Archive for the ‘Operating system’ Category

Pros and Cons of Windows 8

November 28, 2012 Comments off

Last month, I posted about Windows 8’s Metro interface…

Actually, let me stop myself right there. It seems they’re not using the name “Metro” anymore for trademark reasons. They’re going with “Modern UI” now. Apparently, this is old news. I’m a few months behind on my tech news in general, and I apologize. Read more at the Wikipedia article on the Metro design language.

As I was saying, I posted last month on the windows 8 Start Screen. I said then and still maintain that I like the new Start screen, but it definitely has its pros and cons. This time, I’m looking at the things I like and dislike about Windows 8 generally.

Before I continue I should repeat my caveat from last month: I’m still working with the Release Preview on a desktop PC. I haven’t upgraded to the full consumer version, even though it’s available now.

Good News

First of all, as I said last month, I’m a fan of the new Start screen. Admittedly, it’s far from perfect, but I do see it as an improvement. Read the post for more details; I won’t rehash it here.

Second, the Task Manager has received a significant overhaul for the first time since Windows XP. It’s largely a matter of the information that was there already being rearranged to be more readable, which is nice enough. This is especially noticeable on the Performance tab, which shows graphs of CPU, memory, disk, and network usage: Instead of a bunch of tiny graphs and readouts crammed into the same tab, there’s a list of thumbnail graphs that update in real time and serve as navigation buttons to switch between much larger and more readable displays. There are also new additions, like the App History tab that tracks Modern apps’ resource use, and the Startup tab that measures the impact of startup programs on the time it takes to start the computer.


I’m also a big fan of the changes to the file copy dialogs. Microsoft has added the ability to pause large file transfers. You can expand the dialog to view a graph of exactly how fast the file transfer occurred. Windows 8 gives you more fine-grained control over what happens when you copy a bunch of files to a destination that already has files with the same names, and lets you use checkboxes to apply the same actions to certain files, rather than clicking through a fresh dialog window for each file or choosing from a few across-the-board procedures. (You still have those broad brushes if you need them, though.)


Rather than go on and on about these improvements, I’ll refer you to Scott Hanselman’s excellent post, “Windows 8 productivity: Who moved my cheese? Oh, there it is.” Hanselman goes into detail (that I won’t rehash) on the Task Manager and file copy dialogs, including plenty of screen shots, lists a huge number of useful keyboard shortcuts (many of which also work in previous Windows versions), and more.

One improvement Hanselman doesn’t mention, unless I missed it, is the return of the Up button in Windows Explorer. There’s no real need for this button, as Windows Explorer has given you one-click access to every folder in the path right from the address bar since Vista. Even so, and even after using Windows 7 on my primary computer for over a year and a half, I keep looking for the Up button. Apparently I’m not the only one.

An especially exciting bit of news is that Windows Defender has been upgraded to a full-blown antivirus program that comes “built into” Windows 8. Despite the somewhat confusing name, this isn’t just the anti-spyware app that came with Vista. It’s basically Microsoft Security Essentials. The difference is that, being “already included and ready to go” in the operating system, it presumably doesn’t come with Security Essentials’ licensing provision prohibiting commercial use except on up to 10 small business computers that weren’t also anyone’s personal computer. (Which is better than what most free antivirus apps require, but it still rules out my laptop.)

…At least, I think that’s how the licensing works. I haven’t been able to find a separate EULA for Defender anywhere on Microsoft’s site, and a page for the old Windows Defender has a EULA link that now redirects to the “Meet Windows 8” page. I can’t find anything in Defender’s help files, either. So unless one of my co-workers accepted a license agreement when turning Defender on, it looks like it’s just included in Windows. If it’s true, it’s great news! If not, I guess I’ll stick with Comodo.

Bad News

One irritating thing about Windows 8 is that its features tend to be unintuitive and hard to find. To borrow Hanselman’s reference, the fact is they did move the cheese, often to places that don’t make sense. Here are a few examples:

  • Like I said in my last post, while you can still search from the Start menu as easily as in Windows 7, the Start screen lacks the visible search box that 7’s Start menu had. How are users supposed to know they can type to search?
  • The Turn Off command is buried in the Settings menu, accessed from the Charms menu. Since when is turning off the computer a “setting”? It seems like Microsoft just didn’t want it cluttering the interface and looked for a place to stash it. It’s not the only example of this, either.
  • There are several keyboard shortcuts you can use to access the Turn Off menu. For that matter, Windows 8 is loaded with useful keyboard shortcuts. The problem is that most normal users don’t know about keyboard shortcuts, save maybe ctrl+alt+del. (Pundits constantly telling everyone Windows 8 isn’t optimized for a mouse and keyboard surely won’t help this).
  • Several places require you to hover or click a corner or, for a touch screen, swipe in from an edge like Android’s notification bar. The problem is that Windows 8 doesn’t provide a visible indication that there’s anything there to access this way.

