Enter Windows 8 – the much refashioned and somewhat reviled operating system by desktop giants, Microsoft. It’s clear that it is a revolutionary approach to introduce a supposedly modern operating system which attempts to merge the past, present and the apparent future – from clicking to touch/gesturing. A while back I wrote on my experience with a pre-release version and there was one major question back then and even now – how successful would this bold move turn out to be? The answer for now is clear – not quite, at least so far as adoption numbers still remain low and relatively obscure. I feel the bad media generated after the radical changes were announced contributed to this. For me, the launch of Windows 8 back in October last year was like water washing under a bridge, and expectedly many reviews came out negative.
I had practically forgotten about it until early March, when I saw it running on a colleague’s touch-less laptop. That child-like tendency to want a taste of the latest brew crept up rapidly even if it translated into no real sense or zero gain whatsoever; it was pure curiosity that drove me to acquiring a copy of Windows 8 Professional, and installing it weeks later (besides my personal laptop was fast turning into a FIFA13 machine and desperately needed a freshness of sorts). I’ve been using the operating system for at least 6 hours every working day for over a month after swapping my personal PC – now running Windows 8 Pro, with my work Windows 7 PC, and here in this article, I hope to articulate my experience with the OS.
After reading many review and comments, one thing became obvious, its either you love or hate Windows 8 (hence the theme of this post) and to spare you any further speculations, I must say I absolutely love Windows 8, though this write-up attempts to remain as objective as possible. How in God’s Holy name can one possible love Windows 8 with all its oddities? As they say, “the tasting (or is it the taste?) is in the pudding.” Also the Windows 8.1 update is coming soon, a result of Windows 8 usage data and consumer behaviour collected for months, a shot at fixing identified usage issues like the missing start button. A pre-release version is available which I’ve downloaded, tried out and written briefly on also in this post.
Down on 8
Yes, time to get down on 8. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll highlight some areas where I feel Windows 8 struck the right tones even if the entire melody isn’t perfect.
Faster than a speeding bullet
It’s a bird, it’s a stealth bomber, nope – it’s simply Windows 8 on my Dell XPS L502X laptop. Without doubt, my greatest convenience in using Windows 8 over 7 has been the significant increase in speed. From launching programs to searching for files from the desktop its improved performance is clearly obvious, but it doesn’t end there, searching through the Modern UI either by using the search icon from the charms pane (which I prefer as I usually search from the desktop) or keying in the search query from the Modern UI gives instantaneous results, defying whatever idea of search you might have had. It’s darn fast! Guess what? That’s not all there is in terms of speed – shutting down and booting up is so un-Windows-like. Remember (if you ever experienced it) the gradual increase in boot or shutdown time observed on XP, Vista and even 7 after using your system for a while and loading it with files and programs? I dare say it’s no more…or the tendency has really been curtailed, so far I haven’t experienced any slowing as regards shutting down or starting up and the speeds are impressive (especially booting time). At first I had doubts as to whether my PC was really shutting down at all; then again I remember reading many months back that Windows 8 would implement a different shutdown/booting mechanism from its predecessors. While my PC packs a little power, the difference in performance of Windows 8 over 7 is still light years apart! All that was left for near perfection was the missing touch support on my PC.
Clean and Clear
Minimalism, reductivism or whatever you choose to call the prevailing art craze (or disease) at Microsoft has eaten deep into the bones of Windows 8 and frankly this has its benefits (and downsides admittedly). The desktop is really clean, with all the aero effects gone, boxy windows and the sharp corners of everything, there’s a certain uniformity present which gives Windows 8 the true feel of a modern operating system geared towards delivering its sole purpose without distractions. Excesses are trimmed out and extra details are hidden, and they are a lot of these extra details, which has been a major point of criticism given the steeper learning curve but as I have discovered as a regular desktop user, these hidden functions, gestures etc. are not essential for a decent experience. Some may not particularly like the overall trimming down but it works. Don’t need the context based ribbons on windows? Simply minimize the ribbon pane. System settings have been trimmed down (though to a fault I must say), a number of other features that have been shed off include desktop gadgets (thank goodness!!!).
Perhaps not so popular on the missing list are the much publicised Start button, old games (there’s a game app linked online to Xbox games), some settings like sharing an Ethernet connection wirelessly, DVD playback support etc.
The minimalist ideology is also transferred to apps and unfortunately in some cases reduction was taken to the level of “reductio ad absurdum”. Translated literally, this would imply absurd reduction. One culprit is the WordPress app, the developer should be stripped, flogged, then impaled on a pole. I downloaded it form Store with the hope that it’ll bring cool WordPress integration to my PC and what do I get? A crashing viewer! Not even useful options like statistics or notifications which are obtainable on the android (phone!!!) version. So not cool!
Interestingly, some desktop
programs apps like avast! Antivirus and AVG also seem to have adopted the tile-like design approach, not necessary minimalist but you feel it was inspired by Windows 8. And is it just me or does Google Play store latest look appear kinda similar?
