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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Windows 8, Love or Hate?

I started my Windows 8 experience with a great deal of trepidation last weekend. We’ll come back to the experience part of that sentence in a minute, but for now let’s focus on the trepidation. My reason for concern was that I had installed both of the early versions of Windows 8 that were made available to customers this past year. Each time I came away afraid and wondering what in the world the people at Microsoft were smoking when then came up with this new OS. 

The new Start menu looked like something I’d expect to see on a child’s LeapFrog tablet, and the new swipe from the left and right gestures gave me the impression that Microsoft had focused so squarely on combating the iPad that they had forgotten about the hundreds of millions of keyboard and mouse users out there. The technology blogs were raving about it, but I was sure that consumers would reject it. At that time I could confidently say that I hated it.

Hello my name is Emmanuel Canaan and I am a former Windows 8 hater. The first step to recovery is admitting that I was wrong. I can now say that while I am not madly in love with it just yet, I like it well enough that for the first time since the release of the iPad, I’m actually open to the idea that my next tablet might not be an iPad. That’s a significant accomplishment for Microsoft considering that I love my iPad.

So what changed? What was so different between the consumer preview version of Windows 8 and the final release?

Well, in a word, me. Nothing drastic changed in the user interface paradigm between then and now. Little more than bug fixes and small tweaks were added. The difference was that I had never given Windows 8 a real chance. I wasn't about to install an under development Windows release on my main machine.  Instead, I had installed it on an old secondary machine and in a virtual machine. Therein lay the problem. As neither was my primary machine, I wasn't forced to learn the new user interface and was simply reacting out of fear of having to relearn how I use Windows. My stomach turned at the thought of having to spend hours learning where everything had been moved to and I feared it would slow down my work. I was judging an operating system by its start menu, and my experience stopped there.

Ahhh, there’s that word again, experience. If there is only one word that pops into your head when thinking about Windows 8, Microsoft is spending millions in hopes that it will be “experience.” I recently attended a corporate Windows 8 event held by Microsoft and can’t even attempt to count how many times that word was said. Never did they use techy terms like user interface. Instead it was all about the desktop experience and the modern or Windows 8 app experience. They made it very clear that I should think of new ways that I can experience, not just use Windows. They mentioned that the new start menu was all about rapidly consuming information on the live tiles as one might when scanning a billboard at 70mph on the highway.

I’m not sure I am ready to get all dreamy eyed and start imagining how Windows 8 can change my life, but I would encourage those of you afraid of Windows 8 to give it more of a chance. I think many are reacting adversely to Windows 8 as it is the first real change to Windows in 17 years. Remember though that many of us had to learn Windows 95 once too. That was a MAJOR change from Windows 3.1. This change isn't nearly as drastic. It is a change though, and it will slow you down at first. I consider myself very tech savvy and was able to acclimate in just a couple of days.  If someone is less tech savvy, they should plan for much longer. Also, don’t install it on a PC that isn't used much. Maybe wait a bit to install it on a mission critical machine like your business PC, but try if possible to install it on a home machine that you use every day. That is the only way to really conquer the fear (and the annoyance) of change.

My Start Menu

I see a lot of people saying that they will skip this version like they did with Vista. That is certainly fine, and there isn't a burning need to upgrade to Windows 8 if you already have 7, but I don't think this is going away. I am confident that Windows 9 will be just as different from Windows 7 as version 8 is. I am taking a gamble that this is the way of Microsoft's future and am choosing to learn it now rather than later. 

If you are hesitant about the new start menu and Modern (Metro) Windows 8 apps, don't fret too much. It is actually quite easy to spend very little time there and more time on the desktop (which looks very much like Windows 7). You can easily set certain file extensions to open using the desktop versions of apps (such as the Windows Photo Viewer instead of Window 8 Photos app), and it is even easier to pin shortcuts to commonly used apps on the taskbar. This is what I have done and I rarely find myself “experiencing” the new modern interface. This handy shortcut list can also help ease the transition to Windows 8 (many work in Windows 7 as well). 

