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.

{ 8 comments }

rjkreider82 October 26, 2012 at 1:25 AM

Great article. I believe this mimics the thoughts of the majority.

Bob Plankers October 26, 2012 at 1:49 AM

Thanks. While I don’t necessarily want to mimic the thoughts of the majority I do think that a widespread dislike for Windows 8′s UI will ultimately be a good thing. I believe that this might be one of those times in life where failure is the best way to learn something. Vista’s mediocrity led to Windows 7′s excellence, and while it’d be cool to have each OS release be solid a tick-tock (suck-awesome) release pattern allows for some innovation & learning.

Megan January 28, 2013 at 1:47 PM

I guess if they’re a bunch of retards over at Microsoft, you’d be right in the see-saw analogy. But I don’t think that they are a bunch of retards.

Ryan Ries October 26, 2012 at 2:00 PM

So I’ve been using Windows 8 on my desktop PC for about 2 months now. I find my experience to be mostly positive, and I have no intention of ever going back.

I believe Microsoft wants, perhaps even needs, to exploit the fact that tablets and smartphones are becoming more ubiquitous every day. And the workplace is no exception. Everyone brings their iPad with them to meetings these days. Personally I think it’s cool that I’ll be seeing Surface tablets in my enterprise soon, which I know are compatible with my Microsoft network certificate authorities and Microsoft network policy servers, etc. I also think it’s cool that I can use the exact same software on that tablet, edit a Microsoft Word document, store it on my Skydrive, and then when I leave the meeting and return to my desktop PC, the Word document is already there waiting for me.

I think that’s part of the vision that Microsoft is going for with having a common operating system that runs on all your devices. To achieve that, they had to make an operating system that runs on other devices in addition to a desktop PC.

The thing about Windows 8 for me is that it took the way that I already use the PC, and integrated that into a core functionality of the OS. I’ve come to realize since using Windows 8 that I don’t even actually like the legacy Start Menu all that much. What I mean is, when I want to run an app on old Windows, I don’t rifle through the Start Menu looking for it. I just start typing the name of the app, it pops up, I hit Enter, and I’m running it. Windows 8 works the exact same way. Hit the Win key. Type the first two or three letters of the app you want to run. Hit Enter. You’re running your app, regardless of if it’s a desktop app or a Metro app.

Also, Win key + X is a pretty badass little Win8 shortcut that brings up a Start Menu that has almost all you’d ever need on it. Control Panel, Event Viewer, Command Prompt, Powershell, etc.

As for the operating system itself, it makes absolutely no regressions in terms of stability and performance. Even when you take into account that Win8 is still extremely young and Win7 is mature, I have not noticed any increase in software bugs or compatibility issues. Everything runs smoothly. There are even some solid performance improvements over Win7. The new Task Manager is 200% better than the old one. The list goes on.

Server 2012 is the *real* hotness though, but that’s an entirely different discussion. :)

Bob Plankers October 26, 2012 at 3:26 PM

You’re dead on — Windows 8 has handled pretty much everything I’ve thrown at it. Now that it’s released I’m seriously considering when, not if, I will move my PCs to it.

Loving Server 2012, BTW. A lot of cool stuff is in both of these OS releases.

Giovanni Tirloni November 18, 2012 at 8:59 PM

My last Microsoft OS in the desktop was Win98. I’ve been using Linux/FreeBSD evern since.

That being said, I decided to change to Windows 8 and it’s been a huge change for me. I like what I see though and if things continue looking good, this might be my desktop OS of choice (I said desktop, not server).

Megan January 28, 2013 at 1:54 PM

Thanks for telling what you said, after you wrote it…so that we wouldn’t have to go back and look.

Ted Wilson October 27, 2012 at 2:23 AM

I recommend Classic Shell too. Its default look is a bit dated but the way it can be customized, it’s the best Start Menu for Windows. It’s been continuously developed since 2009 too and regularly maintained.

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