The upshot of this is that a lot of non-tech-savvy people will be made to feel stupid even though it’s not their fault. I know I’m not the first to suggest this, but a tutorial would be really helpful here. I hope Microsoft thought to include one in the final release. (“Help” doesn’t count if it’s still hidden in the settings menu!)

Something that probably falls under that last example, but which I’m going to mention anyway, is the absence of the Start button. You still head for the lower-left corner to get to the Start screen, but instead of having an actual button there, you have to click on the very bottom-left pixel in the corner of the screen. This isn’t remotely as hard as it sounds, thanks to Fitts’ Law (though I haven’t tried it on multiple monitors), but that’s not the problem. The problem is that not only is there no visible cue to bring up the Start screen (until your mouse is already in the right spot), but the cue that was there since Windows 95 is now gone. I suspect that the missing Start button is part of the reason people think the Start menu is gone altogether and not just remodeled into the Start screen.

Another related issue is the way the Charms menus behave inconsistently. They always look the same, but they do different things depending on where you are.  The Search charm searches the computer when you’re on the desktop or the Start screen, but in a Modern app, it becomes an app-specific search function. The Settings menu lists settings for the current app or the Start screen itself unless you’re on the Desktop. Share… Well, Share doesn’t appear to do much of anything, but it uses different words to tell you it doesn’t do anything based on where you are.

I guess this isn’t inherently a bad thing. After all, the buttons on Android phones are pretty much the same concept. Maybe users will get used to it, then. However, it would make more sense for something that has a consistent location and appearance across contexts to have a consistent behavior across contexts as well. If Microsoft wants context-sensitive controls, why not make it clear what each control does in the current context? The Charms should have labels like “Search [app name]” and “[app name] Settings” instead of just “Search” and “Settings,” and Charms that do nothing should be disabled (i.e. grayed out).

Further complicating matters, some parts of the Charm menus are the same across contexts, like the default items populating the Search menu or the icons at the bottom of the Settings menu.


(By the way, I’m not quite clear on the terminology, but I’m assuming that “Charms” can refer to either the icons in the Charms menu or the menus they open.)

A different kind of annoyance is the lack of a decent built-in e-mail program. The Mail app that came with the release preview apparently only works if you sign in with a Microsoft account. Full IMAP support was added for the actual release, but POP3 users are out of luck. The good news is that Windows Live Mail runs just fine on the Desktop. For that matter, PC World’s Brad Chacos suggested a workaround  using third-party, Web-based mail accounts (which the app can use) as intermediaries. But I wish Microsoft had included a single e-mail application that could be accessed from either the desktop or the Modern UI.

On that note, Internet Explorer doesn’t sync tabs when you switch from the Modern IE app to IE on the desktop. I’d like to mention whether or not the Favorites carry across, but thus far I haven’t even found the Favorites in the Modern app version.

Come to think of it, with the exception of “new experience enabled” Web browsers, it doesn’t even seem to be possible to write programs that can be accessed from both interfaces. (To be clear, you can pin Desktop apps to the Start screen as tiles. You just can’t use both interfaces for a single program that isn’t a Web browser.) I guess I understand the reasoning, but it seems like a missed opportunity.

Update 12/20/2012: Another irritation is that you can’t create briefcases anymore. A registry hack can restore this ability, but I’ve just been copying briefcases from earlier Windows versions as a workaround.

To be honest, I can live with most of the above. These things are annoying, and I can understand if some people see them as deal-breakers, but for me they aren’t.

There is one thing that might be, however, and it isn’t so much a feature/bug of Windows 8 itself as of Microsoft’s marketing strategy: You can’t just go buy a box with a full version of Windows 8 in it. You can buy an upgrade version, and you can get it pre-installed when you buy a computer, but you can’t just go buy a full version to put on a new computer. Instead, according to Microsoft, you must track down a sales rep at a “participating” computer store and purchase a System Builder license. (Apparently, “OEM” and “System Builder” are now being treated as synonyms, but I’m not 100% sure about that.) System builder licenses don’t come with customer support.

(Technically, there is one other option: Get the upgrade version, and find a secondhand copy of XP or 7 from eBay. Last time I checked, you could expect to pay around $40-50 for the secondhand OS. I don’t think that was part of Microsoft’s plan, though.)

I’ll mention in passing how ridiculous proprietary software licensing schemes seem to me, since I grew up in a time when you could just go buy software in a box and install it on your computer, and we now live in an era when thousands of freely-available open source programs stick mainly to a small number of licenses that serve as de facto standards. If I allowed myself, I could rant and rave about this for a long time, but I doubt anyone would care to read that.

