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Microsoft's Windows 8 and why it's a desktop disaster: Our review

I sat staring at the screen, my emotions lodged somewhere between dumbfounded and despondent. From what I was seeing, I knew I'd made a horrific mistake, and restitution must be made immediately. I'd been told time and time again there was no going back; what's done is done, you have to accept it, there's no living in the past. But a violation this total demanded only one response from me.

I had to uninstall Windows 8, and I had to do it immediately.

What possessed me to put the latest version of Microsoft's flagship operating system on my home computer this past fateful weekend, I'll never know. To some extent, I'm sure, it was the persistent ministrations of my colleagues Michael Muchmore and Samara Lynn, who had been trying to sell me on Windows 8 for months. I'd dabbled in every major version since the Developer Preview, and never warmed to it, but I'd somehow succeeded in convincing myself that this time things would be different.

Yet the instant I saw my entire 1,920 x 1,200 monitor consumed with only the Windows 8 update notifications – the rest of the screen a field of white vast enough to drive Alaska to fits of murderous envy – it was clear I'd been drastically mistaken. Windows 8 is not, by any stretch of the imagination, for me. And it's time I stopped pretending otherwise.

Don't get me wrong: My feelings about it have evolved, and even softened, over the past year. At first I saw nothing of worth in this radical new spin on the tried-and-true Windows formula. But as I explored it on touch systems, rather than on my beloved (and – pardon me if I brag – insanely powerful) desktop PC, I began to discover some virtues in it. To my eye (and fingers), it's at least as good at driving such devices as iOS, and perhaps even better: It's slicker, livelier, and treats the user as more innately capable of making intelligent decisions.

More power still revealed itself when I did additional research. Being a big traditional computer guy, I live by the keyboard – and discovering and mastering Windows 8's myriad Windows key shortcuts increased and improved the level of my accomplishments. It was partially this experience, I think, that led me to believe that maybe I could deal with this on a 24/7 basis away from work.

Unfortunately, the disjointed time I'd spent with Windows 8 before did not prepare me for what using it at home would entail. After (an admittedly painless) installation, I was faced with the garish Start screen, loaded with apps that didn't interest me at all. I clicked on a couple to see how I'd respond to them. The Weather and Stock apps were pretty, no doubt – but did each one need to occupy upwards of two million pixels on my screen? Because all the Start apps open full-screen, too little information was looking much too big – and there's no way to change this.

Frustrated, I decided to check my Hotmail account (also the source of the Microsoft ID I entered while configuring Windows 8). I clicked on one new message, then another. The first wasn't marked read. Clicking on a third did mark the second one read, for some reason. I decided I wanted to file these, so I held down the mouse button and dragged the message just as on, but that didn't work as it had for some 17 years of Windows history. To move the message now, you have to click an icon on the bottom right of the screen to start the process; this is an unintuitive change whether you're using your finger or a mouse.

I was certain that Internet Explorer must be better. Launching it revealed the ITProPortal home page, centred on my enormous display, with gaping chasms of white on each side. Naturally, I couldn't resize the window. So I went to open a new tab. Except I couldn't do that, either: One browser window per screen.

I then fled to my safe haven, the Desktop – now treated just as any other app. No Start button, right. But I could launch Internet Explorer here. Finally! Separate windows! Tabs! Except... things didn't look very good. The smoothly elegant rounded glass of Aero has been replaced by sharp, unfriendly two-dimensional corners I was sure had gone the way of Microsoft Bob. I moved to use Windows key-D to show my bare desktop, but my finger slipped half a second too early and I was thrown back to Start.

From there, I decided maybe I should see the Control Panel. That shunted me back to the Desktop. Ditto Task Manager. Ditto any of several other deep-dive settings functions I use on a daily basis. But changing the image on the Start or Lock screens, or powering off the computer, could only be done through the new Windows 8 interface.

I gritted my teeth and endured it for as long as I could, the constant schizophrenic flipping between Start and Desktop environments propelling me ever nearer to total mental breakdown. When I decided to update a few apps from the Microsoft Store, and received the indication that wasted more 90 per cent of the screen, I knew it was time for this experiment to end. I wiped the hard drive, reinstalled Windows 7, and have not looked back since.

As I struggled to try to make sense of what was where, and more importantly why things were where they were, it became clearer than ever to me that Microsoft had never actually intended the Start screen and the Desktop to work together. So haphazard, so clunky, so confusing was everything, one could only conclude that all the company cared about was the touch market, and it was doing everything it could to discourage Desktop (and desktop) use once and for all.

Pushing past the present

Microsoft is not necessarily wrong for doing this. With tablets and other mobile systems increasing in popularity, any tech company should be courting them. And, as far as Windows 8 and its kid cousin, Windows RT, are concerned, ruling over the kingdom of touch is a real possibility. Although I'm not sure I can really say I've liked using Windows 8 on touch devices, I can absolutely say I haven't hated it.

I realise I'm not part of Microsoft's target audience anymore, but I still think power users like myself – I've been using Windows for 22 years – deserve better. If I've been using GUI-based operating systems for nearly three decades and this one regularly for over a year, and it still fails to suffice for basic tasks, there's something seriously wrong.

The danger Microsoft faces is also the danger it's scrupulously trying to avoid: The industry isn't the same as it once was. Phones and tablets may be taking over, but Microsoft's dominance is also threatened as it's never been before. Real alternatives are getting real attention, and they've never had a better opportunity to gobble up the people Microsoft is casting aside.

The latest versions of Mac OS X are far more usable and appealing than Windows 8. Many Linux distributions, starting with the well-known Ubuntu, have made rapid-fire about-faces in recent months to get themselves in shape to fill the vacuum Windows 8 has been creating. Both operating systems make multi-window multitasking a clean, smooth reality, acknowledging, as Microsoft will not, that most people still work that way.

Hope for us Windows lovers, however, is not necessarily lost. Microsoft has demonstrated some ability to learn from its mistakes and come back stronger. Nearly six years ago, Windows Vista fizzled upon its release, but was redeemed by a comprehensive service pack and then, within two and a half years or so, Windows 7. There's no reason it can't weave similar magic on 2012's deeply flawed OS.

But Microsoft must have the will to do so. If the future is touch, why should it waste time and resources considering how Windows 8 works with creaky keyboards and mice? What Microsoft has forgotten is that you can't get to the future without moving through the present.

In trying to skip over today, the folks in Redmond have angered a lot of people – and wasted their time and monitor real estate just like they've wasted mine.

I've been forgiving of Microsoft's foibles and idiosyncrasies for a long time, but my patience has about run out. If Microsoft wants me to use Windows 8 or a touch system, it has to give me a concrete reason – and one boring app per screen ain't gonna cut it.

Otherwise, I'll stick with Windows 7 – and maybe even dual-boot Linux with it at the same time. Those two operating systems together give me everything I need. Windows 8 doesn't come close. Worse still, it doesn't even try.