Windows 8: Review Part 2

I’ve been using Windows 8 Pro for… what, 2 weeks or something now. That’s generally enough time to determine if you like an OS or not.

There’s been a lot of stuff flying all over the place regarding Windows 8, some of it blatantly incorrect – fear and anticipation in equal measure. Of course reviewing Windows 8 from the consumer’s perspective on the desktop is only half the story – we’re yet to see how well Windows 8 works across tablets and smartphones, so again keep that in mind. I’m not reviewing Windows 8 as an all-round OS across many devices, but as a desktop OS.

1. More time with Modern UI

Shitty apps. Shitty apps everywhere.

When I first got Windows 8, I actually spent a fair bit of time with the Modern apps. This was for two reasons. Firstly, I figured I should give them a shot because hey, it’s not much of a review if I never touch them. Secondly, they come with Windows. Let’s take a moment to reflect on that. It seems that around the time of Windows XP’s second service pack, Windows has been bundled with progressively less software. Back in the days of Windows 95 and 98, you’d get things like Outlook Express for email and stuff like that. A lot of things have since been broken off into Windows Essentails (previous Windows Live Essentials). Well now that I think on it Vista came bundled with a bunch of stuff too… alright this train of thought isn’t working, sorry. Anyway point being that Windows generally comes with fairly Spartan software, compared to Apple’s iLife suite and bundled apps.

The Modern apps pick up a bit of the slack, and they’re about what you’d expect on a tablet. And it’s somewhat convenient to have all this stuff ready to go when the OS is first installed. For example the Calendar app interfaces with Google Calendar, as does my iPhone/iPad and pretty much anything else these days. There’s an email client that works with a bunch of services (but has no POP support, go figure). There’s an app that connects to Messenger, Facebook chat, and that sort of stuff. Hell, there’s a social media hub that connects to Facebook and Twitter, not that I touch Twitter these days. The hope I guess is that it saves you a bit of time having to install all sorts of third party software because Microsoft doesn’t provide anything for you to use. The other side of course is that if Microsoft so much as includes a media player these days people scream about anti-competitive activities, so what MS can supply is fairly limited.

I’ve rewritten this section something like 8 times over the last week or so, because I can’t make up my mind about any of these apps. On my desktop, I’ve pretty much dropped all of them save for the Mail app. I’m not even sure why I keep the Mail app… maybe just so I can see when I’ve got a new email, but my phone usually tells me well before I notice the tile has changed (since I rarely look at the Start screen). The interface is just too bulky for them to be of any use. For a while I used the Messaging app exclusively for Live Messenger. I ditched it after a while though because although it was convenient, it took up far too much screen space. Docking it on the side of the screen took a big chunk out of my 1920×1080 desktop… and I mean it literally squeezes it out of the way, carving out its own little space and making the desktop end where the Message app begins. This clumsy integration between Modern and Classic is a pain. They should have done something to allow Modern apps to run as a window, though I don’t know if the architecture would support that.

The story alters a little bit on my laptop, which has a lower resolution screen such that it’s impractical to have two windows open side by side. On this sort of display, the Modern apps start to become slightly more useful, and it definitely does increase functionality out of the box. I don’t use Live Messenger on my laptop, I just use the Message app since I’d be juggling windows anyway, and multitasking on a low-res screen isn’t particularly pleasant anyway. While I’m hesitant to call any of them good for use on a laptop, on this sort of screen they start to become a bit more useful with their intent to hide away UI elements and present a very clean working interface. That’s good.

What’s not so good though is the inconsistent approach to the UI and the reliance on gestures. When it comes to Modern apps, it’s a bit of a guessing game about where the setting you want will likely reside. It might be in the Settings charm, which is where everything should have been put in the first place. But then there’s also that right-click bar menu thing which sometimes contains other settings not found in the Charm. I don’t like playing guessing games, guys! Pick one area and stick to it. Anything else isn’t smart UI design.

