Remember last month when the Home Shopping Network (HSN) accidentally began taking orders for new Windows 8 PCs a couple weeks before they were supposed to?
The company pulled the listings down in short order. But it was clear from the selection of devices and from HSN’s marketing material and in-house videos that they were planning to make a significant push into this new market.
And now that they've recovered from that false start, HSN is pushing a very large collection of Windows 8 PCs (at least 26, by my count).
One thing that’s fascinating about HSN is that it’s a community made up of people who are very different from the tech bloggers and gadget addicts that tend to hang around places like this.
Hipsters and techies might scoff at HSN, whose habitués are about as far as you can get from Silicon Valley and Williamsburg when it comes to tech and design sophistication, but HSN shoppers buy a lot of technology. And because they’re a community, they love to leave reviews. It is no accident that every HSN listing for a Windows 8 PC has a Pinterest button alongside the Facebook Like and Tweet This buttons.
So I was particularly eager to read the first reactions to these new devices from, for lack of a better word, normal people.
I went through a total of 42 reviews for three low-priced laptops running Windows 8: one from Acer, two from Gateway (a subsidiary of Acer). All three looked like commodity machines designed to appeal to a price-conscious demographic.
I sorted the reviews into buckets, based on whether the buyer seemed to like or dislike the device overall, with a further breakdown of comments that specifically mentioned Windows 8.
The sample size is far too small to draw any firm conclusions, but overall I found the impressions of these nontechnical early adopters to be far more positive than I would have expected—especially with less-than-top-shelf hardware.
LOVED THE WHOLE PACKAGE: 21%
A significant subset of the reviews were unabashedly positive, using words like “awesome” and “great” and “loved it” to describe their new Precious. Presumably the operating system is part of that experience.
LIKED WINDOWS 8: 24%
Nearly 1 in 4 reviewers made a special point to single out Windows 8 for praise. A self-described senior citizen, for example, said: “I love this laptop, its a little challenging to get used to Windows 8 but once you do you will love it!!! Big buttons for easier typing…”
Another buyer gushed, “The setup of windows 8 is great I can see everything with [ease]. The computer itself has so many features that I have had it a week and still discovering new ones.”
A handful of these people who probably have never seen Engadget and think Gizmodo is a character on The Cartoon Network were pleasantly surprised that the new OS wasn’t as difficult to use as they had been told:
- “Windows 8 has a bit of a learning curve but overall, I like it.”
- “Great machine! Win 8 easier to learn than expected.”
- “I love it! It's fast, Windows 8 is rather easy to use…”
JURY STILL OUT ON WINDOWS 8: 19%
As expected, some of the early adopters liked the hardware but were flummoxed by the new operating system. A sampling of comments:
- “Windows 8 … this take some getting used to. The idea of getting to information faster is good however, there aren't enough programs preloaded.”
- “Great so far - getting used to Win 8 will take a few days!!!”
- "trying to get use to this new windows 8”
- “I haven't made my mind up about Windows 8. I've sort of figured out how to use it but I find myself switching back to the desktop. It's easier for me to navigate.”
I think part of Microsoft's bet on the Windows 8 interface is that people will get over the discomfort quickly. If so, this comment has to be reassuring:
"Windows 8 scares me as I'm not used to not having a "start" menu to get to my All Programs. : The more I use it, however, the more I like it and this computer is...FAST!!!"
HATED THE HARDWARE: 21%
One of the biggest problems with the PC ecosystem is that cut-rate hardware can be slow, unreliable, or poorly supported. And in this sample, about 1 in 5 buyers really, really didn’t like the product they bought.
None of the reviews that I sorted into this group had a bad word to say about Windows 8. In fact, a couple reviewers pointedly mentioned that they had used Windows 8 on other hardware and blamed the hardware for system sluggishness. HSN’s India-based support staff also earned brickbats in this category.
But when 20% or more of your customers are unhappy with your product within days of buying it, you, Mr. PC Maker, have a problem.
HATED WINDOWS 8: 14%
This number is pretty much in line with what I expected, and significantly smaller than the doom-and-gloom scenarios some Microsoft watchers are secretly hoping for.
Microsoft must have expected a certain amount of backlash from its strategy of going all in with a new interface and removing familiar touchstones like the Start menu. And sure enough, 6 of these 42 mostly non-techie reviewers made sure to point out that they didn’t like Windows 8.
One called it “a real pain” to learn the new ways. An HSN customer who described the laptop screen as “amazing, the best I have ever seen” went on to add, pointedly: “Not crazy about Windows 8.”
For one buyer, the combination of Windows 8 and sluggish hardware was a dealbreaker:
"It was very slow just turning it on and sometimes when you go from one app to another. Also not too thrilled with the upgrades that Windows 8 offers. Only upgrade for me was the screen size. Most likely I will be sending back unless Windows 8 grows on me - not likely"
But my favorite bad review was this deliciously understated entry, which threw in a verdict on Windows 8 almost as punctuation:
"Looks beautiful but after 3 days it now has a pc error. I had to reset. So no i'm not a happy consumer. … Also i hate windows8. Thank you."
This exercise, while certainly not definitive, really does zero in on the core problems that Microsoft is desperately trying to deal with in the PC ecosystem.
The first is a set of recalcitrant hardware partners who are willing to put out a product that a significant percentage of their customers are going to dismiss as "junk" or worse. We'll see if Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung can pull better satisfaction ratings from their customers.
The second problem is Microsoft's need to help new Windows 8 users get over the learning curve. It's not entirely clear from this small sample that they've succeeded at that task yet.
And a footnote: I was fascinated that not one customer complained about the pre-loaded software, and in fact many of them saw the trial version of Norton and the bundle of 19 programs on a separate CD as selling points.