Just before moving on, still on keeping things simple, the in-built PDF app gives you just what your need, a reader! No thick toolbars or any conventional toolbar for that matter, no freezing (and I’ve loaded heavy PDF files), it’s fast, simple and straightforward, though it’s more suited for use on a touch interface.
Fusion – bringing it all together
Another peculiarity of Windows 8 over against previous versions of Windows is the fusion of the local with the online. Of course this implies having a steady connection, but this really isn’t as hard as it used to be even here in Nigeria. Apps like messenger link the instant messaging capabilities of Facebook, Skype, etc. using your registered accounts in the settings menu, so you do all your chatting/IM through one interface. Your photos are also an aggregation of your local photos, Facebook photos, Flickr, SkyDrive and supposedly pictures from another PC through the devices option. The People app gives you some sort of mega contacts list with your Facebook, twitter, Microsoft contacts displayed. Individual details like Wall posts, photos, address info etc. are neatly presented along with fresh feeds like tweets and Facebook posts. Xbox Music app brings together your local library and online content, same with the video app. While I’ll admit that I haven’t tried out online media through the music and video app (I keep getting a ‘service not available in your region’ kind of message), just having stuff differently feels ok at times.
Still on the Modern UI apps, I find the mail app quite useful, it’s simple and quick. While it doesn’t pack functionality anywhere near Office Outlook, it feels more like an easy dashboard for my mails – quick views, searching and referencing. The Camera app is nice also, giving you basic functionalities with your webcam. While other apps would have been cool, using a PC lacking both touch-input and always on connectivity does have its limitations. Maps, SkyDrive, and Weather are pretty much fallow apps on my PC (SkyDrive primarily because the high cost of data has personally limited my use of cloud storage and Google Drive is my current choice for small files as I use an android phone) while News, Finance and Sports are used only when live content displayed on the tiles are seemingly interesting, though funnily enough I still find myself going back to the desktop and googling the content through my browser, old habits die hard I guess.
As you would expect Store brings in a lot more content, but using Modern UI apps on a conventional PC is still not totally natural. Only few of these apps have found their way onto my laptop – Google search app, WordPress (regrettably), Skype, My favourite casual mobile game – Jetpack Joyride, Agent 008 ball and a few others.
Wrecking havoc with Barry on Jetpack Joyride
Overall, the totality of the experience still lies around the fringes of the oddness neighbourhood, but it should improve particularly with the more flexible app snapping coming to on Windows 8.1. Windows 8 originally allows you to combine (snap) 2 apps on the screen at once with one taking three quarters and the other a quarter, just like below with my desktop (it’s an app, remember?) and music app.
Getting 8 right
A pre-release version of the Windows 8.1 update (codenamed Windows Blue) was made available by Microsoft quite recently. It’s meant to be the product of feedback from users of Windows 8 and should address key usability issues. It features quite a number of changes though its very essence simply proves one thing – Microsoft is certainly forging ahead on its current track. It’s available through an update on Store (obviously through Windows 8), though I downloaded the .ISO image and installed on VMware workstation 9 for my normal testing purposes, installing the update would have essentially turned my OS into a beta version and I didn’t want that. Interestingly, Microsoft still calls it Windows 8, clearly avoiding complex naming introduced through updates so in a way one might think of it as a service pack. Quite briefly, I’ll highlight some interesting changes brought into Windows 8.1.
Since its all Windows 8, for the rest of this write-up, I’ll refer to the original full release of Windows 8 as Vanilla and the Windows 8.1 preview as Blue.
As it was in the beginning…or not
Just to stress how fundamental the use of the Start button is to the Windows desktop experience, a few hours before publishing this post, my 4 year old nephew who regularly fiddles with my sister’s Windows 7 laptop wanted to play a game or something on my Windows 8 PC and immediately he looked at me confused, and commented – “there’s no start!”. The missing start button was a real blooper and Microsoft appears to have brought back the start button in Blue, as you would notice in the snapshot above – except it doesn’t work like it used to. No programs list when you click it, just back to the Modern UI Start screen, kinda pointless right? Yeah, but that’s the default behaviour, the Start button (or key) can be configured to take you to the modern UI-esque apps list (shown on the right in the next snapshot) directly instead of the tiled Start screen giving you instant access to your applications and in a sense acting like the old Start button but without the program directories. Also right-clicking brings up a useful menu very similar to the one from Vanilla, with the useful inclusion of the shutdown menu.
A newer Start
The new start screen alias ‘The Modern UI’ formerly Metro prior to release is even newer as it seeks to improve on the start screen from Vanilla. Blue’s Modern UI brings even greater personalization – more colours, changing the size off tiles, multiple grouping and naming of tiles, turning live tiles on and off and much more. Notably, it separates your apps list from the main Modern UI apps effectively preventing the dumb ‘left scroll to infinity’ on Vanilla to get to your apps, clicking a down arrow take you down to your app list. Also new apps have been introduced – Health & Fitness, Reading list, Food & Drink and Help &Tips. The Internet explorer modern UI app version makes a return after it was missing on Blue.