So why did I upgrade to Windows 8 if I don't use the new start menu much? Well there are lots of other improvements that I really enjoy. There is a good list of them in this PC World article. It’s a small thing, but I really LOVE the new file transfer dialog, as well as the new task manager (see below). Even when I am using the new start menu, the search function works so well, that I simply type the name of the app I want and click on it. I am completely mystified though as to why Microsoft buried the shutdown/restart option under the Settings section of the Charms menu. Maybe in their view we should never shutdown?

File copy from an SDHC card over USB 2.0

Great disk transfer info in the task manager!

Very useful startup info in the task manager showing startup impact!

Another reason I like Windows 8, is that it makes a whole new line of devices possible that can be both tablets and fully competent laptops. Microsoft made a good point at the event I attended of pointing out how silly it is that many of us have gone out and purchased slates (code word for iPads) yet we still have our laptops. We haven’t replaced a device, we've added yet another. Windows 8 makes it very easy to design devices that can go into full desktop mode when I want to perform real work, and into tablet mode when I want to casually consume information. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga is a good example of this. I can’t comment on the merits of that specific device (though I have high hopes given that it is a Lenovo), but that type of design is what I mean. An iPad certainly can’t do that.

I mentioned at the start of this post that I might consider getting a Windows 8 device to replace my iPad. I stress might though as the iPad has never been just about the hardware, or the operating system. It’s all about the apps. Windows 8 is so new that it is hard to say what will happen on the app front. There are oodles of Windows desktop applications, but very few touch friendly, modern Windows 8 apps. I really hope that will change as I am really excited about the idea of a device that can do true double duty as a laptop or a tablet. However, I have a high degree of concern as Microsoft has pretty much flatlined at their attempt to interest developers in their Windows Phone 8 platform. I think they'll do better on the Windows 8 front though given the higher install base they are likely to have. 

If you've got an iPad as well as a Windows 8 PC, and want to know what it would be like to have a Windows 8 tablet, check out the Jump Desktop app on the iOS app store. They have a great (and for the time being unique) feature that allows you to remotely connect to the Windows 8 machine from the iPad and enter a multi-touch mode that can fully simulate the Windows 8 gestures. You can swipe from the right to bring up the Windows 8 charms menu just as you would on an actual Windows 8 tablet.

So what do I like so far? Here’s a quick hit list

  • All of the improvements mentioned in this article.
  • The ability to snap Windows 8 apps to the right or the left of my screen and still see the desktop is really cool. Microsoft demoed a use case for this by showing me how a developer could write a custom app that acts as a launcher for desktop apps, and then snap that to the left side of the screen.
  • Disk Defragmenter is finally smart enough to trim an SSD now instead of trying to defragment it. 
  • The ability upgrade in place from Windows 7 and have things actually work. That’s a feat Mac OS has accomplished for years, but it’s new for Windows to handle this with aplomb.
  • The great repair options below:

Finally, fix OS issues without wiping the whole drive!

What are some things I don't like so far?

  • The cheesy box. Okay, a minor niggle, but really Microsoft? Balloons on the "Pro" edition?
  • The blue screen of death never said much, but the new blue screen says even less. I really wish they would come up with one that provides some clues as to what might be wrong.
  • Microsoft makes it a pain in the rear to change your search provider from Bing to Google in Internet Explorer 10.
  • The difference between a desktop version of an app and a Windows 8 version of an app can be very confusing. For example, I installed Google Chrome, and had to set it up twice as the two ways of accessing Chrome (desktop version and full screen Windows 8 app version) use separate user profiles.
  • The ability to login with a Microsoft account and sync settings to the cloud is both awesome and annoying. The annoyance came in when I noticed that a user profile was created for me on the C: drive with a cryptic cana_000 instead of my actual name or the email address that I use to login with. This gets annoying if I want to type out the path to a folder. Note: Microsoft won’t advertise this, but you don’t need to use a Hotmail or email address for your Microsoft account, you can use a Gmail address.

I am really leaving out a lot here. For a full review, take a look at this article.

I’ll try to write a follow-up to this post in the future with some long-term impressions. What about you? Have you tried Windows 8? Do you like it? Are you still on the fence? Do you hate it so much you are switching to Mac OS? Please let me know! I love hearing what other people think about this.