Windows 8: Review Part 1

Windows. Apparently everyone hates it yet the majority of us are using it. Go figure!

Windows 8 is the next in the long line of Windows versions that we’ve seen out of Microsoft in recent times. Win8 is a bit of a difficult beast to review, as most of you are no doubt aware. It’s part mobile, part desktop, and all confusing. It’s a fundamental change to how we use the OS, and in some ways takes a very Apple approach to computing. The RTM version is out for TechNet and MSDN subscribers and plenty of others will get their hands on it prior to general availability in October. That said, there are no surprises here, just like there were no surprises with Windows 7. Everything you saw in the Release Preview holds true – Modern (the new name for Metro) is still here, and it’s not going away. If you hoped Microsoft would drop the new UI at the 11th hour… well, you’re an idiot, I’m sorry to say, because that was never going to happen.

There’s lots of things to be said about Microsoft’s new direction, and it’s somewhat unavoidable to argue against it on a desktop, but there are plenty of new things to discuss which you probably haven’t bothered to check out or weren’t told about. The Metro/Modern UI issues dominate Win8 discussions, without much said about what’s going on under the hood. And unfortunately, what’s going on under the hood is more compelling.

This is a multi-part review covering a period of time with the OS. I’m using it as my main OS on my desktop: an i5-2500k with 6GB RAM and a 570GTX on an SSD with 2x 2TB HDDs for storage. And no, my monitor isn’t a touch screen. Nobody has a touch screen monitor. (If you do, you’re weird) The version I’m installing is the Professional version, which is the one I’d generally recommend you pick up.

1. Installation
I elected to format because upgrading is generally a bad idea. Although you can upgrade from Win7 installs (but not from XP, you will need a fresh install if moving from XP) I wouldn’t recommend it. Leave the debris behind. If you’ve got a flash UEIF motherboard you’ll need to wipe the primary drive entirely; old MBR records aren’t allowed to exist. My mobo supports UEFI but I have no idea how to get it to work, so I just used good ol’ BIOS. Theoretically boot times should be even faster under UEFI systems. Anyway, the install takes bugger all time, really. It asks you very minimal questions for the most part – it asks for the license key (you cannot skip this step), the drive to install to, and basically that’s it for the initial install. The install is mostly unattended but it only took about 15 minutes or so to finish, if that. Afterwards, it asks a few more general questions like signing in with a Live ID (more on that later) as well as a few other customisation options, which you can skip entirely by accepting the defaults. It covers things like Internet Explorer settings, Windows Update and error reporting settings, stuff like that. There’s also a minor cosmetic option to choose what colour you want your Modern UI to have. Install was incredibly painless.

Modern. Not Metro.

2. Modern UI
Modern (formerly Metro) is the new user interface and design language etc which unifies the desktop and mobile environments. I don’t want to talk too much about whether this is a good thing or not – the point of it is that they’re unifying the two environments, so we’ll use that as our context for reviewing the OS. When you first boot up Win8 you’ll go to a login screen displaying a large, customisable background image along with the time, date, and notifications from any of the Modern apps. Click the image or swipe it up with the mouse (by clicking and holding on it) and you’ll get to your login screen.

You can either have a local account like you’ve always had, or sign in with a Live account. Using a Live account will sync settings across any device that also signs in with that account – but that only applies to Modern apps, not your regular x86 apps. It’s curiously limited though – when I installed it on my laptop, it did sync across my desktop background, theme and login background, but pretty much nothing else. It didn’t install any of my other apps. It didn’t set the timezone. Really, it did bugger all of value. I’d like to see that expanded in a future service pack. Most of my hardware was supported out of the box, save for my Xonar DX. Curiously, Windows 8 also found my wireless HP printer on its own, but didn’t manage to install a driver for it. Well… under Modern it reported that there was no driver available, but under the old Control Panel it appeared to be installed. So… huh, no idea what the problem is there. After installing the drivers that were stored on the printer itself it worked fine. Everything else is supported on its own, including USB3 ports. Oh, but you will need GPU drivers of course. nVidia and AMD both have beta drivers out now for Windows RP that work under the RTM.

