Review: Windows 8 Explorer with Ribbon Interface

Windows 8 Explorer RibbonIf ever an application needed a makeover, Windows Explorer needed the Ribbon interface like a fish needs a bicycle.

Microsoft’s stated goals are:

  • to optimize Explorer for file management tasks
  • provide a ‘streamlined command experience’ and
  • respect Explorer’s heritage, otherwise translated as “don’t annoy millions of existing Windows users who know where to find things.

Right now it looks like a fail on all three counts.

Whilst I appreciate the effort Microsoft is making toward standardising the interface across all its common applications, I fail to see how the Ribbon on Windows 8 Explorer achieves any of those. Does  adding more noise to a very fat and prominent menu bar help? When Internet Explorer 9 and 10 are going the other way, using stripped back interfaces with minimal controls and toolbars?

We can re-state that no interface is intuitive, they all have to be learned; at worst from scratch, at best informed by common tropes from other device interfaces – phones, set-top boxes and the like.

What amuses and horrifies me is that placing the Ribbon Interface, with it’s confusing, ever-changing sprawl of context menus and icons, onto the Windows 8 file manager is counter to everything else that Windows 8 is doing with Metro. The Metro interface is about full screen, chromeless, stripped down applications with minimal controls.

Windows Explorer has always been a thorny application to handle, given that you need half an idea about file systems to navigate it effectively and it’s complicated by the additional scope of control panels and networking within the same UI.

Windows 8 Explorer Ribbon File menuThis is why Windows introduced the common folders for My Documents, Pictures, Videos, Music and Downloads in order to reduce the exposure to the file system for the everyday Joe who frankly didn’t need it. Putting the Ribbon interface atop Windows Explorer now throws a thick stack of controls and icons across the top of your work area, changing with the context of the task.

The new interface, Microsoft claims:

  • “exposes hidden features” (translation “we designed it badly in the first place”)
  • “provides keyboard shortcuts for every command in the ribbon” (translation “nobody can find anything using the mouse”) and
  • “provides UI customization with the quick access toolbar” (translation “you fix it yourself so that you can work with it”)

How to make a complex utility even more dense and difficult to navigate? this is it.

Many would like to see Microsoft simplify the UI even more. The Ribbon takes up far more screen real estate in a confusing hotch-potch of options that confuse new users and obstruct advanced users. Critics say it contradicts years of learning by Windows users. Worse, there is no option to revert to any sort of classic interface.

Perhaps this is just the old-timers griping. The Home tab offers most of the common file management commands like Copy, Paste, Move and so on. However, it’s not consistent with the File menu (which hides everything else when it opens) and getting to file Properties now takes two clicks through a pointless sub-menu.

Windows 8 Explorer Ribbon minimisedThe space issue can be tackled as you can minimize/hide Explorer ribbon in at least two ways:

  • Use the shortcut Ctrl + F 1 or click the untitled “down arrow” to the left of Help icon to minimize or expand the Ribbon.
  • Use the “Quick Access Toolbar” above the menu from where you can also minimize the Ribbon.

Apparently you can also muck about in Group Policy, for those System Administrators in desperate need.

Does the Ribbon, fat or thin, help? If you’re an experienced MS-Office user, you may now love this. Or not. As for the rest of us, I don’t see this helping. ‘Clippy’ the Office Assistant looks like a gift in comparison. AJS