Saturday, 24 March 2012

Windows 8 Review

I've been running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview for a while now, so here are some of my thoughts on it.  Let me say at this point, I'm not the average user, so this is just my take on things, on how I want to use it.

Firstly, it works - it does the job. I'm writing this in Windows 8 and it is perfectly usable in that sense.

There are a few things that are going to take a bit of getting used to though. Metro is the most obvious difference, as a replacement for the good old 'Start' button (not that it has actually said 'Start' on it since XP). And this is where I think it falls down. It is trying to be all things to all men, both a desktop and a tablet operating systems and they do seem to jar at each other. There's basically two interfaces, the new one, Metro, with all it's touch friendly large coloured boxes and the other which is pretty much Windows 7 without the start button.

They seem to coexist, but don't exactly cooperate. I run multiple screens as I find this very useful, particularly in applications which support this way of working and allow you to have toolbars on one screen, the main work on another, status windows on a third etc. I have a motley collection of 5 mismatched monitors at the moment, including one portrait which is great for work processing as you can work on a whole page at a time, the right way up. Windows 8 continues to support this in it's standard desktop mode fine, but it becomes pointless when running anything in Metro. I tend to leave on monitor showing my email, and other web applications, so I can always see their status. I have another small monitor which normally shows my music player, has the taskbar, and the desktop gadgets like the clock and calendar. When I start a Metro app, all of these close and just show the wallpaper. This is a bit pointless as I'd rather it kept displaying the apps that were running. Admittedly, to the average user with one screen this wouldn't be an issue.

My second main gripe is why didn't they just leave the start button there? Fine you can go into Metro and use any new apps designed for that environment, but for everything else, you have to hover and bring up the right hand menu and search for it (a bit like the Ubuntu Unity launcher), (or use Windows + F if you remember your keyboard shortcuts). I then pin it to the task bar (as I used to do in Windows 7 anyway) as this is quite a convenient way to start apps, particularly those which support the droplists of recent files.

One of the first things you get after installing Windows 7 and earlier is a warning about installing so anti-virus software. There isn't one, and it's not obvious what is happening about anti-virus protection. After a bit of diffing, it seems that have integrated Microsoft Security Essentials into the OS under name of Windows Defender, but there isn't an obvious way to start it and gone is the reassuring green ticked house in the taskbar that allows you to track its status. I wonder what it does if there is a problem? Making it a standard part of the OS is a good move. I tend to install Microsoft Security Essentials by default on all new builds, refurbished PCs and reinstalls as it seems to do the job and is less intrusive that other free solutions like AVG (mainly I suspect because AVG need to try to sell you the full version, whereas Microsoft have already sold you Windows so have nothing to tout).

Like Apple and Google, they like users to login with their Microsoft ID, a Live mail account normally, although it is possible to set it up to use a standard local login rather than an email based one. Many of the Metro apps seem to need it. There is a new music player, but that only works if you have an XBox Live account. I don't have an XBox, why do I need an XBox Live account to play a collection of local MP3 files?

Media player is also installed for the desktop version, and as a side note, does not appear to have the same annoyance that it will stop playing an MP3 playlist if you insert a CD (to install software for example), even with autoplay etc. disabled as it does on earlier operating systems.

Duality again in web browsers. IE 10 is there in Metro, IE  9 in the normal desktop, and as usual if you have something open in Metro, all the other windows disappear.

It seems Microsoft have taken the multitasking operating system and returned it to the days of single tasking. It reminds me of how I used to run Windows 3.11. I booted up to a full screen DOS menu, all bright colours and squares, not a curve in sight. I could then select from a number of full screen, single tasking applications like Protext and Quick Basic etc. but also had the option of running Windows if I wanted (and that didn't have a start button either). But I could only run one full screen application at a time, and had to leave windows if I wanted to run anything else. There was nothing wrong with that way of working, I happily used it for many years before Windows 95 and so on came along and offered multitasking and start button and all. They got it right again in 98SE, went a bit wobbly with Windows ME, then got it right again with XP. Wrong again with Vista and then Windows 7 seemed to be a nice place to work again. Has Windows 8 fallen into the 'every other operating system is rubbish' pattern I wonder?

So all in all, will I be going back to Windows 7 after my brief sojourn with Windows 8? Yes, I think so.

Will I be reconsidering this when it is finally released? Of course, but still with a due sense of precaution and dread. I'd be surprised it they didn't ship a 'Business', 'Professional' or 'Desktop' edition with a start button.