Getting acquainted with Modern is a bit of a chore, primarily because it’s based on a touch UI. Go to the top left corner and run the mouse down the side of the screen, and all currently running Modern apps are displayed. Mouse down into the bottom left corner to go to the Start Screen. Going to either corner on the right side will pop out the Charms menu. Charms allow you to search across the system (or in the current app or whatever, it changes based on the screen), some sort of Sharing mode that doesn’t seem to do much, Settings (which varies from app to app, but on the Desktop offers a quick way to the Control Panel), and a Devices option which… doesn’t really do much. The problem with hot corners is that they’re easy to accidentally activate, and it’s easy to accidentally de-activate them as well.

The Start Screen is basically a massive Start menu in practice. There are a number of Modern apps spread across the screen as Tiles, a concept brought back from Windows Phone. Tiles can be ‘live’ in that they can display content from the app that they represent. For example, the Mail tile will display unread emails. The Photo tile can displays photos. The People tile can vomit Facebook out onto your screen if that’s what pleases you. You can disable this behaviour for any tile, and you can also shrink them from double width to single. Windows 8 comes with a number of Tiles, which we’ll talk about more in depth over the coming days. Here’s a general run-down:

– Mail: A fairly basic email client that offers support for Outlook/Hotmail, GMail, Exchange servers, and actually most IMAP email services but not POP3 strangely enough. It does a fairly decent job though it has a very spartan interface.
– Calendar: A basic calendar app that can link up with a few services, most notably Google Calendar
– People: An all-in-one app that handles a bundle of services. Apart from pulling contacts from sources like Google Contacts and Facebook, it acts as a bit of a social hub as it can also allow you to view Facebook and post to your wall, as well as handling Twitter feeds and crap like that. It does a reasonable job but there’s not much in the way of customisation.
– Messenging: A chat client that interfaces with Live Messenger and Facebook chat. Does a reasonable job.
– Photos/Videos/Music: A bundle of apps that allow you to… well, does exactly what it says on the tin I guess, can’t get much more obvious than that. Videos links to the Xbox video store, Music to the Zune store. The Photos app is a viewer only – there’s no capability to edit photos.
– Skydrive: Provides access to Skydrive. Note that this app does not sync anything, it’s online-only access.
– Internet Explorer: A Modern version of IE. We’ll talk about that later
– Maps: Offers access to Bing maps… and everything that entails
– Weather: Provides weather information either for a static location or by finding your location. Does a fairly good job actually.

The Modern apps aren’t much to write home about from a desktop perspective, that much is clear. That said, there is something to note – it does expand the functionality of Windows out of the box, and in a mobile context, they’re not exceptionally bad. Granted the Mail client is fairly basic but Apple’s mail app is basic too. They get the job done for what they are, and it’s not hard to see people using them on a fairly regular basis. They’re not feature rich, and there’s room for improvement, but they’re by no means terrible. The People app is a bit of a stand-out, as it is under WP7, namely because it does support a few social networks and does a reasonable job of it too. The UI is still overly large and bulky on a desktop but it’s pretty good for a mobile device.

I’ve been using the Mail and Messenger apps the most lately (with the Calendar in part). They do a fairly okay job. One thing that isn’t okay though are notifications. Modern apps can pop up notifications in the top right corner of the screen. That’s good. What’s not so good is that once the notification appears and disappears, that’s it, you never see it again. A friend can leave me a message while I’m not at my desk, and I’ll never see it because the notification pops up, goes away, and I miss it. Yes, it appears on the tile on the Start screen, but that doesn’t help me when I’m on the desktop! Notifications need to have a little tray or something.

Finally, Modern has its own settings screen, accessible from the Charms->Settings option with “Change PC Settings.” This offers some Modern-specific settings for visuals, sync options, and stuff like that. It’s separate from the Control Panel and the Desktop settings. Just something to be aware of I guess.

