What not to buy on Black Friday: Windows 8 PCs & laptops

The good news is that all your local retailers are going to have great deals on PCs and notebooks on Black Friday. The bad news is that almost every last one of them will be running Windows 8.

Windows 8, on second thought, it really is just as had as it was when I first saw it.

I decided to take a break from Windows 8. I thought if I took a breather and then came back to Microsoft's newest operating system on a brand new PC, an ASUS CM6830 with a 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 processor, NVIDIA GT 620 graphics, 8GBs of RAM, and a fast 7200 RPM 1TB hard drive, I might see something different. You'll find this model, and dozens of others, at Best Buy and other retailers, for great prices on Black Friday. They all have only one problem: They're all still running Windows 8 and it's just as bad as  I remembered.

How do I hate thee Windows 8? Let me count the ways.

1. Double Desktop Disaster

I've always hated the new Windows 8 interface, "Modern," a.k.a. Metro, interface . It replaces the windows, icons, menus, and pointers (WIMP) user interface (UI) we've known for decades with those annoying tiles.

In Metro, you can only work with applications in tiles or in full-screen format. That may be fine on a Surface or a smartphone's limited screen real-estate, but it's annoying as all heck on large flat-screen displays. Even more annoying is that these full-sized applications, such as Mail, often leave large swathes  of my screen unused.

Windows 8 does include another interface, Windows 8 Desktop. It works like the old Windows WIMP interface... except it's uglier and harder to use. Windows 7's Aero smooth curves? Gone. The Start button? History. Integration with Metro and its applications? Abysmal.

Windows 8 Desktop
Windows 8's Desktop looks much more like "Windows," but the interface still has only a fraction of Windows 7 Aero's functionality.

I spent several days trying to get the hang of jumping from one interface to the other. When all was said and done, I still found myself getting annoyed that I had to learn not one, but two, new interfaces and even more annoyed that what worked on on one interface would often not work on the other. Most of what I've learned about Windows, dating back to the 1.0 days, was now useless. 

My ZDNet colleague David Gewirtz recently said, " Windows 8 is the opposite of the Ribbon. Instead of laying out everything users need, where they need it, Windows 8 takes away a lot of functions and a lot of visual clues." Exactly.

The bottom line Metro is change for the sake of change. It isn’t a UI change that makes things better for users. The Desktop interface is a major step back in functionality and adds insult to injury by requiring to learn new ways of doing the same old things you already knew how to do on Windows 7. 

2. Applications Woes

Before you buy a new Windows 8 PC at any price you should keep in mind that many of your old applications aren't supported on Windows 8. Some older Windows applications, such as Quicken, aren't supported on Windows 8. Indeed. in the case of QuickBooks, no older version of this accounting staple will ever be supported on Windows 8. In other words, you can add to your final bill for your cheap new PC the cost of new editions of your must-have programs.

Plus, Microsoft has been removing functionality from Windows 8. If you want to play DVDs on Windows 8 or use it as a media center, you need to find another program.

That’s not all the annoyances. Some Windows 8 Metro apps come with built-in ads. On mobile operating systems, such as Android and iOS, we often see "free" apps that come with built-in advertisements, and we acknowledge that this is how those software publishers stay in business. But in the case of these Metro apps, these ads are incorporated into Microsoft's own software, and you already paid full price for Windows 8!

Just what I always wanted when I was looking for local weather: A shampoo video ad .

This is Microsoft taking crapware to a whole new level. Ordinary crapware, the junk programs that many vendors install on PCs? Microsoft will remove that junk for you for $99. Windows 8's built-in ads? It looks to me like the only way to stop them is to not use Metro adware apps such as Finance,Weather, Travel, and News.

3. Botched Built-in Functionality

For reasons that escape me, Microsoft not only dumped its old desktop interface, it also changed basic functionality within both Metro and Desktop. The most radical of these changes is the replacement of a lot of the functionality you used to find under Start button with charms. Charms are icons show up on your display's right side in the charms bar to provide quick access to such commonly used features as hardware device controls, search, sharing, the Metro Start screen, and system settings.

To this all I can do is ask again is what was so wrong with the Start button? Can anyone really be surprised that numerous companies, such as SweetLabs and StarDock,are offering Start Button replacements for Windows 8 ? I'm not.

