Hey Windows 8, Where Do I Start?

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft’s releases of operating systems (OS) have been primarily designed around the personal computer environment.  Shortly after release, Microsoft then “shoe-horns” the OS into other devices such as smart phones, earlier versions of tablet PC’s and personal digital assistants.  As a result, users’ biggest complaints in the past have been slow or sluggish responsiveness, poor user interface design and incompatibility of the OS with small devices and screens.

Now with Windows 8 scheduled for an official release date of October 26 2012, about three years after the release of Windows 7, Microsoft (MS) has turned the “one size fits all” OS paradigm into the “lowest common denominator” paradigm.  That is to say, it’s almost as if MS has taken the interface, first introduced in the failed Zune music player, then refined for the Windows Smart Phone 7, and has scaled it up for the PC and modern tablet environment.

In this article, I’ll give you the highlights of my experience working with the new OS over the past couple of month and my thoughts on them.  In many respects, Windows 8 builds on Windows 7 with a few user interface changes, feature enhancements and under the hood upgrades.  In addition, I found that compatibility of hardware devices and software with Windows 7 carried over to Windows 8 with few exceptions.

Installation & Initial Impressions

The release to manufacture (RTM) version of Windows 8, a 3.5 GB DVD ISO image, downloaded to my Lenovo ThinkPad W500 notebook without any issues. After burning the image to an installation DVD, I was ready for the install.

The Windows 8 install routine follows the same script as Windows 7.  The installation wizard asked very few questions and proceeded to install Windows 7 without a hitch.  In fact, the only real choice to make during installation is whether to upgrade the existing operating system (assuming one exists) or to perform a fresh install.

In my case, the laptop I was using had two hard drives installed; one with Windows 7 running on it and another empty hard drive. In the majority of cases, I highly recommend backing up your computer and data, testing the backup, and then doing a fresh install (which reformats the hard drive and overwrites the old operating system).  This process, while more time consuming and labor intensive, ensures that your install goes more smoothly and your computer won’t be slowed down with old remnants and “trash” files, hidden malware, and a bloated registry from your previous Windows installation.  Obviously this means reinstalling all of your applications, finding your software keys, and re-registering the applications, so be ready for that.

For a fresh install, the entire process took about 20 minutes, even on my older hardware.  If the installation fails on your hardware, it’s more than likely a hardware or driver compatibility issue. Sometimes merely re-starting the install process after failure gets it to work.

After the installation and reboot were complete, and since I still had Windows 7 installed on the secondary drive, a Windows dual-boot menu came up allowing me to choose Windows 7 or Windows 8. If you do a fresh install over your existing operating system, you won’t have this choice. I chose Windows 8.

One of the new features of Windows 8 is a universal “network” login. While in the past each PC user had a local account to log onto each PC he or she owned, MS now understands that users have multiple devices (laptop, desktop, tablet, smart-phone) and would prefer not to have to create separate logins, internet favorites, desktop settings, etc. for each device.  This is akin to having a “network” or domain controller at the office monitoring and granting access to employee PC’s.  While this is optional, I highly recommend it since it also integrates your social networking accounts and Microsoft store access with the operating system.

By having users create a Microsoft “cloud” user account, using either a Hotmail or MSN e-mail address (or your own primary 3rd party e-mail address), Microsoft can store these settings in the cloud for use with any device you log into with that e-mail address.  That way, every device you log into will look, work and feel the same no matter where you are.  Of course, that means Microsoft can sell you apps and other devices in their digital “ecosystem”, not unlike Apple’s approach to locking you into their digital ecosystem.  It also means that you get 7 GB of online SkyDrive storage free for use to store and share documents and other files.  SkyDrive aware applications can conveniently take advantage of this storage (e.g., Office 2013)

Once you set up your user account, first-time setup asks you which WiFi network you want to connect to (assuming one is nearby) and what settings you want to use for Microsoft updates (i.e., automatic, ask, download then ask.)  New in Windows 8, you can choose your color scheme and background “tattoo” for your working environment (which of course can be changed anytime).  After a few seconds, the new Windows 8 “Metro” interface appears with a background picture of the infamous Seattle space needle. This is where the fun starts!