Boot to desktop
Obviously, a major point of criticism on Windows 8 generally is the annoying zapping to the Modern UI apps from the desktop, though this can be controlled by setting your desktop apps as default launchers for video, music, pics etc. Blue seeks to further reduce this jarring effect by allowing you to boot straight into the desktop using an option available in the taskbar menu. Less of the start screen for start screen haters. I also noticed that searching through the charms bar doesn’t send you flying to the Modern UI anymore. Combine the ‘Go to desktop instead of Start when I sign in’ and ‘Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start’ options in the taskbar (and navigation properties) menu, and you start feeling right at home with Blue. Jekyll, I must say is looking to become more like Hyde (or vice versa depending on which camp you belong to).
Thought the search feature was cool on Vanilla due to its speed? Blue steps it up by introducing a different scope to search. It’s not just happening only on your PC alone anymore, searching now brings varied results from the web and on your PC locally, all integrated. You are shown related web images, videos, online documentation (e.g. Wikipedia) etc. Your local results are still brought at lightning fast speeds while the online content obviously depends on your internet connection speed. Here are snapshots of results for ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Sadiq’ query. Coldplay search result for instance shows a mix of tracks from my PC, the Coldplay official site, Wikipedia article, tickets, concerts, tour dates, lyrics and other results. Sadiq didn’t quite produce the desired results…hehehe.
Coldplay search results
Sadiq search results…lost in the blues…
If you want the good old search though, you can limit the scope of your search by changing the default option which is ‘Everywhere’ to ‘Files’, ‘Settings’, ‘Web images’ or ‘Web videos’.
And a whole lot more…
Blue promises a myriad of additional changes and features – a fleshed up PC settings menu, way better app snapping depending your screen resolution, flexible multi-screen arrangements (modern UI on one screen, desktop or some apps snapped together on another etc.), supposedly improved native modern UI apps, better offline integration with SkyDrive etc.
The Windows Blue (8.1) update is really a massive response considering that Windows 8 was fully released less than a year ago. It’s not entirely another operating system, still windows 8, but a seemingly wiser and smarter update. Still, Microsoft’s stubbornness bugs me slightly as changes like the ‘boot to desktop’ option don’t come out of the box. It’s like them saying “We know you are right, we’ll let you have your way, but neither are we wrong”.
The future – In need of Stardust
Evidently, Microsoft’s wow-factor has gone with the wind and Google is taking Microsoft’s (or Gate’s) goal of ubiquity and world domination a few notches higher (no, it’s not enough that we are in their homes, let’s go virtually everywhere with them), and they are pretty nice about it as against Microsoft’s age-old bully into submission style. While I believe the desktop/PC can never be totally replaced (or can it?), does this translate an inevitable migration to a W8-like OS just like the phasing out of XP by W7? Or do we see Android coming to the PC, or the PC space experience changing with the times and something like Chrome OS coming to the fore? Lots of questions for the future but I do feel future Microsoft desktop OS built around Windows 8 will have a much higher road bump to overcome in luring users from Windows 7 than Windows 7 did from XP following the failure of Vista.
That said, the future is taking shape irrespective of who will dominate the ‘not-so-mobile’ computing space. It’s likely to be touch-centric anyway, Microsoft have the edge with their x86/64 desktop platform with tons of economy driving programs on it, there’s the Mac too but obviously not as popular and Linux desktops remain relative outsiders. The Windows desktop platform will produce the necessary continual support for users and developers, but it may be a matter of time before industry standard non-Intel based applications start to pop up. Either way, Microsoft will need to increase the number and quality apps on Windows Store.
Personally I’m sure I’ll be switching to Windows 8 completely (not that I haven’t already) as soon as the full release of the 8.1 update is made available. With this write-up, I hope I have shown to you or convinced you rather than confuse you that blah blah blah….I’ve always hated roboticized debating anyway.
I close with this simplistic and trimmed down 8-esque (modern, no afros or bootleg pants) remix from Kool and the Gang’s ‘Get down on it’. Mind beats rolling…
How you gonna do it if you really don’t want to change, by standing on the wall?
Get your back up off the wall!
How you gonna do it if you really don’t wanna take a chance, by standing on the waaall?
Get your back up off the wall! (Tell mee e)
Cuz I heard all the people saying
Get down on 8 (C’mon now) ,Get down on 8 (If you really want 8) ,Get down on 8 (You have to feel 8) ,Get down on 8 (Get on 8) ,Get down on 8 (C’mon then),Get down on 8 (Baby babeey)
Shadabadabadabadooo! What you gonna do? Do you wanna get 8?
Get your back up off the wall! ! Change! C’mon! – X3
There you have it people, join the 8 party, don’t fence this one out.