I am having the day off and so, naturally, I thought I’d replace my O/S with something new and exciting. And then I got out the RTM of Windows 8. In for a penny, in for a pound, so no messing around with VMs: this one got installed straight over the top of my workaday Windows 7 (which shares dual-boot capacity with whatever Linux distro I happen to be playing with that day).
So this article comes to you from a real, live genuine Windows 8 desktop… and I thought I was going to write about how awful it was etc. etc. etc., but in fact, I have to write that “It isn’t anywhere near as bad as it’s been cracked up to be”. Colour me surprised.
First thing I should get clear is that the loss of the Start “orb” isn’t a big deal. For example, if I wanted to launch the calculator in Windows 7, I might well have clicked Start -> All Programs -> (scroll down a bit) -> Accessories -> Calculator. (Did you realise it was so many clicks for something so trivial? I certainly didn’t!) In Windows 8, I click Desktop -> the calculator icon I pinned to my taskbar earlier. Dramatically fewer mouse clicks! OK, I cheated, because you have to: once you are in the traditional desktop mode, there’s no obvious way to launch any programs at all, unless you have the relevant icons festooned on your taskbar or desktop. So, knowing this, you make sure those icons are to hand before you go to Desktop mode… which is, of course, a bit of a nuisance, but once it’s done, you really do use less mouse-clicks than before …or, at the very least, no more than before.
My point is that having no Start button doesn’t necessarily mean things are more difficult to find or launch -just that you have to do things in a slightly different way, but that new way isn’t actually too bad.
If you are red-hot with your Windows key shortcuts, for example, you might already know to do Win+R to bring up the ‘run command’ dialog. Worked in Windows 7, still works in Windows 8. So you could simply type Win+R then “calc” and press Enter in either version. Again, the loss of the Start orb doesn’t make doing that any harder than before.
Discoverability of things in Windows 8 is a bit more of a problem, I will agree.. but, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided that a lot of things which seem impenetrably difficult to find are really just in a new place and it’s no big deal: we learnt where the stuff used to be, thinking it was a bit odd. We’ll learn where the stuff has been moved to …which, whilst decidedly different, isn’t actually any more logically insane.
For example: we all know that to log out or switch off a Windows 7 PC, we click the Start button. Now, in Windows 8, you have to know to bring up the “Charms Bar” (Win+C or hover your mouse in the right-hand top-most corner of the screen), click Settings then Power: there are your options to sleep, restart or shutdown. Log out is somewhere else again: the Start screen (so press your Windows key or hover in the bottom-left corner of your desktop), click your photo/icon, then select “Sign Out”. I mean, it’s definitely different, but there’s a certain logic to it and not that many key presses extra, if any. It’s just a matter of climbing a learning curve for something new. In other words, it’s not worse than before, particularly; just different.
I know a lot has been written about the split-personality thing, too: on the one hand, Windows 8 looks remarkably like a de-Aero-ified Windows 7 (in Desktop mode); on the other hand, it looks like a tablet interface (in its Metro-esque guise). A lot of people on assorted forums seem to dislike this immensely. All I can say is that I’ve been tapping away in Desktop mode for about an hour and a half… and I haven’t seen sight nor sound of Metro (or whatever we have to call it these days) once. The thing doesn’t keep flipping between the two modes: if you stick to running “desktop apps” (VMware, Chrome, Word, Outlook, Handbrake, Stellarium, MuseScore etc etc), then you’ll live in the desktop and you’ll hardly notice anything has changed. If you happen to start using more “tablet-like apps”, then you’ll spend more time in the Metro area. Personally, I don’t find the dichotomy annoying, simply because they are so different. It’s not like two similar things that are easy to confuse, for example: that definitely gets annoying. This is more like speaking French in Paris and sticking to English in London: you adjust to whichever world you want to move in at that time. It’s certainly not difficult.
Funnily enough, I think if you own a tablet or smartphone of any description, you’re going to wish you could spend more time with the Metro interface. The idea of a small, cheap app dedicated to doing one thing is certainly something a Galaxy/Nexus/iPad user is going to be familiar with… and having to put up instead with huge, monolithic, hundred-dollar-plus software packages like Office or Photoshop is going to seem a bit odd in time, I feel sure.
Anyway, for me, I find that I’ve got an un-Aero-ized version of Windows 7 that has Metro available to me if I need it, but isn’t in my face (hardly at all, in fact) unless I do. It’s certainly a hybrid approach, but it’s not as crazy as I’ve been reading it to be for months past.