Before I continue describing my experience, I should mention that at one point shortly after installing Windows 8 (and a few applications), the system inexplicably crashed badly and couldn’t be recovered. Even the repair facility on the Windows 8 install disc was unable to recover the system. Worse, the Windows 7 partition would not boot up either, even though the data contained therein was intact. Only a full installation, this time without the Windows 7 drive in place (my choice), would get me up and running again.  Perhaps this was a hardware issue or an issue with this RTM version; I may never know. But suffice to say, in the future, I will not attempt another dual boot install of Windows 8 with another computer, lest it render both OS’s unusable (thankfully my data was still safe, but I still have to reinstall Windows 7 to get that partition running again).

User Unfriendly Interface?

Even though Windows 8 is not officially released, the new Metro interface (start screen) has already generated a considerable amount of controversy and, let’s just say, outright hatred.  Booting up to the start screen brings you to a tablet or smart-phone style interface with live “tiles” for pre-installed applications (apps) like maps, internet explorer, mail, games, store, music, camera, video, etc.  These apps update the desktop automatically (think gadgets) with information like the weather, incoming mail, social network updates, etc.  Double clicking one of the tiles launches the full-screen app.  Install an application of your own and a launch tile is created for you on the desktop.  But gone in Metro are the comfy and familiar task bar and Start button we’re all accustomed to.  In my opinion, the graphical interface is far inferior to that found in Apple’s OS and seemed a bit like child’s play.  The tiles themselves seemed to be low resolution and quite plain.

From here, things get a little nebulous.  Click on an app tile and it’s quite unclear what you need to do to close the app, launch another one, bring up the app menu, or simply get back to the start screen. I really hope that Microsoft ships the OS with a start-up tutorial for new Windows 8 users to demonstrate how to navigate the OS.  Without something like that, you’re just plain lost.  The first time I rebooted the computer, I had my desktop bitmap background displayed with no clue how to bring up the log in screen (hint: press any key!)

In Microsoft’s effort to create a single operating system intended for use with a keyboard and mouse as well as with finger swipes, they have created needless complexity and confusion for the user.  While I pride myself on digging deep under the hood in every operating system I unwrap, I felt somewhat lost and dumbfounded with my non-touch laptop screen when trying to navigate the OS.  Click up, right-click, click down, click right, click left, double-click, triple click; I tried everything to try and learn how to navigate the interface. Frustrated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt until I figured things out.

The fact is, without some help from the web, I wouldn’t have figured out how to navigate the interface.  By accident, I discovered that pressing the Windows key brought up the traditional Window 7 like task bar and interface (but still no Start button.) Pressing it again takes you back to the Metro interface.  Talk about feeling dumb.

To save you some time and frustration, here’s a little cheat sheet: The upper and lower edges of your screen are reserved for application menus and functionality.  The right and left edges of your screen are reserved for the operating system functionality. You move your mouse (or finger on a tablet) to the screen edges to bring up and use the selections that appear.

Moving your cursor to the upper left-hand corner brings up the thumbnails of all the running applications and a thumbnail of the start desktop.  Moving your cursor to the upper right-hand corner brings up the Windows 8 palate of buttons (called charms): search, share, start, devices and settings.  I won’t take the time to describe them since their name and clicking on each of them makes their functionality obvious.

Launch a traditional (non-Metro) application like MS-Word and you find yourself in the familiar desktop world, a la Windows 7. Launch a Windows 8 compatible application and you’re in the Metro world. At times, it felt like each of these two types of apps were on separate islands, if not like being on a dual boot system with two disparate operating systems. Figuring out how to get from one app to another took some guessing. Fortunately, the Alt-Tab and Windows-Tab key combinations still work. Nonetheless, it definitely takes some getting used to.

Though I didn’t have a touch-screen system to test it, Windows 8 is optimized for touch-screen PCs and tablets.  With the success of the iPhone and other tablet devices, having these capabilities built-in will make the user experience much more pleasant and interactive. Microsoft has made great strides in this area.

New Features and Enhancements

Like all previous iterations of Windows, Microsoft touts the security, performance and resource enhancements brought about by a new “architecture” in Windows 8.  Each version seems to always promise to use less memory, employ processors more efficiently, and need less disk space.  The disk space claims had better be true since solid-state drives (which I don’t have except on my iPad) are somewhat space constrained and quite expensive in the short term.  In addition, to be a truly mobile operating system, it would have to be truly memory and processor efficient. The new trusted boot is supposed to prevent malware from loading before the operating system, thereby making it more secure.

