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Windows 8 Power Struggle: Metro vs Desktop
Date: Mar 09, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
Introduction to Metro
We've been looking forward to Windows 8's Consumer Preview for months. This, after all, is Microsoft's big chance to show what they've been working on and unveiling bit by bit for the past year; a chance to evaluate the sum total of changes and advancements baked into the next-generation operating system. We'll discuss some of the features of Metro and Desktop (aka Classic) separately, but our overall focus will be on how the two environments interact with each other.

Understanding Metro:

Metro, Microsoft's new UI, is bold, a dramatic departure from anything the company has previously done in the desktop/laptop space, and absolutely great. It's tangible proof that Redmond really can design and build its own unique products and experiences. Metro's design heavily emphasizes text and uses brightly-colored background tiles as a means of differentiating programs. It uses very little chrome (in this context, the term "chrome" refers to the use of buttons and icons to represent specific functions). Minimize, Maximize, the X "close window" button and the taskbar itself are all examples of chrome.

The new Metro Start Screen

Also, there are no "windows" in Windows 8 Metro; all applications run full screen, regardless of whether that's the most efficient way to display the data or program in use. For a tablet in landscape mode, this structure works well; a number of Microsoft's preview apps are attractive and easy to use.

Metro's Movie app puts the entire screen to good use

At present, however, not everything translates well.  There is no Metro version of Windows Explorer yet, but Ashampoo's ImageFX photo utility gives us a look at an early version of a Metro-style Explorer window.

The above images show Metro's directory contents display, and the sub-folder selection options.

ImageFX Photo Utility

Here's how Ashampoo handles a full directory. All contents are laid out horizontally by default; scrolling downwards moves to the right. This layout works well if you simply want to view content but is much less effective for sorting files by name or date taken.

Now, let's consider Desktop mode and then look at how they mesh, or don't.

The Evolved Desktop
Desktop or "Classic" Mode:

Then there's the desktop. The changes here are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but there's a lot of subtle enhancements and improvements to how information is presented and moved around the operating system.

Explorer's new Ribbon interface, shown above, is a take-it-or-leave-it option. It's easily hidden, but, like the Ribbon interface in Office, may be easier for beginners to learn and use.

The new Task Manager (shown here cropped) is capable of tracking both how much CPU time applications have been using and the total amount of RAM devoted to them. It can also track applications over time (by default, it tracks software from the OS's initialization date.) "Tile Update" refers to the bandwidth consumed by updating program tiles on the Smart Screen.

The "Performance" tab of the Task Manager has been completely revamped; all eight logical cores here are at 100% utilization above because the system was running Prime95 when the screenshot was taken. The Resource Monitor is now directly accessible from the Performance Tab.

The Resource Monitor now highlights apps that are suspended and breaks out multiple subsystem graphs into a unified panel. This is a subtle change compared to Windows 7, but the data is generally more accessible and easier to parse.

Here's the thing...

For all their separate advances, Metro and Desktop don't get along well. You just have to open Metro's "Charms" with the desktop as the primary application, and the contrast between the two is jarring.

The Content Conundrum
The reason Metro and the Desktop interface don't work well together -- maybe the reason they can't work well together -- is that they take two fundamentally different approaches to displaying content. From the dawn of Windows up through Windows 7, Microsoft treated the operating system as a neutral framework designed to facilitate the navigation and display of whatever software the user saw fit to install. Take a look at the Start Screen again, this time from a "most common tasks" perspective.

Most common tasks, looking pretty and ready to fire up.

The programs listed above cover the vast majority of what computers are used for on a day-to-day basis, and the only programmed called out by name is Internet Explorer. Everything else is listed by task, not application name. This is Microsoft's new approach to computing and their formula for reinventing Windows. When it comes to consuming content, Metro is beautiful.

Music and Videos app, also nicely presented...

The Music and Video apps presents a seamless method of viewing TV shows, movies, and albums, with gorgeous screenshots and easily accessed controls.

Unfortunately, things rapidly fall apart when you install multiple programs or need to produce content of your own. Here's the Start Menu after we've installed a few test programs.

Metro's complete mess of an eye chart with a few program's installed.

The layout that works extremely well when working with a small number of tasks but falls apart completely when dealing with large numbers of programs and icons. There's only a handful of test software installed on the system shown above. What you're seeing is the translation of options normally embedded within sub-folders in the Start Menu when they're instead flattened and displayed in a single tree. It's a wretched excuse for icon layout, and zooming out doesn't exactly help.

Let's zoom out to get more screen real estate... oh, that's not good.

In these screenshots, we've purposely preserved the wasted space on a 1900x1200 monitor to demonstrate just how much of the screen goes unused. Holding down Control and scrolling backwards once, while in the Start Menu, creates the above.

Find the app needle in this haystack.

The more you need to edit content, the less time it takes for Metro to become useless. That's fine -- Microsoft left Desktop mode in for precisely this reason -- but forcing users to adopt the Smart Screen fractures the idea of shared OS functionality. In Desktop mode, the mouse is a sophisticated tool used for selecting options and moving content. In Metro, the mouse is your finger. There's no more double-clicking, while sub-menu functionality varies considerably from program to program.

This thing still needs work...

We understand why Microsoft wants everyone to move to the Start Screen. It's a natural reaction when you've spent years working on an interface, particularly given that this new interface will be infinitely better than the old one for a huge number of users. For tablets, Metro is brilliant. In other fields, it's less-than-suitable -- a fact MS has tacitly acknowledged by keeping the desktop prominently integrated in the first place.

News and Market Watch -- content, easily laid out and "consumed."  A One Trick Pony...

In this case, Redmond really should take a page from Cupertino's book. Apple's MacOS to OS X transition took place in stages; OS X wasn't shipped as the default operating system until it hit version 10.1; Apple maintained the Classic Environment option for running MacOS apps until Leopard hit in 2007. While the parallels are not exact, Apple's slow rollout schedule gave users time to learn the new environment and software developers time to adjust.

Given that Windows supports a software ecosystem that's multiple orders of magnitude larger than Apple's, forcing users to switch back and forth between the Metro Start Screen and everything else makes no sense. There are powerful Windows application vendors like Adobe and Autodesk for whom Metro is a non-starter; there's no practical way to revamp the entire program UI to match Metro's current design.

The best strategy Microsoft could take would be to introduce users to Metro via its included apps and through tablets, while prominently offering the option to maintain the Desktop environment. It literally costs the company nothing -- the desktop environment is already built in. Power users who choose to use the classic UI for desktops and laptops can still be exposed to Metro via tablets and applications without being forced to wade through it on their way to do something important.

This isn't an argument over which interface is "better," it's simply an issue of using the best tool for each task. Metro's Start Screen doesn't meet the needs of power users. Forcing people to change to something different when the superior interface for a particular task is still included in the OS will only breed resentment. Metro deserves a better launch than that.

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