The real trouble starts when you begin using the charms. Besides not even coming close to replacing the functionality of the Start button, their design is… not so charming. For example, say I want to share a news story from the Bing News app with the Share charm. On any other operating system on the planet, I'd copy and paste the link to a Web page, IM client, e-mail, whatever. With Share, I end up with Bing News-specific URLs: "bingnews://"

What the heck good does this URL do me? The only program that understands it is the Windows 8 Bing News app. Say I'm sending the link to a friend who's running Windows 8; they'll get it, right? Wrong. Other Windows 8 apps, such as IE 10, don't know what to do with bingnews links either. Years of development, over a year in open beta, and this is the best they can do?

That’s just the start. (Oh, wait, we don’t have Start anymore.) Take the search charm, for example. It does both global searches—look for anything that matches on my PC--and local searches-- look inside my application. Maybe this is easier for some people, but to me "search everything" and "search inside my application" are very different activities. It adds an extra and confusing layer to basic search. 

The Windows 8 search charm, and its close relative the share charm, are also annoying because it doesn’t always make it easier to look for data within a particular context or to use it once I dod find it. Let’s say I want to send an instant message to a business colleague using the Windows 8 Messaging app; I need to find her ID with search. Trivial, right? I wish!

The Messaging app doesn't have an address book and it also doesn't have access to the People app's contact list. So, when I try to search for a contact's ID, I get a "Contact Picker," from which I have to walk my way through my list of thousands of contacts. Meanwhile, with Google Talk on any Web browser on any other operating system, I just type in what I can recall of someone's name, and ta-da, there they are.

But, wait there's more! For me one of single most annoying utter failure for a built-in Windows 8 app, though, goes to Windows 8 Mail. While it has many problems, the one that jumped up and annoyed me first was that it doesn't support Post Office Protocol 3 (POP 3). For some reason, Microsoft gives POP3 as an option, but if you choose it, only tells you that you can't use it. Pardon me, why did you offer me this then?

I'm sorry, if you don't support POP3 e-mail, why did you give it to me as an option?

There was worse to come. I left Windows 8 mail to do something else. Then I came back to it to set it up to my Gmail account... and I found only a large white screen without a single clue as to what I should do next. I hunted on the Web and found out that this blank display wasn't Windows 8's answer to the blue screen of death. Instead, it's what the e-mail client looks like when it's not been setup completely. To set it up properly, I had to get to the charm setting for mail. Can you see it there? You get there from an invisble hot spot on the top-right corner. Thanks for the help with the setup Microsoft! I really appreciated it. 

No, that's not my mistake, this blank screen is what Windows 8 mail gives you if you didn't set it up with an account the first time.

The Windows 8 mail client actually left me wishing I could use Outlook, and I've always hated Outlook. 

It all boils down to the same thing. Windows 8 offers less functionality than Linux Mint, my favorite desktop operating system, or than Windows XP for that matter. And, adding insult to injury, it insists on me learning a new way of using what functionality there is. Ack!

4. Black Friday Windows 8 Concerns

Let's say you want to buy a PC anyway on Black Friday. The prices are too tempting or you promised little Johnnie you'd get him a new laptop, whatever.

You should keep the following things in mind. One, if your stores are anything like the ones around where I live your only choice will be Macs or Windows 8 PCs. Windows 7 PCs are all but gone from the shelves. If you want to buy a Windows 7 desktop or laptop, you'll need to order it.

Two, you can't "downgrade" from the Windows 8 you'll find on retail PCs to Windows 7 . You can only downgrade from Windows 8 Pro PCs to Windows 7, and those are not the ones you're going to find at a killer price at your Wal-Mart.

Three, it's often hard to replace Window 8 with Windows 7, or any other operating system such as Linux anyway on your own. I've been switching out operating systems on PCs for decades, and I'm still having fits replacing or dual-booting Windows 8 thanks to Windows 8's UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) Secure Boot "feature."

Fourth, and maybe the most important of all, just remember. If you buy someone a Windows 8 PC, chances are they're going to look to you to teach them how to use it and be there for them for tech. support. Good luck with that.

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