Actually, whilst on the subject of Aero, I’d like to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish”. It’s a relief to see it go. I frankly never understood the attraction of semi-transparent (and semi-readable) window title bars, so their loss is a return to sanity as far as I am concerned. There is instead a reasonable choice of colour schemes and on the whole, they work quite well. It’s just like having a theme-able “Classic” skin in XP, really: it feels efficient and effective, without looking like it’s been dragged screaming and kicking out of the 1990s. I can certainly live with it.
There are plenty of niggles, all the same. A simple case in point: I occasionally play a game of Solitaire whilst waiting for something to install or build, but no such game exists in Windows 8. Oh, I can certainly go to the Start page and click Games… but I am then launched into something that demands my Hotmail credentials before admitting me to an online store. Solitaire is available for free download, but it’s 196MB and plays very slowly in full-screen with no apparent way to turn off dumb sound effects (or to stop dealing three at a time!) Same thing for photos: yes, the Metro app will pick up the contents of your Pictures library and display them quite nicely, but there’s no (apparent -it’s early days!) way to tell it to import pictures from a network share… whilst multiple tiles encourage you to link your Facebook or Skydrive accounts. The Metro Music app is similarly forever pushing you to sign in (hotmail credentials, I guess, though it mentions the Xbox on-screen… why?!) and displaying loads of web content for me to buy (strangely, there’s not one Beethoven album on display!)
The Internet is crawling all over this particular O/S, and it’s annoying. You are prompted for your Windows Live/hotmail credentials as part of the basic O/S installation process -and it’s by no means obvious that you aren’t required to part with them (but you aren’t). I don’t have the best of Internet connections at the best of times, so an O/S that starts behaving as if it’s permanently connected to the Internet or assumes that you want to connect yourself up to everything all the time is not great news for me.
But that’s all the Metro stuff; back in the Desktop world, things chug on much as they always have, I am relieved to say!
And that brings me to the much-discussed issue of “touch”: this is the O/S that assumes you’ve got touch-enabled monitors and so on, isn’t it, and is hopeless unless you have? Nope. Not in my (limited) experience. The worst I can say is that the Start screen (and a lot of the Metro apps) splurge their contents horizontally across the screen… so I am forever having to use the scroll bars to see everything. It is obvious at this point that life would be a lot easier if you could just flick things sideways by touch, as I’d do on my Nexus. But as I’ve tried to emphasise: the Metro stuff is something you definitely don’t have to interact with much if you don’t want to. I am certainly not overwhelmed by a feeling of “must upgrade my hardware to touch-sensitive kit”, anyway.
A couple of serious issues arose that I should mention. VMware Workstation 8 refused to run my virtual machines after the O/S upgrade. I had to manually edit the .vmx file for a VM and change the vmci0.present = “TRUE” setting to be “FALSE”. After that, the machine would boot but the network interface still refused to work. In the end, I uninstalled VMware and re-installed… and everything came good.
Perhaps most seriously, I have to report that Angry Birds in Space doesn’t work at all, complaining that OpenGL renderers of various versions aren’t supported or installed. I haven’t researched this issue yet (!), so I’ve no idea if there’s a workaround. I’d expect one sooner rather than later!
All my other favourites (Stellarium, MuseScore, Exact Audio Copy, Photoshop, Office 2010) work just as they always did. The upgrade is, from their point of view, perfectly painless.
Anyway, I’m sure we’ve all read what a disaster Windows 8 is and how it will ruin Microsoft… but I’m pretty sure it won’t. I’m likewise sure we’ve all read how Microsoft always alternates good OSes with terrible ones (98 -> Me ->Windows XP -> Vista -> 7)… and so we’re due for a terrible one. But this release, I think, proves that “rule” false: it’s a perfectly good OS. I reckon the Metro stuff is a bit under-cooked, to be honest, but it’s certainly intriguing for what it might become.
Would I rush out to upgrade a perfectly good Windows 7 machine? Well, I did… but no, I don’t think there’s sufficient goodies to justify it if I hadn’t already paid for it via my Technet subscription. But if you’re buying new kit and the new OS ships with it; or if you’ve got some ancient XP machines that are in need of a refresh… then I don’t think there’s anything here to be particularly afraid of or concerned about, and I’d not hesitate to do the deed (because it runs smaller and lighter than Windows 7 on older kit, basically).
And that is definitely something I wasn’t expecting to write at the start of the day!