Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Review: Windows: The Official Magazine Launch Issue

This is the first of several 'resource' reviews that will be appearing as part of my Week with Windows 8 series of blog posts. The week will officially kick off as soon as my new Dell hardware gets delivered (Dell say today, but....)

Background Information

The Week of Windows 8 Challenge

As a (recently disillusioned) developer in the Microsoft world I've been unimpressed with what I've seen of Windows 8 and have not not wanted to waste any time on something I perceive to be 'another Windows Vista - but worse!'. However I've accepted a challenge from journalist Tim Anderson to try Windows 8 EXCLUSIVELY for a week and give it a second chance. I'm not going to be using it in terms of developing specifically for the platform (that would require more time and a bigger learning curve), but in terms of switching to using it as the main Operating System for my day-to-day work.

I'm interested in approaching it as I think most of my application end users would rather than with my 'developer' hat on. After all if end users don't get a good experience then they'll likely migrate elsewhere (or avoid migrating altogether) and there won't be any clients for Windows 8 specific development anyway.

Windows: The Official magazine - Launch issue front cover

Why 'Windows: The Offical Magazine?'

I think Google/Bing and blogs have become a waste of time for learning new mainstream stuff like this. It seems like the only people who blog are those who like working at the 'bleeding edge', and experience has taught me that you google stuff like 'Windows 8' and end up with a bunch of outdated and inaccurate information based on early preview releases where the author has forgotten to point out that it was based on an early preview rather than what actually ended up shipping.

By the time a product goes 'RTM' the bleeding edge crowd have moved on to the latest alpha or beta product so nobody's blogging about the stuff people actually use day to day. For the man in the street the usual recourse is to pick up a 'starter' publication like this (with a cover promoting 'Windows 8 is here') or two of the other titles I hope to review before my week's up: The PC Pro Ultimate Guide to Windows which is a 'fat magazine' format available at many newsagents, and Windows 8 Step-by-Step a Microsoft Press book which I had to order from Amazon because for the first time I can remember local book stores don't seem to be selling Windows 8 books, at least if the large Waterstones in Southampton City Centre is typical. This is disappointing because several titles are already available.

To be honest, I would have preferred to have started with the PC Pro guide, but it doesn't seem right to review that until I can compare it with a typical book offering, and I'm still waiting on Amazon to deliver the Step-by-Step book. Windows: The Official Magazine is easier to review whilst I'm waiting for my new hardware to arrive because it's a 'standalone' product and the first issue of a monthly magazine that will be focussed entirely on Windows 8. The magazine title might lead you to believe it also covers Windows 7 and earlier releases, but it doesn't, if this first issue is anything to go by.

Full Disclosure

I have some 'prior history' with this publication (or more accurately, its predecessor, since this seems mainly to be a relaunch of the old Windows magazine, timed to coincide with the public launch of Windows 8).

A few years ago when I was 'between contracts' Craig Murphy forwarded me a request from Future Publishing for a reader to go to their offices in Bath to do a review comparison of four consumer video cameras. As the 'go to' guy for London-based user group video with some time on his hands Craig thought I might be interested. There was no money available, just expenses - ie the train fare and lunch. I never got the train fare because it took Future Publishing over a week to get the admin sorted to send me the tickets which arrived the day after they needed me on site. Promises to refund the money I had paid for the tickets never materialised despite several emails promising it would get sorted. I was kept waiting an hour in reception for reasons that were never really made clear and when I finally got access to the magazine's offices (actually an open plan area hosting many different Future Publishing magazines) at midday it turned out that one of the cameras for review had been 'lost' and they'd forgotten to actually charge the batteries for one of the others, so we had to wait until after lunch to start the 'full day' review. Lunch was a sandwich from the local Marks and Spencers so that was a bit disappointing too. An hour spent mostly posing with different cameras just outside the company offices with a freelance photographer who had to cope with endless rain, meant that I had about half an hour to sum up my findings and declare a 'winner' despite not having time to seriously analyse any of the footage I'd managed to get with the three cameras or to read through the user manuals that came with the cameras.

After that experience I started to understand why reviews in magazines rarely seem to reflect reality, and Future Publishing titles in particular are infamous for being 'thin' on editorial content (although their Total Film magazine is excellent, being the exception which proves the rule). I got the impression on my visit that most Future Magazine titles in the building effectively employed three or four school leavers on very low salaries who spent their working day surfing the web for content, with one of the computer gaming titles being an exception in that they had a big plasma TV where games were noisily being played all day!

