Worst Time Ever to Buy a Computer

This is the worst time in many, many years to buy a new computer at retail, and it’s all Microsoft’s fault.  Windows 8 is, in my opinion, the worst new version of Windows ever.

There are many ways to define “worst” so let me start by explaining what I mean by it.  I sell computers mainly to people who know that they will need professional assistance.  They trust me to sell them what they need to do their work, and to fix their computers when they go wrong.  So my definition of a “good” operating system is one that generates fewer unhappy phone calls.

Windows 95 and 98 were prone to lockups and blue screens; Windows XP made those problems better, and added a lot of nice functionality.  It’s no accident that Windows XP right now commands just over 38% of the desktop operating system market, according to netmarketshare.com’s March 2013 statistics; it’s the #2 version of Windows, and the #2 desktop operating system overall.  It was pretty good, obviously.

Windows Vista came along, and we all hated it.  It felt slow and clunky, and had no real advantages over XP for most business and home users.  But Windows 7 appeared and redeemed the name; it had much the same user interface as Vista, but didn’t feel clunky anymore.

Throughout all that, the PC world was dominated by a desktop full of icons (that the savvy user could customize to suit his or her needs), a taskbar (at the bottom, unless you moved it, but always on the screen) and a Start menu with all your application programs on it.  From Windows 95 to Windows 7, you could get your work done the same way.  You didn’t have to learn something all new.

Now we have Windows 8.  The desktop full of icons is hidden, relegated to a sort of backroom like a second-class citizen.  In its proper place we now find a screen full of boxes, many of them animated, like a bunch of billboards screaming for our attention.  Gone is that reassuring Start button with all your programs neatly organized where you can find them.  Sure, experienced users made their own icons, on the Desktop or the top of the Start Menu or even in the Quick Launch area on the taskbar; but sometimes you need that program you rarely use, and you know it’s there, on the Start Menu, when you need it.

My daughter is an experienced computer user.  At school, most of the computers run Windows XP.  At home we run various flavors of Ubuntu Linux.  She also has experience with Windows 7 and Android.  The first time she saw Windows 8 (on a demo computer at a retail store), she couldn’t figure out how to start Microsoft Paint.

Sounds easy, right?  So it’s not on the new Start screen.  You figure out how to scroll the screen sideways, but you still can’t find it.  Then you notice one of the big rectangular buttons says Desktop, so you click it.  For a moment, you think you’re in Windows 7 again… taskbar at the bottom, icons on the screen, some pleasant wallpaper behind it all.  But… there’s no Start button.

Eventually you figure out how to get back to the Start screen (there are several ways, none of them obvious… but the Windows key on the keyboard will do it for you if you get stuck).  Now what?

Move the mouse pointer into the unmarked and unremarkable upper-right corner of the screen and float there a moment, and a bar of icons will slide out from the right side.  One of them is a magnifying glass.  Click that, and type in (yes, type in) the word “Paint.”

Finally, you can draw something.

Now imagine this from my perspective.  Much of the user interface is hidden, or obscure, like that unmarked corner of the screen (I’m told the lower-right corner also works, by the way).  If I sell that to my customers, I’ll get a lot of those unhappy phone calls.

Fortunately, I can still get Windows 7 Professional on new computers, by taking advantage of the “downgrade privilege.”  Any reseller who does business-grade computers can do that.  But just try to walk in to your local electronics superstore and get Windows 7 on a new computer.  If they can do it, it will be at a premium.

You may think, hey, I’m kind of technical, maybe I can buy that discount laptop and then install my old copy of Windows XP on it.  Hold your horses.  Ignoring the legal issues (and I’m not a lawyer so I won’t comment on them), you’re going to have a hard time with that.  Windows 8 uses and requires a new “secure boot” feature which must be built in to your computer; this feature is called UEFI.  Some new computers, including a large number of lower-priced laptops, will only boot a UEFI-enabled operating system, and Windows XP (and Vista) is not able to boot on such a computer. Even if you can turn off the UEFI feature on your new computer, you may find that drivers needed for the computer to run properly are not available for XP (since the manufacturer never intended you to downgrade the operating system).

So what am I saying?

If you’re buying a new computer, and cost is an issue, please, try out a Windows 8 computer before you buy one.  Make sure you’re ready for it, and that it will do the things you need it to do.  If you can afford a little more expense, find a reseller who can set you up with a business-grade computer with Windows 7 Professional; I’m almost certain you’ll like it better than Windows 8.

Or of course, you can do what I do.  I sell Windows-based computers, but I run Linux on my personal and business machines; I have just one computer running Windows XP on which we do our accounting.  There are still issues with finding a computer that is not so crippled by UEFI as to prevent installing Linux, but hey, you get to save the price of the operating system (since Linux is free).

The PC industry is in a decline, they tell me, with sales down from last year 14% (according to IDC as reported by the Wall Street Journal).  While many blame the rise of tablets and smartphones, I believe the real culprit is Windows 8.  Flashy TV ads don’t make up for the fact Windows 8 is harder to learn and harder to use for the average person.

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