Windows 8 touts much faster start-up time. Is it faster than Windows 7? Yes it is. Is it much faster? No, not in my opinion, at least not on my laptop.

Windows 8 also claims to have longer battery life and faster graphics and text rendering. In my limited testing, I wasn’t able to validate these claims (especially since I don’t have a test work bench). I can however attest to the fact that I was able to connect and reconnect to Wi-Fi networks faster.

Windows 8 comes with the new Internet Explorer 10 as a Metro type application.  The menu and URL bar are moved to the bottom and Microsoft claims that it’s not only faster than previous versions, it has far better support for HTML5 standards.  Using IE 10 is like having a “clean full sheet” view, something that took some getting used to. But I found that I really liked how it looked and felt.  Nonetheless, the first application I installed on Windows 8 was Firefox (and of course my favorite app, RoboForm).

For some reason I’m unable to explain, I was not able to fully test the multi-monitor support touted in Windows 8.  Among Windows 8’s features for handling multiple monitors is the new ability to adjust and set the location of the task bar.  In my case, Windows 8 simply refused to recognize my 30” monitor (perhaps an incompatible driver). But if you’re using multiple monitors, setting the location of the task bar is a nice and long overdue enhancement.

As mentioned above, many apps ship pre-installed on Windows 8 with access to thousands more in the Microsoft app store.  If you’ve ever used a tablet PC or smart phone, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  One annoying aspect of apps are their minimalist approach to giving help and user options.  You often waste time hunting for a button, a menu, something to help you do what you need to do.  Sometimes too little of a good thing (options) is just as bad as too much of it.

My Experience, Comments & Editions

In day-to-day use, there was not much about Windows 8 that struck me as being radically different than Windows 7.  The speed and performance were similar as were the application and hardware compatibilities.  Most hardware manufacturers won’t have to rush out new compatible Windows 8 drivers, but some will.  Since the old Windows registry unfortunately lives on with Windows 8, backwards compatibility is assured, but so are the legacy issues, performance and problems inherent with it.

One important decision you’ll have to make is whether to trust your PC security (anti-virus, malware, firewall, spam, etc.) to Microsoft’s built-in capabilities and forgo a third party security suite or ante up for one. There’s no guarantee that your existing Windows 7 security suite will be compatible with Windows 8, so you may have to upgrade to a newer version. My decision is easy: let the security experts take care of my PC security, so I’ll spring for a third party compatible application.

As for my overall impression, Windows 8 strikes me as the next trouble spot for Microsoft a la Windows Vista.  The Metro interface will be discussed ad nausea and I suspect will continue to be bashed in the media.  In general, while I am happy with the Windows 8 upgrade, I don’t feel compelled, as I did with Windows 7, to rush out and upgrade my Windows 7 PC’s. However, if you’re ordering a new PC soon, then I highly recommend one with a touch screen. For that, Windows 8 is a must have.

As of this writing, Microsoft has announced four editions of Windows 8 with varying feature sets (e.g., Windows 8, Pro, Enterprise, and RT) with pricing from $14.99 (for Windows 7 computers purchased after June 1, 2012) to $39.99. For more details on the various editions, feature comparisons and upgrade paths, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_8_editions.

Windows 8 runs on any hardware that can run Windows 7. It will also be able to run any programs that run under Windows 7, unless you opt for a Windows RT tablet, which will only run new-style (Metro) Windows 8 apps.

After using Windows 8 for a period of time, it became readily apparent why Windows 8 upgrade pricing is so inexpensive: Microsoft expects users to make a lot of purchases from the Microsoft store. Towards that end, the store is somewhat “in your face” more often than you might like.

Like Windows 7, I once again expect a very slow and cautious corporate approach to upgrading to Windows 8, with many companies waiting until the first service pack is released before committing to deployment.  While the operating system is more secure, I don’t see many compelling corporate features to cause many companies to rush into upgrading.  Windows 7 is simply good enough.

Because of the learning curve involved, and because there is currently no option to disable the Metro interface, I suspect that many IT departments will shelve this upgrade until Microsoft is pressured enough to make the Metro interface optional and bring back the Start button and traditional Win 7 interface as the default. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but a slow corporate OS upgrade cycle might convince Microsoft to do so.

If you’ve been playing with the consumer preview or RTM versions of Windows 8, I would love to hear your feedback or questions.

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