There is a funny postscript to this 'full disclosure' backstory. When I recounted my experience to a friend at the BBC she shook her head. 'We used to have to deal with them for some of our magazines years ago. The outfit down at Bath, yes? They were terrible and shambolic. Always have been. I'm amazed they're still around to be honest'

Suffice to say, my expectations going in were set to 'low'.

Target Audience

To be fair, I'm not the target audience. This is a magazine for the casual buyer looking for something to read on a flight or train ride. The emphasis is on being a light, easy read. The launch issue seems to be aimed at people looking to buy a new PC as it proudly boasts '33 pages of new gear', with the main splash being 'Windows 8 is here'.

What do you get for the money?

£5 gets you 116 very nicely designed glossy pages with an overall 'Metro' theme that reflects the look and feel of Windows 8 itself. 21 of these pages are adverts.

The advert breakdown is interesting in that 7 of the pages are 'Get More Out of Life' adverts encouraging you to subscribe to the magazine in different formats (digital, Zinio, paper trial subscription etc), whilst another 4 are for sister publications (T3, Nikon Photo, PC Gamer and an Xmas special offer on all Future Publishing titles). There are no big double-spread ads from the big PC makers here, with Dell just taking out a single page ad for the AlienWare X51. There are ads from FastHosts, Tesco (buy your Windows 8 retail box from us) and HMV (vote for our awards). The low advert page count comes despite the 'official magazine' tag which suggests to me the title will struggle to survive long term unless Microsoft are subsidising it to some extent.

Most of the reviews are just a few sentences and even when the hardware reviews get a full page or two the detail is extremely lacking. Most two page reviews are of the 'double-spread photo with just a small paragraph of type' variety. This makes the magazine look attractive and professional, but mean that it comes across more like a brochure than a proper magazine. I doubt it would take anybody more than half an hour at most to read the entire editorial content, and frankly it's hard to distinguish between the editorial and bland advertising copy. Look at the screenshot below and judge for yourself if this is a one page article about tech style and design or a paid for ad by Nokia (the page shown is the complete 'article').

Glorious Technicolor - Is it editorial or an advert? Hard to tell!

Diving into the 'reviews' there's little to see here other than a very crude basic feature list. None of the laptop reviews, for example, mention the screen resolution and there's an inconsistency of style (other than general vagueness) and quality of appraisal across the reviews! This is fluffy light brochure-ware rather than real editorial, despite the presence of a 'Verdict' box on each of the main laptop reviews. I found it hard to match up the verdicts, separated out with a star rating and a one-sentence summary, with the associated written main review. All of the PCs bar one get four out of five star verdicts, with many getting no real criticism at all! And yet the one five star review that appears criticises the unit (you'll have to go buy the mag to find out which unit it is) for its high price compared to its competition, before going on to complain about how it shows up fingerprints, has a 'dated design' and a 'cramped design and bulkier tablet'. Go figure!

Aside from the main reviews there are a lot of Windows 'introduction' articles along the lines of 'Here's a Metro screen overview', 'Here's a two page summary of the gestures you can use' etc which will be useful to those new to Windows 8. A three-page overview of the Bing Weather app is also of interest, if only for the fact it manages to make so little go such a long way. The longest article is '10 Ways to Become an overnight wine expert' which in truth could have been written for any smart phone or PC, or even no PC at all since it focusses on books as well as web sites.

Final Verdict

I'm not the intended audience, but I can't help feeling that for the asking price there isn't a big audience out there for this. It feels like a very glossy brochure advertising the Windows 8 ecosystem that should be given out at Windows launch events rather than something you should buy at a news-stand. I appreciate that home users want a general purpose magazine, but if I compare this to an equivalent like Mac Format from the same publisher, that magazine has much better editorial despite the 'lightness of touch' mandate, and is sufficiently interesting each month to make me subscribe to it. I can't say the same for this, although clearly it's very early days for Windows 8 and the 'new' magazine itself. For me, although I liked the slick, professional design and layout, the title lived down to my low expectations. If you've got money burning a hole in your pocket and a long journey ahead or a bit of time to kill, by all means pick it up and make up your own mind, but if you want to get to learn something useful about Windows 8 my advice would be to save your money for one of the other titles I'll be reviewing later this week.

Windows: The Official Magazine subscription form

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