Update 11/29/2012: It turns out that getting an OEM copy isn’t as hard as Microsoft’s Web site makes it sound. TigerDirect is selling OEM copies for around $120. (Thanks to my brother Andrew for letting me know about that.) That doesn’t address the lack of support, though, and I don’t yet know what provisions are in the EULA that wouldn’t be present in a full version (e.g. restrictions on moving the license to a different computer or transferring it to someone else).

Bottom Line

Windows 8 has a number of benefits and drawbacks that you’ll need to consider carefully before you decide whether to upgrade. I’m not going to recommend that you buy it. I’m not going to recommend that you wait it out like a lot of people did with Vista. What I recommend is the same thing I recommend with pretty much anything: Do the research, get some hands-on experience if you can, and see whether Windows 8 meets your needs. I’ve tried it, and I like it.

Metro: Windows 8’s Improved Start Menu

October 29, 2012 Comments off

I’ve heard a lot of complaining lately about Windows 8’s Metro interface. Windows 8 is seen as a smartphone OS trying to be a computer OS and not pulling it off, not designed for the mouse and keyboard, and shoving the desktop into the background. I don’t see it.

Full disclosure: I’ve been playing with Windows 8 for a couple of months now, after setting up the Release Preview on a spare Windows XP computer at the office so we can get to know the Windows 8 before we have to support customers using it. It’s a modest desktop PC with a decidedly non-touch-capable CRT monitor and a spare mouse and keyboard we dug out of a pile. That’s pretty much all the hands-on experience I have with the operating system.

As far as I can see, Metro is simply a combination of two things. First, it’s the home for the new full-screen apps that are designed to work across Windows 8 devices (that is, PCs and tablets). I’ll admit that the mouse and keyboard complaints apply pretty well to some of these apps, but whether that’s the fault of the app designers or Metro itself is not something I’m going to worry about in this post.

Second, Metro is the latest version of the Start menu.

Screenshot of Windows 8 Start Screen

The Metro Start screen is the first thing you see when you log on (hence “Start”—the name finally makes sense). Its grid of tiles functions basically like the list of recent programs that’s been in the Start menu ever since Windows XP, except that it’s more customizable. As in previous versions of Windows, you can right-click a program (be it a desktop program or a Metro app) and “pin” it to the Start Menu. You can drag tiles to rearrange them, and drag them to new columns to take up as much space as you need. But you probably already know all that from the press releases.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Live Tiles”: When certain Metro apps are pinned to the Start screen, their tiles automatically update with information related to the App.  Again, I won’t go into detail since you’ve probably already heard all this by now. Note that Windows lets you switch this on and off per-app from the right-click menu.

Another mainstay of the Start menu to get an improvement is the All Programs menu (just “Programs” in XP’s Classic Start menu and in earlier versions). The new version has its pros and cons compared to the old version, but I like it.

Compare the Windows 7 (left) and 8 (right) versions:

Screenshot of Windows 7 Start Menu with All Programs menu open Screenshot of Windows 8 Apps menu

Which of these would you rather use? My vote goes to the Windows 8 version. Everything being laid out where it’s easy to see makes it much more pleasant to use, in contrast to the earlier version that crams everything into a tiny, scrolling box. It’s not perfect, though. It’s not as easy to access, and lacks the ability to collapse the groups of icons or hide seldom-used items.

To be honest, though, I have barely used the All Programs menu in Windows 7 at all lately, because the search box in the Start menu is so much more convenient most of the time. You just have to open the Start menu and start typing. What’s not immediately obvious is that Windows 8 maintains this feature. The search box isn’t actually displayed at first (you can summon it by selecting Search from the Charms menu), but all you have to do is start typing and Windows 8 will automatically switch to the Search screen.

Screenshot of Windows 8 Search screen displaying results for "fire"

As much as I like the new Start screen, I have to admit it’s far from perfect. At the risk of repeating myself, some things are not easy to find; I expect many people won’t ever know some features exist unless someone tells them. As I mentioned before, the search box doesn’t appear until you start typing or expressly select it from the Charms menu, and you have to go through that Search screen or the Start screen’s right-click menu to get to the Apps menu. I also miss the recent/pinned items from 7, the old Recent Items list that’s been around forever, and the quick access to Computer, Documents, etc. and items like Run, Control Panel, and Shut Down. There are some other inconveniences as well, such as a different Settings menu depending on whether you open it from the Start screen or the Desktop.

Even so, I do like the Start screen overall. More importantly, my experience has been that Metro isn’t a ground-up reimagining of all of Windows. It’s just a set of tablet-style apps and a new Start menu. If you’re worried about a smartphone OS taking over your business computers, just take a deep breath, hit Windows+D, and go on with your life.