Gestures are also a massive pain. Swiping with a mouse is ridiculous. That should never have been implemented. A much smarter idea would have been to allow the old “Show Desktop” button in the lower right corner to act as a button to bring out the Charms. It’s a nice, easy target that doesn’t rely on swiping along the side of the screen to bring out the Charms bar. Often I’ll swipe down the side of the screen and then accidentally move the mouse off the bar, hiding it. And doing this on dual monitors is a nightmare; you have to be careful not to toss the mouse onto the other screen, or the bar will hide itself again. On a single monitor, you can¬†feasibly¬†throw the mouse into a corner and swipe along the edge with a fair degree of accuracy because the cursor can’t go any further to the right. Not so on dual monitors, unless you use the Charms only from your far-right monitor. There’s a shortcut (WinKey+C) but on my SteelSeries 7G there’s no WinKey on the lower left corner, so I either have to stretch my hand across to use two hands, taking my hand off the mouse. Granted that’s not going to be an issue on all keyboards, but it misses the point that gestures should NEVER have been implemented on the desktop! I’m not even convinced that multi-touch trackpads will get out of it much better.

In all, Modern apps aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re borderline useless on the desktop, slightly more useful on low-res displays, and not a major selling point on x86 systems. Gestures are horrible. The Start screen, meanwhile, isn’t that big of a deal. I treat it like a large Start menu. All of my frequently used apps are pinned to it and I use it sort of like a desktop. The icons are fairly nice and I can find what I want very quickly. My desktop no longer has a littering of apps spread across it; if it’s that important, I pin it to the Start screen. The Start screen is the only thing I don’t have an issue with when it comes to the new Modern UI.

2: Performance

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

While I’m a bit iffy about Modern UI, I do love the extra performance I get with Windows 8. Everything feels quicker than Windows 7, from boot up to shut down to everything in between. I’m quite impressed by how snappy the OS is, and if it wasn’t for Modern UI I’m sure a lot of people would be very impressed by Windows 8. Gaming performance still isn’t quite on par with Windows 7, namely due to the lack of proper video drivers which we’re still waiting on (and probably won’t really be ready until the official release in October). My laptop only has a 5200RPM mechanical HDD, but it boots up remarkably quickly under Windows 8, to the point where you might assume it has an SSD. A slower SSD to be sure, and the illusion fades when starting up something like Office and you hear the HDD thrashing away, but the difference in boot times is appreciated. On my desktop with its SSD, Win8 boots in the blink of an eye. It takes it longer to go through BIOS than to boot Win8.

And yeah… that’s all I really have to say about that. There are plenty of benchmarks to confirm that, but in general day to day use Win8 feels faster than its predecessor. At least until you run into UI issues, which strips away a bit of that shine.

3: Crashes
Despite being the RTM, I’ve noticed that Windows 8 can be fairly unstable. Usually this can be put down to immature drivers, but I’ve had a few issues where Modern apps have caused the entire system to crash. The worst was with the Mail app. I’m sitting here, going “Oh check that out I have a new email!” and elect to read it using the inbuilt Mail app. It promptly freezes, crashes the video driver a few times, and then causes every single control to turn black. The task manager was black. Every friggin’ window turned black. I had to reboot, which caused another crash on start up. Third time it worked again, but delightfully it managed to take down a bunch of configuration settings (namely apps that were running at the time), causing a bit of file corruption. I’ve had a few other issues which I’m going to put down to immature drivers, but I don’t recall Win7’s RTM being this dodgy on release. Then again Win8 is closer to Vista in terms of being a major update in many ways, so a bit of instability is probably to be expected.

To clarify that though, I’m not saying I look at it sideways and the system collapses in a pile of burning rubble. But I have experienced a few issues during the course of using it, and the Mail app one was particularly serious. Something to be aware of.

