Ad Age Tests Out Microsoft's Windows 8

Will Consumers Be Willing to Learn a Whole New Way to Use Their PC?

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If you've read anything about the new operating system that Microsoft will launch later this week with hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing, you know there is a big divide among early reviewers. One camp praises it as revolutionary, while the other dismisses it as a too-complicated and unnecessary revision.

One of the main complaints from naysayers -- and even the pro-Windows 8 people admit -- is that the new interface is so radically different from any previous Windows operating system that it forces users to learn a whole new way to use their PC.

The familiar start button is gone, for instance. The absence of a toolbar at the bottom of the home page for easy toggling is another gripe. But is it just the anti-change crowd roaring or is Windows 8 really too complicated for the average user?

Windows 8 Start Screen
Windows 8 Start Screen

I checked it out at Best Buy, which began doing demonstrations of Windows 8 in its stores this week, and what I discovered is that both the pros and the cons are right about one thing: Windows 8 is very different from any other Windows operating system. Even at first glance the change is obvious. The home screen is a plain blue background full of colorful tiles that link to programs and apps.

One of the most useful buttons for the confused -- and I was one of those at first -- is the Windows logo key. On the keyboards of the PCs, and in the center of the bottom edge on the touch-only tablets, is a Windows logo key that always takes you back to the home screen.

Omar, the salesman at my local Best Buy in York, Pa., showed me that , along with a great deal of enthusiasm for Windows 8 in general. Throughout the demo, he began at least half a dozen sentences with "The cool thing is ..." Granted, he works for Best Buy and is a 21-year-old technophile, but he also said that at first he thought Windows 8 was no big deal. But now, after several weeks of using it, which also included training from Microsoft and Best Buy, he's saving for a Lenovo Yoga convertible, MSRP $999, after he pays for the new tires he can't drive without.

Derek, who works for the Direct TV store inside Best Buy, told me he's also thinking about buying the same Lenovo convertible and will sell his iPad to help finance it. He said he is "over the iPad" and frustrated with its word processing and spreadsheet programs, especially for work tasks.

I'll admit: The Yoga computer the salesmen showed me is impressive. The screen folds over to become flat, which looks neat, but even more interesting was the dual-touch and PC functions. Users can touch the screen like a tablet, or type on the keys, or do both. That appeals to me because, going back and forth between a PC and an iPad, I occasionally touch the PC screen to perform a task (much to the amusement of my children).

A middle-aged man was listening to Omar's demo with me and a few minutes into it, he said, "That's enough for me. I'm sold," and left.

I wasn't as sure and repeated my concern again about having to learn a whole new system, but Omar and Derek insisted it was only a matter of time. The more you use it, the easier it gets, they said. I have watched some of the online videos showing confused people on the street who don't know what to do with Windows 8, but they're flying blind. Operating Windows 8 requires either a demonstration from a salesperson or tutorials, which are included on the home page. But once you know, for instance, that the Windows logo key will always take you to the home screen; or that you have to move the pointer to the lower right-hand side of the screen and click to get the start button (along with devices, settings, share and search buttons); or that you can right-click at any time to retrieve a toolbar at the top or bottom of the app, it gets much easier.

Our household is probably a common one, with a mix of Apple (an iPad, MacBook Air and two iPhones) and PC products (a Dell laptop, HP laptop and an HP desktop), but I would like to stop carrying around a tablet and a PC, so for me, a combined device that works well is tempting.

Microsoft is betting big that others will be tempted, too. And not only by convertibles, but by the PCs and the host of new tablets coming soon that will run Windows 8, including its own Surface tablet (Best Buy didn't have those on display yet).

The make-or-break question for Microsoft is : Will consumers think that scaling the learning curve for Windows 8 is worth it or not?

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