Modern is a bit of a pain, there’s no way around that, but it’s not because we no longer have a Start button. Nobody uses the Start menu, we all just type things in, and that functionality works fine from the Start screen. The issue is in all the mousing around and gesturing. It’s a pain to have to slide out the Charms window to shut the PC down for example, or to view running Metro apps. Yes, there are shortcut keys. But there shouldn’t need to be any. I can bring out the Charms slideout with Win+C but I’d rather not have to bother with it at all. Also on my SteelSeries 7G keyboard, the left WinKey is missing, so I have to take my hands off the keyboard for most of the shortcuts. Or I have to mouse around, which is annoying.

Finally, you can dock Modern apps to the left or right side of the screen, or put them onto another screen entirely. Occasionally though, in behaviour I’m not 100% able to reproduce, having a Modern app on another screen will still cause it to disappear when you interact with the desktop. I’d really like to force Modern onto my other monitor. That’d make things a lot easier.

TL;DR: In general, Modern isn’t a massive pain in the arse, nor is it entirely useless. The biggest issue comes about from the Charms menu and the translation of gestures into mousing around. There should have been a more elegant way to do this that allowed Microsoft to keep Modern. I’m not 100% sure of how to do it, but it can’t be too hard. Maybe turning the old Show Desktop button into a Charms button? Well actually that button is still there, not that you’d know it or need it. They’re extras which may or may not be useful… but they also feel a bit too shallow and… not overly good.

File History. It’s like Time Machine, except… nah, it’s Time Machine.

3. New Feature – File History
You know Time Machine? That automatic file backup service that Apple keeps harping on about? Windows has technically had a similar thing for ages with its Volume ShadowCopy Service (later called Previous Versions) but it never caught on. Win8 includes this feature with File History. The old backup service has been renamed Windows 7 File Recovery, so File History is intended as the main backup system. It works pretty much identically to Time Machine – give it an external HDD (or network location or whatever), and it’ll automatically save copies of file changes from your library folders, desktop, contacts, favourites, and SkyDrive should you be using it. It creates an initial snapshot and then silently backs things up for you. You can exclude folders but I don’t know if you can add folders outside of what it automatically adds.

By default, it saves copies of changed files every hour, and never deletes old versions. You can alter that behaviour as needed – I have it remove old copies after 1 month, because chances are I’ll never need a previous version of a file from 1 month ago. Restoring files brings up a vaguely-placeholder-looking screen that lets you browse the archive to restore a file. Looking at the directory structure on the backup drive itself, it seems to create a folder for configuration data storing details of the file catalogue, and then a folder for the data itself. It makes a folder for each partition which seems to contain a complete backup, along with another folder that stores incremental changes. I’m not 100% certain of how the system works, but it does seem to work. I haven’t had cause to test it yet (nor am I in a hurry to do so) but it does seem to be a fairly nifty system, much better than previous backup systems.

Of course you’ll need a decent external HDD or a fast network, preferably a USB3 portable HDD. It’s not as full featured as something like the offerings from Acronis, but it’s a nice built-in app that makes it fairly easy to backup important information… provided you use your library folders as Microsoft intends. You can of course add other folders to your libraries if you need to, though it might get messy.

New task manager and Explorer with the ribbon. Also: docking on the right.

4. Desktop and Performance
The Desktop is pretty much unchanged for the most part. Oh, Windows Explorer gets the ribbon treatment, which I’m in two minds about, but otherwise it’s just the Desktop that you’ve known for ages without a Start button. Any apps which aren’t Modern apps can still be pinned to the Start screen, but they launch under Desktop mode. And yeah… you have a taskbar that can have stuff pinned to it, and a clock, and a system tray, and a desktop to slather icons across like you do in Windows 7. Things like the Control Panel are all still here, they’re just hidden away in the Start screen.

There are a few under the hood performance improvements though. Firstly, things are even smoother than Windows 7 if you can believe it, with vastly improved boot times even on old mechanical HDDs. Windows 8 screams along and is ultra responsive. File copying has received a much needed improvement; for a start you can now pause file transfers, and you get an awesome little graph which tells you the current transfer speed and maps it out for you. I’ve found file transfers to be faster and a bit more stable under Win8 than Win7, and it’s something that Windows has traditionally been bad at.

