A Horrible Windows 8 Experience

Microsoft wants everyone to join its wave of innovation and get current by upgrading to Windows 8. I tried, and it only took 48 hours of trying on what was supposed to be a cutting-edge Lenovo Helix to make me want to run screaming to Apple.

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Lenovo HelixWindows 8 has been on the market for nearly a year and the first significant update, Windows 8.1, is due for release in a few short weeks. Nevertheless, I can already see why Microsoft Corp. is having such trouble getting people to “get” its new platform.

My new Lenovo Helix arrived Friday afternoon. I would like to say this was an impulse buy, but it was more accidental. I’ve been spying the Helix since its announcement at CES last January. It has all the features no other convertible computer has: the convenience of a tablet, a full version of Windows, a full-sized keyboard, good battery life and the power of an Intel Core i7 processor. Most of all, it has the TrackPoint mouse controller; I’ve never adapted to the touchpad. Even at its high price, it seemed like the perfect machine to me, and many solution providers recommended it.

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So why was the purchase accidental? I was on the verge of ordering a Helix when it first became available in May, but the price scared me off. I just couldn’t justify the expense when my current notebook, a Toshiba Tecra running Windows 7 Pro, was working just fine. I was snooping around Lenovo’s site and saw the ship times were running as long as 10 days. I went to Amazon.com to compare and saw better machines with more features at a slightly lower price were available almost immediately. I went to click on the shopping cart to see the ship options, and… volia! ... my machine was ordered and set for 48-hour delivery.


Christmas in July

Opening the box is always exciting. I was like a kid at Christmas, ready to play with my new toy. Based on what everyone told me, I thought this would be an eye-opening experience -- having the flexibility of the mobile and traditional worlds. I was wrong.

I’ve been a Windows devotee since Windows 3.1. I remember buying my second PC with that operating system preinstalled. It was a godsend; applications and files were easily located and accessed without having to remember and type long code strings through the DOS prompt. Windows 95 made file management simpler and more like, dare I say, the Macintosh experience. Microsoft probably did itself the biggest favor back in 1995 by modeling Windows after the Apple experience, which of course is a ripoff of the old Xerox Alto GUI, but I digress.

I was looking forward to Windows 8 long before its release. I had seen advanced versions of it for a couple of years. Microsoft staffers had told me that the tile interface, formerly known as “Metro,” was similar to the Windows Phone interface. Seems more than reasonable for an operating system that was intended to cross over the legacy PC and tablet divide.


Apple's Wisdom Becomes Clear

So far, I can see why Apple never merged iOS and the OS X operating systems: They serve two different masters. iOS, which powers iPhones and iPads, is designed for what we used to call “applets,” or small footprint applications. OS X is a personal computer operating system, designed for large applications and more powerful machines. Windows 8 attempts to merge the two, and not very successfully. The touch interface has titles for apps (mobile) and regular software. While not necessarily a bad thing, getting from one app to the next isn’t easy. It requires toggling out of one app back to the title interface and then to the next app.

Windows 8 does allow you to go down to the conventional desktop. I can see why the omission of the “Start” button is such a problem for longtime Windows users. While it looks like Windows 7, navigating is hardly the same. You can’t easily find applications for pinning to the toolbar and you certainly don’t have an easy time using the desktop as a workspace. (Yes, I’m guilty of having a cluttered desktop.)

Microsoft’s biggest sin is limiting the ability to customize my Windows experience. The conventional “Settings” limit users to a few options for manipulating the look and feel of Windows. You really have to dig down into the Control Panel to find ways of shutting off certain applications and device controllers. I’m sure there’re ways to customize the experience; hence the reason why this was a weeklong experiment.

As far as the tablet experience goes, well, I can honestly say it’s not an iPad. Windows 8 on the Lenovo Helix feels like a bad Transformer that never made it off the Isle of Misfit Toys (see Charlie in a Box). While the 11.6-inch screen is nice and makes the Helix a seemingly reasonable PC replacement, the display settings leave much to be desired.

Compared to similar machines, such as the Acer Aspire and Samsung Series 7 ATIV, Lenovo was wise to make the Helix screen high resolution. It’s got a nice, crystal-clear look. But, Windows 8 insists the best resolution and display size is tiny. I’m going to go blind trying to read the different buttons. And hitting the control buttons, such as the X for closing windows and applications, is next to impossible without the stylus. I thought Microsoft was screwing with me by limiting my ability to change the settings of Google Chrome -- my preferred browser -- but I had the same trouble with Internet Explorer. The resolution and display sizes are an issue, since fat fingers are nearly useless in clicking on minute touch points, such as shrunken browser tabs. It kind of defeats the purpose of having the touch interface.


Oh, Office 365 is a Treat, Too

I started the trial version of Office 365, another Microsoft suite about which I’ve been curious. Given that there are PCs all over my house, I figured $99 a year might be worth it rather than paying $219 for single licenses. I do like how Office 2013 feels more fluid. But configuring Outlook seems practically impossible. It didn’t recognize the credentials to my hosted server, so I tried to delete the configuration and start over, but Outlook won’t let me without renaming the OST data file. Good luck finding that with the kludgy file system.

While I wanted Office on a tablet for a while, I can now see the impracticality. The Office suite is next to useless without having some sort of mouse control. Just try to manipulate an Excel spreadsheet with your fingers or stylus. Those who say the PC will make a comeback, I say I hope so. I need my hotkeys, mouse arrow and a stable interface to make my common productivity apps worthwhile.


Problems with Lenovo

If that weren’t bad enough, the Lenovo Helix turns out to be a piece of garbage. The big selling point of this machine is the high-performance architecture and the external keyboard. Well, guess what doesn’t work out of the box? The external keyboard. Lenovo’s online forums speak to this problem being related to a “fan error”; the remediation is a reset with a paperclip and a firmware update. Did both, and got it working again, but halfway through one of the above paragraphs, it stopped working… again.

This time I turned to Lenovo’s crack 24-hour support line. I had called before, but didn’t have the time to troubleshoot the problem. On both calls, neither tech had any idea what the Helix is, and it was painful explaining that I wasn’t calling about a third-party Bluetooth or USB keyboard. Unable to troubleshoot the problem, the tech gave up and ordered a replacement keyboard. That essentially means my experiment is now over until at least Tuesday.


Final Verdict: Fail

At Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference earlier this month, chief operating officer Kevin Turner implored Microsoft solution providers to get current on the latest products and technologies, most especially Windows 8. As a longtime Microsoft user and tech enthusiast, I actually felt a little guilty for not getting on the bandwagon sooner. I should have upgraded to Windows 8 earlier this year. I should have bought a Surface or other Windows 8 tablet when they became available. Instead, I waited on the sidelines.

Microsoft and its defenders might say I didn't give Windows 8 enough of a chance. Well, I have to say that chance started the minute I hit the power button and the Windows logo appeared. Everything went down hill from there. Now that I’ve had a little experience with the Windows 8 ecosystem, I can finally say I’m ready to buy my first Mac.


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