A Massive Overhaul Gone Wrong

Windows 8 logo on yellow background

Millions of people remember Windows 7 fondly, but speak of Windows 8 and you get mostly scowls in response. What went wrong with Windows 8 and does it really deserve the disastrous reputation it has?

What Went So Wrong?

It was the year 2012. Windows 7 was going strong after the trainwreck that was Windows Vista, and for the most part, people actually liked Windows 7 a lot. And that was good for Microsoft. The only bad part about it, however, was that it needed to come up with a successor. And that successor needed to not just equal Windows 7 but outshine it.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, every time it released a good operating system, it would seem to be followed by a disastrous release. Each success seemed fated to be paired with a growing pains version of Windows. After Windows 98, Windows ME was released. After Windows XP, Windows Vista was released. And sadly, Windows 8, as the successor to Windows 7, was destined for this same exact fate.

For a change, though, it wasn’t because of fatal technical issues. Rather, this time, it was primarily related to some changes that didn’t really sit well with Windows users. Microsoft was convinced that the future was all about touch screens. Tablets, hybrid laptops, you name it, in the model of computing it was working off of in that fateful release cycle, we’d all be jamming our fingers against our screens.

Photo of Windows 8.1 running on a laptop

To be fair to Microsoft, though, tablets aren’t a market segment that disappeared. They’re still alive and well. Unfortunately for the company, though, in its bid to make Windows friendlier to touchscreen devices, it lost focus on the needs of its core demographic: regular PC users. For millions of people sitting in offices and at home trying to use their regular old computers in a regular old way, Windows 8 was an unbearable departure from the familiar.

Windows 8 infamously got rid of the classic Start Menu in favor of a full-screen, widget-filled experience, which was a good fit for a touch-screen device, but not so much for a PC where you had a keyboard, a mouse, and, likely, years of expectations for how you would use that keyboard and mouse to interact with Windows.

Its whole UX, which Microsoft called “Metro,” was fundamentally built around touchscreen devices, from the settings menu to the apps you could install from the Microsoft Store. Yes, it had an app store with apps you could download, like a smartphone, which in modern Windows is pretty much the only significant holdover from the mess of Windows 8.

It did have a “desktop mode,” which gave you a regular desktop experience with all the standard programs you’re used to, but all in all, Windows 8 felt a bit awkward to use. It didn’t have a start button on the taskbar, and pressing the Windows key on your keyboard would just bring up the new, touch-first experience. No matter how hard you tried to avoid the new experience, somehow, you couldn’t avoid stepping upon it.

The dual interface mess, in addition to the “main” UI not winning over users’ hearts, made Windows 8 a memorable release but for all the wrong reasons.

What About Windows 8.1?

Microsoft did take into account some of the well-deserved criticism. Well, kind of. It launched a mid-cycle release of Windows in the form of Windows 8.1 in an attempt to address some of 8’s biggest shortcomings. One small problem, though: most of those shortcomings were addressed poorly, or not at all.

For starters, Windows 8.1 brought back the Start button on the taskbar while you were in desktop mode. Except, clicking it would still bring up the redesigned start menu. Microsoft was not backing down on the new Metro design one bit, and the tiles and clunky interface were unavoidable. You could make the argument that Windows 8.1 felt a little bit more seamless and it was better for multitasking, but in the end, it was clearly a hasty and half-hearted plastering over of the lumps and bumps of Windows 8.

Ultimately, a balance between the new modern design and the old, desktop-friendly design wouldn’t be fully achieved until Microsoft launched Windows 10. Microsoft would gave up on Metro bit by bit in subsequent Windows 10 updates. By Windows 11, Metro was gone.

How Well Does Windows 8 Work?

To know exactly how well Windows 8 works, I fired up a VM and checked it out myself. And what I found was, well, a bit jarring.

For full disclosure, before I wrote this article, my experience was limited to Windows 8.1 rather than the original release of Windows 8. It was somehow worse than I expected, and I already had low expectations going into the experiment.

images of Windows 8 on a virtual machine, showing the desktop, explorer interface, and "About computer page"
Arol Wright / How-To Geek

As you can imagine, there is no start menu in desktop mode, and that’s something that actually complicates your navigation experience quite a bit. Still, other than that, it looks and feels mostly like Windows 7 does, albeit a slightly more polished version of Windows 7.

The problems appear whenever you need to deal with the new modern design. At least in its initial version, it was hard to navigate. You can select apps from the pinned Metro tiles, download apps from the Microsoft Store, or see a full list of apps by right-clicking and selecting the “All apps” option.

images of Windows 8 on a virtual machine, showing the start menu, all apps menu, and settings app
Arol Wright / How-To Geek

This last bit, in particular, made navigation pretty annoying because most of the modern tiles are also modern-style Windows apps. If you need to go back to an older menu for any reason, you needed to bring up the “All apps” panel.

images of Windows 8 on a virtual machine, showing the Control Panel
Arol Wright / How-To Geek

The modern settings menu was well hidden, but at least I could access the Control Panel and other old-school Windows menus in desktop mode eventually.

Still, this is not ideal. To be fair to Microsoft, while it didn’t back down from this design, it fixed a lot of these complaints in Windows 8.1. Regardless of this, when Windows 10 arrived, it was a breath of fresh air for many, and I now have a better understanding of why. You really can’t fully appreciate how clean and easy to use Windows 10 was until you’ve run the gauntlet of Windows 8.

Windows 8 Was Not Good

When I looked at Windows Vista, I made the argument (despite it being one of the most infamous Windows releases) that it was a “misunderstood” release. With Windows 8, I can’t say the same. It introduced many changes, to be sure, but most of them Microsoft ended up rolling back.

Further, those changes have had little to no influence on current Windows. And, overall, unless you were using it on a tablet or a 2-in-1 PC—which it was clearly intended for—the user experience was quite unpleasant.

Factoring in all that, it’s undeniable that Windows 10 was a massive upgrade, and Microsoft did well in understanding its missteps in the Windows 8 and Metro UI experiment.

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