The Task Manager has had an upgrade as well, though there’s nothing new since the Release Preview. It’s a lot neater than the old one. If you’re unfamiliar with it, probably one of the best new features is the Startup tab, which lists everything that starts on boot (save for services) and notes the startup impact that app has on boot times. It’s fantastic.

Really, one of the best things about Win8 is that it’s fast. It really is a performance boost over Win7, and that’s a big plus in my book. Unfortunately any major benefit is likely to be overshadowed by the hatred for Modern, whether justified or not, but it’s worth noting that Win8 does have some improvements under the hood.

5. Gaming
Gaming seemed to operate fine under Windows 8. There were no issues that I could find. Performance was on par with Windows 7 – synthetic benchmarks give a slight advantage to Windows 7 probably due to the more mature video drivers (though the leap isn’t quite as bad as it was from Windows XP to Vista). One thing I did notice is that alt-tabbing between games and the desktop seems to be a lot more reliable and stable now, even for Source games which have traditionally been incredibly bad at this behaviour. Otherwise it’s pretty much Windows 7 in terms of gaming. What minor performance differences there are will be resolved quickly by better drivers (remember we’re still a few months off the official release, some drivers date back to the Release Preview). Steam incidentally seems to work fine, save for the fact that opening some weblinks just doesn’t work for some reason (a reason I’m not able to track down at the moment).

6: TL;DR Summary
So far Windows 8 seems to be a very capable operating system, though there are some things which are of concern. To clarify I don’t find Win8 to be bad, but when I step back and look at it I’m not really sure if I’m a big fan of Modern. Although the Start Screen is basically a really big Start menu, the transition is pretty jarring. Although the Modern apps do expand Windows 8’s out-of-the-box functionality by a significant amount, your current Desktop apps are going to be better (or even some web apps, like GMail, or even Outlook.com’s new interface). Notifications aren’t well implemented – we need to have more control over them. The Account Sync feature seems largely useless at the moment. Although the Desktop is still pretty much as it was, a lot of things default to the Modern apps which do not play nice with the Desktop. Docking Modern apps is ugly and takes up screen space, and they should appear in the taskbar. By far the worst part though are the gestures – they’re a pain in the arse to make with a mouse. I guess my real problem is that Modern doesn’t actually add much to the desktop experience at all; it adds in a few apps which we could have gotten from Windows Essentials anyway, and those apps are better (all things considered). Given how weak the sync feature is, I have to wonder if their integration between phone, desktop and tablet will really be worth the effort.

But I do like how fast this version of Windows is. Even on a mechanical HDD, Windows 8 is fast. It boots up quickly and shuts down quickly. General operations are a lot faster. It feels ultra light and responsive. It’s a remarkable improvement, kind of like putting up with Vista and then moving to Windows 7. In my opinion the speed gain is reason enough to consider the upgrade. Whether it’s worth the pain of Modern though is another story. The tweaking of the old Previous Versions/VSCS feature into File History is a fantastic idea, one that I hope Microsoft really push as much as Apple pushes Time Machine.

Right now I’m conflicted. We have a major benefit combined with something that I can’t really call a weakness but can’t call a benefit either. It’s still early days with the OS, but as it stands, Windows 8 is fairly polarising and with good reason. What you gain in raw performance is offset by UI issues, namely with the attempt to integrate Modern UI with the Classic Desktop. Tune in next time (shortwave frequency 5898khz) for yet another review after I’ve spent more time with the OS. See you then!

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One thought on “Windows 8: Review Part 1

  1. I was pretty optimistic for 8, but the way it kept kicking me back to Met – er – modern, was incredibly frustrating. That, and my sound didn’t work. :p

    Perhaps if I spent more time with it, I could learn the proper way to use it, but I was amazed just how fast I soured it the hybrid interface. I’m looking forward to reading your second part!

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