Impressions of Windows 8

by Bob Plankers on October 26, 2012 · 9 comments

in System Administration

I’ve spent about 20 hours now with Microsoft Windows 8 release running in VMware Workstation 9. I’d looked at the developer preview months ago but not exercised it very much, figuring things would change. Some things did, for the better, but the UI changes, by far the most controversial, stayed pretty much the same.

Windows 7 was called the successor to the wildly popular Windows XP but in my mind Windows 8 only succeeds the star-crossed Vista. It’s really too bad that all the seriously cool things — the new task manager, Storage Spaces, all the personalization updates, File History, the task bar improvements, several billion other tweaks — are all being overshadowed by the interface.

Desktop PCs are not tablets.

Far and away the my biggest concern about Microsoft Windows 8 is the user interface changes, and specifically those that were dubbed “Metro” until the name was changed to “Windows 8″ (I’ll be referring to them as Metro throughout the post here, since everybody knows what I’m talking about). My biggest complaint is really twofold. First, the Metro interface is really designed for people on a single screen computer who use their fingers to interact with the screen directly.

That isn’t me. That isn’t most people, frankly.

Second, the user interface is dichotomous. Parts of it work one way, building on 35 years of windowing systems designed originally at Xerox PARC. The other parts don’t adhere to any of those standards. They’re hard to use because they don’t work in any way that’s particularly intuitive to someone with a mouse and a keyboard. Swiping from the sides makes sense if you have a hand and a small screen, but despite the work they did to extend the sensitivity in the corners, based on Fitts’ Law, it’s still hard to get the mouse cursor precisely where you need it when you have a monitor on either side of your main screen.

I had one acquaintance tell me that if I had a touch-screen monitor Windows 8 would make sense. Having to move my hands off the keyboard to use the mouse is bad enough, now I need to reach out and touch my screen? How does that speed my work? Besides, fingerprints on my monitor drive me insane. Desktop users want to touch keyboards and mice. That’s it.

Metro-style apps don’t work well with multiple monitors.

You can use Win+Pg Up and Win+Pg Down to move a Metro-style app around, but it moves all the Metro-style apps together. Want to have two Metro apps open together, so you can see them both (like if you wanted to write an email while looking at a map)? You can snap something to the right or left side of the screen and move the bar to split them, but that’s about it. The Metro window management paradigm is great when you have a small screen and a one-app-at-a-time mentality, like on a tablet, but on desktops with lots of screen real estate the old way is much better.

Quick prediction: there will never be a widely used Metro-style SSH client.

The UI changes require user retraining.

The problems I have with the snap feature highlight another bigger issue: user retraining. In short, there appear to be a ton of non-intuitive gestures that seem crucial to operating the interface successfully, and the intro video introduces you to just a couple of them. I’ve never liked gestures, and their presence in Windows 8 makes things appear to happen randomly. I once got a special “open apps” bar on the left of the screen by moving the mouse randomly downwards over there. It took four tries to get it again, and it seems pretty picky about how you pull down. Nobody wants a finicky UI where they have to retry things.

Even the lock screen is unintuitive. When the machine first booted I sat looking at it for about 60 seconds, waiting for a login prompt to appear. I moved the mouse and nothing happened. I waited about 30 seconds more. Finally I clicked…

I don’t mind learning new ways of doing things but businesses aren’t going to like the idea of retraining all their workers. The basic functions of Microsoft Windows have been around since the mid 1990s, and even Apple left the window controls in Mac OS when they rethought it all. Many functions don’t operate the same way in Metro as in the desktop, either. For example, to print from a Metro app you need to find the device you want to print to, but in a legacy desktop app you print the same way you’ve always printed. Users now have to remember two ways to do the same thing, and remember where each method applies.

I ask myself “how will I explain that to my grandmother?” I have no idea, and it’s a serious problem.

Organization is either strange or disallowed.

Aside from gestures the biggest thing I’ve had to relearn is how things are laid out. Did you know that the shutdown command is a “setting,” to be found by carefully positioning the mouse cursor in the upper-right corner of a screen so you get the charms, then go to the gear icon, then to power? I get it, it’s a power setting. People don’t think that way, though — shutting down is an action.

Legacy apps also make a real mess in the “all apps” view. That view takes hierarchical data designed for a menu system and flattens it. Certainly the intention is that you’ll pin most of your stuff to the start screen itself, or your most popular programs will automatically end up there, but God help you if you need to find something in the “all apps” view on a system with a lot of programs installed. I think this is one area where we’ll really miss the Start menu.

And speaking of disallowed operations, “nothing can be shared from the desktop.” What?! That’s exactly where I’d want to share things from. I was looking forward to a more powerful, more social media friendly version of the classic “Send to…” right-click option.

When it comes right down to it I don’t like a PC that has multiple personalities and unexplainable behaviors. Humans that manifest these symptoms require serious medical attention, which is what I’m thinking the Metro-style UI needs, too. Microsoft left so much of the old interface in Windows 8 that I wonder why they just didn’t leave it all in for us desktop users. As such, I’m predicting continued strong enterprise sales of Windows 7.

If you do end up having to use Windows 8 the always-informative Erik Bussink suggests the open source Classic Shell. It adds a menu that looks and feels just like a Start menu, only more customizable. That, coupled with the fact that all my desktop apps work well on Windows 8, might let me switch on a permanent basis.

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