My verdict? The interface has some challenges – if you approach it from the expectation that it will work in the same manner as prior Windows versions. At first I was harshly critical of Windows 8 due to the missing Start button (frankly, I missed the train on the whole "pinning apps to the Taskbar" concept, since I like things tucked away neatly until I need them) and the way-too-busy Metro screen which reminds me of the flashy Las Vegas Strip. There is also the fact that navigating to familiar functions involves some seemingly tedious and unnecessary changes. Swipes, hotkeys and other non-intuitive procedures bogged me down. Furthermore, I have some concerns about the quality of the functions running underneath the interface as well (see "A word about the Windows Store" below).
I approach new technology from the mindset that if it's well-designed I should be able to mind-meld with it and figure things out on my own. However, to be fair, one size doesn't always fit all. It's impossible to really judge the Windows 8 interface without reading instruction guides, any more than you might try to fly a helicopter by playing with the collective or the pedals. Articles such as "The 10 most useful Windows 7 and Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts" and "A look at some Microsoft Windows 8.1 highlights" can help prepare you for the new OS, and a detailed video by Scott Hanselman can also be educational. These brought me to a point of semi-comfort where I could limp along to find the functions I needed.
Fortunately, add-ons are also there to help improve the experience and allow you to be more productive so you spend less time spinning your wheels. Classic Shell, for instance, can help restore familiarity to the Windows interface so you can get work done. On that same note, Google provides a search application which can be useful for Windows 8 users. Not only can you perform traditional search functions, but the program links you to other Google services such as Gmail, Calendar, Maps and Drive. Let's see how it works.
(Note: A Microsoft account is required for this process. I tested the steps below on the standard Windows 8 release; I think the process and operation of the add-on should be the same for Windows 8.1 but if you try it and find out otherwise please let me know in the Comments section).
You can find the Google Search app by opening the Windows Store tile from the Metro screen, pressing Win-Q to bring up the search box (Figure A) and entering "Google Search" (if you take this route, skip down to the "Figure B" screenshot).
An easier method is to access the Google Search app installation page directly in your browser.
Click "View in Windows Store."
Click the "Install" box and the installation will proceed (if prompted enter your Microsoft account credentials during this process).
The text "Installing Google Search" should be displayed in the upper right. When the process has completed a box will notify you that the installation has finished.
Return to the main Metro screen and you will see the new Google tile, (Figure C)
A word about the Windows Store
The above process is easy - assuming Windows 8 will allow you to access the Windows Store. I had some frustrating issues which I eventually straightened out, and they are as follows:
-I couldn't open the Store on my test Windows 8 virtual machine due to an error stating "We weren't able to connect to the Store. This might have happened because of a server problem or the network connection timed out. Please wait a few minutes and try again." The Internet connection was confirmed to be fully functional. Recommendations I found online to make sure the date/time were correct and confirm the proxy server settings did not help. I think the issue was related to the fact I couldn't sign into my Microsoft account on this system using the "Charms bar / Settings / Change PC Settings / Users" option; I kept getting the error that "This service isn't available right now - please try again later."
-I switched from my test Windows 8 VM to a physical Windows 8 laptop, logging in as the local administrator since the laptop was not on my domain. However, I still couldn't access the Windows store due to an error that "Store can't be opened using the built-in administrator account. Sign in with a different account and try again."
-I joined the laptop to the domain and signed in with my domain account. I was still unable to access the Store because of an error stating: "Your PC isn't connected to the Internet." Once again, the Internet connection was confirmed functional; the issue seemed to have been a refusal on the part of the Store app to use my proxy server.
-Finally I connected the laptop directly to the Internet via a wireless connection then tried again. I was told I needed to enable User Account Control to get to the Store. Summoning what remained of my patience, I did so, rebooted, and then logged back into Windows. At long last, after I accessed the Store and logged in with my Microsoft account, I was able to proceed with the installation of the Google Search app. Then I went to find some champagne.
In a word: unacceptable. Hopefully your results with the Windows Store have been better.Back to our regularly scheduled programming
Now that the Google Search tile is present in your Metro screen, click "Google" and the following tutorial will load (assuming you're running this for the first time). (Figure D)
You can click "Close Tutorial" to start using the app right away, but if you click "Next" the tutorial will take you through the following helpful screens. (Figures E, F, G, H, and I)
Once you get to the final screen I recommend clicking "Sign in to your Google Account" since you'll need to do this to get the most benefit from the Search app.
Once you've signed in, you will receive the following prompt. (Figure J)
Choose "Allow" or "Block" depending on your preference.
At last you will see the Google Search app interface, shown in Figure K.
From this portal you can conduct a web search, view your History, access your Google Applications or use the Voice Search function.
For instance, when I clicked "History" my recent web searches showed up right away. (Figure L)
(OK, I'll admit it – even us system admins consult the Google for tips on things like searching in the Windows app store)
Clicking the "Applications" icon displayed the following icons. (Figure M)
And finally, when I accessed the "Voice Search" function I was prompted whether Google Search could use my microphone. (Figure N)
I clicked "Allow" and then the feature was available. (Figure O)
Simple and straightforward
The singer Morrissey recorded a song titled "You're gonna need someone on your side" for his album "Your Arsenal," released in 1992. The song came to mind during this process because I found the Google Search app a friendly addition to an otherwise complex environment that didn't always want to play nicely.
The cool thing about this program is that it's laid out intuitively with no surprises or potholes. Of course, you can get to these same functions via your browser, but it's handy to have these shortcuts for direct access.
On last thing to point out: I mentioned the free add-on "Classic Shell" which can bring the traditional start menu back to Windows 8. (Figure P)
Windows 8.1 has a start button of sorts, which resembles the following. (Figure Q)
Regardless of what your choice may be (or whether the default interface works fine for you), it's nice to have choices, period.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.