4: Windows Store, and Overall Impressions
My first 2 weeks with Windows 8 have been a mixed bag… a very mixed bag, to the point where I’m still not clear if I want to make a recommendation. I was actually somewhat excited for Windows 8, because hey, it’s a new shift for Microsoft along with a crusade to capture the mobile market. Sounds pretty awesome to me! But the more I look at it the less excited I’ve become. The fact is that the new interface is terrible for the desktop. It just doesn’t work all that well, and it annoys me. The desktop aspect is fantastic, but it’s still crippled by the Modern UI they’ve forced onto us. I spend all my time on the desktop, and having to use Modern feels quite jarring.

The Windows Store is starting to see some actual activity lately, including several paid apps. There are also LOTS of rubbish apps starting to sneak in – like many different Flashlight apps, “Push the Button!” apps that literally do nothing but have a button you can push, soundboards… all of the trash that infests the iOS App Store, and to a greater extent the Google Play store. Absolutely none of these would have a place on a desktop computer these days – the idea of ‘desktop toys’ went out long ago in the 90s. The number of useful apps are fairly limited… and many of them would go out the door if a WinRT version of Office is incoming (and it most probably will be, Microsoft would be insane not to do it).

We’ve seen the new Nokia 920, we’ve seen WP8, and we have an idea of what the WinRT and x86 tablets are going to be like. Microsoft have put all its cards on the table and are effectively going up against Apple. I’m tempted to say ‘Forget Google’ because Google’s playing a slightly different game in that they cooperate with pretty much every platform as well as having their own Android OS, but Android doesn’t appreciably integrate so heavily with a desktop OS as Apple and Microsoft are attempting to do with iOS/MacOS and Windows 8 respectively. For what it’s worth, I’d probably pick a Windows Phone over Android after living with the Galaxy Note for a while (and putting up with the absurd update cycle and bloatware endemic to the Android market). But there’s one significant issue facing Windows Phone, and by extension Windows 8 – apps.

Unless the app support arrives, it doesn’t matter how good WinRT is versus iOS or Android, it will not survive. If WinRT doesn’t make it, WP8 sinks, Win8 on tablets sinks, and all of this cross-device integration which was the justification for forcing Modern UI on the desktop will have been for nothing. You can bad-mouth Apple and criticise the Android sector until you shit your bowels out, but if the apps don’t roll, neither will the bulk of the customers. For example, I rely on a few different drug guide apps, such as Medscape, out in the field. There’s no Windows Phone version, so I’d have to rely on the web interface, which isn’t as good and not something I can use offline. My main GPS app also doesn’t have a Windows Phone version and shows no signs of supporting it. Dropbox? No WP app, you’ll need to go unofficial for that. It goes beyond “Oh you’ll need to find an alternative” to being “Hmmm… well, no, we haven’t got an app for that.”

I’d be willing to drop my iPhone and iPad to go to a Windows tablet if it had the app support. But it doesn’t. It won’t get it for some time yet. And it might never get it for all we know. One thing I do envy about the Apple ecosystem is how well integrated the whole lot is with iCloud. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, it just works… sometimes. You can achieve the same functionality on Windows etc but only if you’re willing to employ a patchwork system of apps. Windows 8 shows promise in heading towards major integration, but we’re still a while off yet. Even then, I’m not convinced by the move to a new Windows ecosystem. Google currently plays nice with everybody, with email, cloud storage, calendars, the lot. It’s platform agnostic, which is an admirable quality. Even if Microsoft moves towards that ecosystem, I don’t know if they can sell people on it like Apple have managed to do.

So whether or not Win8 is likely to succeed will depend mostly on the performance of WinRT, and we’ll have to look squarely at the mobile apps sector to see if it pans out. Everybody is super excited about the Nokia 920, but we’ve seen similar hype about other Windows Phone devices yet the platform still languishes with bugger all app support. If the apps don’t turn up, Modern has been a failure, and Windows 8 is crippled for no reason. Funnily enough, it’s almost enough to make me consider getting another Macbook Air to escape Modern UI… though that brings its own problems.

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