Windows 8 without touch is like a day without sunshine

Microsoft shook things up with the interface on Windows 8 designed to work well both with touch and without. It got it half right.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
Win 8 no touch
Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

I'll admit that when Windows 8 first arrived it wasn't clear to me what the appeal might be for users. A user interface (UI) with controls to be used a lot but were hidden from the operator didn't make a lot of sense to me. It didn't help that the UI was intended to be used on devices allowing touch operation as well as conventional mouse and trackpad systems. It seemed that Microsoft was trying to do too much with the UI in order to appeal to the broadest market possible.

Windows 8 with its quirky UI has grown on me the more I have used it. I still think the system of swiping in from every edge of the screen to access common controls is not ideal but it works. After using it on a number of devices, mostly tablets and hybrids, I became proficient at getting what I needed done. It is not a particularly enjoyable user experience (UX), but it works fine.

Using Windows 8 with touch, as efficient as it can be given the design choices, does point out how very different the two UIs that exist within the OS are to the user. While touch works fine on the Metro side of things, it falls down on the desktop side. That's the side of Windows where the legacy stuff lives, and to get things done most users have to visit it often enough to discover that touch is not always their friend. It seems that Microsoft is trying to keep folks from straying into the legacy side of things unless it's really necessary, and keeping them in the warm Metro side of things.

With a little practice that's how my Windows 8 use has evolved on all the touch systems I have used. I try to stay on the Metro side of things so touch operation is as good as it can be, with brief forays into the desktop side only when necessary. To be honest, I try to avoid the desktop side if using a tablet, waiting to use it when the tablet is docked into a laptop dock to make it easier with the trackpad. I avoid using the touch screen on the desktop as much as possible, as it's not a clean UX.

This dual mode of operation that has evolved over time works fairly well and I enjoy using Windows 8 as a result. It took time but I have settled into an easy system of using Windows 8. Touch in Metro, trackpad/keyboard in desktop mode.

That's come crashing down as I am testing a new ThinkPad that lacks a touch screen. This 14-inch laptop (review of the T431s coming soon) is a great laptop in every way. It is thin and light yet powerful and good for both the consumer and enterprise crowds. It is the poster child for Windows 8 use, except it doesn't have a touch screen.

Microsoft has designed Windows 8 to work on such devices, so there should be no problem, right? The answer to that question is a big no. You can operate Windows 8 without touch by using the trackpad, but it is very clunky, jolting, and downright inefficient compared to touch operation.

Even with a good laptop trackpad like that on the Thinkpad, using the Metro UI is frustrating. Swiping the trackpad all the way across the surface to get to the tiny hidden corner controls to activate a common control, and then swiping back down to the newly exposed control strip is not efficient. It's not easy, either, which is worse. 

The design choice that requires a swipe from one side (or corner) of the display to acitivate common controls, and then have to go to the opposite side of the display to work with the exposed controls is not pleasant with a laptop trackpad. A common example of this is activating the control in Internet Explorer at the top of the screen and then having to get to the bottom to do something with the control. It's clunky and interruptive to the flow of things.

This leads me to want to stay on the desktop side of things when there's no touch screen, the opposite of the UX when using touch. The Metro side is not well-suited for trackpad use, so I want to stay on the desktop where it works better. That may be easier to do when Blue arrives according to the rumors floating around. Boot to the desktop and avoid Metro altogether if you don't have touch operation.

That's a good thing, but it points out how difficult it is to make Windows 8 the OS that works on all system types. It will never be the best it can be with touch or without. The user will likely have to decide to stay in Metro or in desktop mode based on the hardware on his/her PC. 

Using Windows 8 on a laptop without touch is like an overcast day without sunshine. Before you head out for the day you have to decide if you need to carry an umbrella to avoid getting caught in a shower. Using Windows 8 without touch makes you decide if you will take a mouse with the laptop to make Metro easier to navigate or take your chances it won't frustrate you too much without. Better yet, decide to stay in the legacy side and avoid Metro altogether. It's too bad the UX without touch is so very different than that with touch systems. Windows 8 makes you adjust your use depending on the hardware present, and that's not what an OS should do.

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