desktop, and the hidden panel, and screens appearing out of nowhere, I never had a sense of confidence with it that I was completely under control. 

It seems to me that in an effort to create a somewhat consistent user experience across the phone, tablet, and desktop, Microsoft has forced the tile metaphor on the desktop and not done a terribly good job of implementing it. If they're confusing long-time, technically savvy users, it's safe to say they haven't done a very good job designing it.

Given enough time, I'm sure I would figure out the intricacies and the work-arounds necessary to overcome these obstacles. But frankly, I don't feel I should have to, and if I had trouble I can only imagine what it's going to be like for my sister, who understands computing as a clearly defined set of repeatable tasks. If that kind of layer isn't there for her, it's going to make learning to use the device much more difficult.

If that's the case, why did they go to the bother of changing it so completely?

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