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Windows 8: I’ll Admit It; I Like It.

17/04/2013

With the headlines about Windows 8 Killing PC sales, and the laundry-list of complaints from tech websites about problems with the OS, you’d think that Windows 8 was the worst thing since, well… Vista. But it’s not. I promise you it isn’t.

Main_Start_fxd

My re-arranged “Metro” Start Menu.
Pretty elegant and useful, if I do say so myself.

It’s old-hat by now. Microsoft releases a new operating system, tech people throw a fit, but a year or so later it’s the standard. That’s the way it was with Windows XP and Windows 7. We’ll ignore Vista for the moment, since that OS had objectively bad implementation, as Microsoft’s move away from that titling system has shown.

When Windows 8 first came out, I kept well enough away. If there’s one truism about OS releases, it’s that you wait for the first round up major updates before you even consider installing it. I have lots of work that I need to get done on my computers and excluding a few test machines, I don’t have time to dink around with drivers and install problems.

The Install

One day, my Windows 7 machine crashed hard. After a laborious reinstall process, it turned out to be a hardware issue that I won’t go into here and it got me thinking that it might be time to take the plunge. I had previously had a upgrade from XP to Win7 meaning that I had to install XP first, and then upgrade to Win7 should I need to do a full reinstall. This was a cumbersome method, but I was strapped for cash at the time I made the purchase and I really needed to move away from XP.

Win8_Twitter_fxd

The official Twitter app is okay,
though like other Windows Store apps,
it needs a little more love to be useful.

So, I bought a System Builder version of Windows 8 and reformatted my recently installed Windows 7 to start over. The install was pretty clear, and guided me elegantly from start to finish with a fluidity that I honestly didn’t expect. I really didn’t have any problems of note on my custom-built rig. I was off and running… kind of.

I’d only used Windows 8 on a display in a store, and for a short bit way back in the developer preview version. Aesthetically speaking, it was largely unchanged, but boy was I lost. The main screen was pretty straight-forward, with all the apps listed across the sliding panel and the “Store” to purchase them in.

Where it really lost me though, was the desktop. See, in the new version of Windows, the desktop is kind of an app on your Start Menu. You click it and you’re taken to the old familiar Windows7-ish desktop you’re probably familiar with, sans the Start Icon. Notification area, Recycle Bin, QuickLaunch, etc are all listed there as per usual. This caused me some problems that I’ll talk about in the Not So Neat section of this post.

I shrugged my shoulders at the desktop and returned to the Start Menu, adding/removing apps to and from it, getting rid of ones that I probably will never use. Sorry, but I’m not ever going to click on the “Shopping”App. Once I had everything, including my two backgrounds and color scheme customized, I was ready to actually start using it. I forced myself to work with it for about a month to give it a chance to impress me (or not!).

Pretty Neat

As step one I think it’s fair to go through some of the big things that were important to me that I like about Windows 8. There’s a lot of little stuff that it does well, but these are the things that were important to me and maybe others.

AppSwitch_fxd

The “App Switcher”, while it hasn’t
replaced ALT-TAB, is a nice addition.

First of all, it’s faster. Not in a blazing-your-socks-off kind of way, though it is a definite performance boost. Being someone who upgraded a laptop from XP to Vista, I can tell you that this came as a surprise. This is the first OS I’ve ever upgraded where the upgrade was faster than the previous version. Keep in mind that I had a fresh install of Windows 7 on the exact same hardware prior to wiping and upgrading to Windows 8.

The user interface, while a whole different ballgame from previous versions of Windows, was pretty easy to get the hang of. All apps seemed to work independently of each other, much as you’d expect from a App-architecture and most of them functioned pretty well. Most. (See below for more details) I also had no problem pulling all of the software I’ve used on my Windows 7 system or getting Windows Store equivalents.

All in all, this is the smoothest upgrade I’ve gone through with Windows.* For the most part, everything worked pretty darn well.

Not So Neat

It’s not all sunshine and roses. As with any OS, even those I like, I had a few problems. Win8 has a weird way of going about some things and I try to keep separated what I find genuinely frustrating and what is just different to me. Some things are just fine, but they’re different now and I need time to get used to that. I try pretty hard to avoid crotchety old man syndrome.

Win8_Skype_fxd

Skype is functional,
but not much else.

The learning curve is a bit of a mess. As strange as it sounds, if you’ve never used a computer before, you’re likely to pick up 8 faster than someone like me who’s been using the Windows platform professionally for a while. At least for your particular needs.

Keyboard shortcuts and the behind-the-scenes stuff has remained relatively unchanged but the layout has altered so drastically that even a week after I started using it I was still lost. I’d open up windows only to close them when I realized that I was heading in the wrong direction for what I wanted to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened the Start Menu just to close it immediately when I figured out that I can’t use it for what I needed.

This leads me into my next complaint, that the interaction between the app-driven Start Menu and the desktop, to use a friend of mine’s description, is janky. If you’re on the desktop and you want to open something that’s in your Start menu, you have to go to the menu and open it. No problems there, but if it’s a desktop-based application, then you go back to the desktop to load it. It’s a full-screen back-and-forth that, while generally smooth, is time consuming and feels inefficient. So far, the only way to get around it is to have an icon in the QuickLaunch or on the Desktop, which kind of defeats the purpose of the really neat (are we calling it Metro now or what?) Start Menu system.

Those Start Menu apps also force full-screen. You can drag them off to one side, a process called “snapping” but some apps don’t support this feature as well as others. It’s best to just keep your apps in full screen most of the time. This isn’t terribly annoying, since most people are used to this now from mobile OS’s, but having multiple pieces of software open becomes hard to manage after a while.

Some apps, like Skype as of this writing, turn themselves off if you go to other software. If I’m using Skype to talk to someone and then I go to a full-screen desktop application, it will cut off the sound. There is a possibility that this is a problem in the Skype app, it was pretty rushed and looks it, though judging from the way that other Windows Store apps act, I’m not so sure. Skype is owned by Microsoft, so it should work perfectly in their new OS, right? Right?

And Now

So, after all is said and done, would I go back to Windows 7? Not a chance. Even with its janky nature sometimes, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction. Microsoft needed to do something radical to stay relevant, and this is the OS they needed to make. Short the weird desktop/Start Menu transition, the fundamentals are all there… and then some.

Windows-8-logo-300x300

Windows 8:
Not as bad as you’ve heard.

In the future, as with all Operating Systems, there are going to be improvements maybe even some heavy shifts to address some lingering issues (Check out what’s coming in Windows Blue). But, as a release that could have been horrible or have had no attempt to reinvent the OS at all, I can’t complain that much. So far, this is the most I’ve LIKED a new OS redesign in a long while (don’t even get me started on Ubuntu’s Unity), so I guess that’s something. But rest assured, this ain’t no Vista.

*For the curious, the worst was from Win98 to XP. It was just a big nightmare from start to finish. Keep in mind that this too had a lot in common with the Windows 7 to 8 transition in that it was a fairly radical (for the time) change in OS architecture.

-CJ Julius

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