Windows 8: Death of the Laptop

I’ve been using my Windows PC more and more often these days. And happily, Windows isn’t sitting still at version 7, with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview available for download now, and with over a million downloads already (one of which is me). The Start button has gone, refreshing the desktop paradigm for the first time since ’95, the Metro interface reigns supreme, gestures run amok (with multi-touch coming to ultrabooks… hmm) and the gap between ARM and x86/64 chips closes further.

And you know, I think all this proves that Microsoft really do get it, this concept of ‘no-compromise computing’. Being the ‘computer guy’, I’m often asked by non-technical friends which laptop to go for. You all know the question—budget of £400, wanted for a light bit of Facebook, some browsing, the odd bit of spreadsheeting. And you all know that any—any!—traditional laptop you buy for £400 (that’s a little under $650) will be absolute rubbish, and will simply not stand the test of time. When suggesting that these kids shell out a little more for a decent laptop (read: MacBook), or just get something more suited to their needs and in their price range (some sort of tablet—the iPad (while not a PC and as much as I can’t stand it) is for them—or a ChromeBook) they’re having none of it. Invariably they come back to you two years later, when the junk they bought is unusable, asking the exact same question.

Dell Inspiron running Vista

It's junk. But it's junk thousands of people buy.

Because they’re stuck on Windows. The build quality of budget laptops, even notebooks, alongside the nature of traditional desktop OS’s, is detrimental to any sort of long-term machine health. We know this.

So the whole concept of Windows 8 is exciting to me. One OS for tablets, laptops (touchscreen Ultrabooks!) and desktops alike. A unified experience, and a step in the right direction to changing people’s ideas of what makes a ‘computer’. A step towards people buying a £400 tablet to be their primary machine because it has Windows, and it’s running the applications they’re used to on their abysmal £400 laptops. And maybe it’s too early to say, but perhaps they’ll last longer, too. Perhaps the Metro interface will prevent users from being able to screw up the system, in the same way iOS devices don’t get as fudged as today’s Windows manages to do. On the flip side, a desktop OS that has features such as suspending background apps would be really something.

Windows 8 on a plethora of devices

One OS to rule them all, one OS to find them...

And it really does work, too, the whole universal OS thing. On a PC, you never have to leave the desktop interface. You can run the ‘traditional’ Windows experience. Oh, and if you want it, then the Metro overlay is of course but a finger twitch away. And yes, it does actually work with no touch interface: the new keyboard shortcuts do their job just fine, and of course the mouse works successfully as a pointing device (albeit with some hiccups when it comes to scrolling; something Microsoft are aware of and claim will be fixed in the RTM). On the other side of the coin, the Metro UI is an incredibly capable tablet interface—I might argue the most capable, going by the glorious Snap view and smooth gesture inputs, and the insanely useful ability to plug in a mouse, flip out a stand and swipe over to Desktop mode, a feature I’m hoping will kill off the poorly-made budget laptops/notebooks outright.

And if you do want to be using multiple devices? Windows 8 syncs using iCloud and an Apple ID your Microsoft Account (interestingly dispensing with the Windows Live branding). It’ll sync with your Windows Phone (if you’re one of the three people with those) and with your Xbox. It’ll feature an App Store—and I’ve high hopes of this integrating with Xbox in the future, too, meaning I can buy Halo 16 for both devices with one transaction (much like I can buy both Mac and PC versions of a game on Steam). Oh—and the quality of the apps in the store is phenomenal, too. Metro truly is beautiful.

The Windows Explorer ribbon

Yeah, there's no real excuse for this.

So is it all glory Microsoft, now? Have the tables been completely turned on competitors since the fiasco of Vista? Windows Phone 7 and the rise of the Xbox 360 seem to think so, but of course Windows 8 still has some Microsofty hitches: it is still same old Windows underneath, with some architectures and components dating back 15 years or so. Internet Explorer is still Internet Explorer, with serious issues with transparency even in its 10th iteration. And that ribbon on Windows Explorer—oh, God, why?! But Windows 7 is, for its flaws, a capable operating system, the most popular ever, and Windows 8 seems to improve madly upon that. With its shift to ARM and tablets, too, I think it’s a given that the OS is going to do well. iPad killer? Hardly. People still go shopping for ‘an iPad’, not a tablet. But other iPad competitors—and definitely Google—should be quaking in their boots, because of course users are going to be swayed by an operating system they’re used to. That’s the reason the £400 laptop buyers are scared of the ChromeBook, and why low-powered Linux-based netbooks (“true” netbooks) never took off either. I only hope that a £400 tablet won’t be as much a piece of junk as a bottom-end Inspiron is today.

The ball’s with the hardware manufacturers now.

UPDATE 16 Oct 2012:
Well, as it turns out, Microsoft wasn’t willing to put all its trust into the hardware manufacturers either. The pricing for the not-countertop Microsoft Surface was announced just minutes ago, and lo and behold, it’s £400 (or £80 more if you want that snazzy keyboard with it, which, let’s be honest, you do). Its size, form factor, the fact that it looks like a cute little laptop with a Cover and kickstand, and the all-important fact that it’s running Windows, the OS people know, are all pretty killer features. And oh, that keyboard.

I can only hope that it draws people in and really takes off, putting the final nail in the coffin of awful budget laptops.

The ball’s with Microsoft’s marketing department now.

Microsoft Surface Hero Shot

Microsoft and Nokia: Making me love cyan® since the early 21st Century.

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