Windows 8 Review

Posted: January 10, 2013 in Rants & Raves, Technical

Windows8I’m a Windows application developer, and I’ve been playing a bit with the developer previews and betas of Windows 8 over the last few months. I’ve been working with the Windows 8 release version since its release, to consider upgrading. This is likely going to be an extremely negative review, with not a lot of positives, since all I’ve seen is everything that is negative in comparison to Windows 7. I suggest you get some popcorn, or maybe an entire meal, since this will not be a short review.

First, I’m an early adopter of Microsoft’s OS’s. Many people bitched about Vista, which I actually found to be a far better OS than XP, aside from its extremely obvious memory leakage. It was more stable, and overall a better UI than XP. But then, I tend to run a very specific set of 3rd party software. I run mostly Microsoft software that is designed to run properly in the current OS’s. Visual Studio, Office, etc. I use very little external hardware aside form printers, some bluetooth hardware, external hard drives, etc. All these items were very compatible with Vista, and therefore, I did not have the problems with Vista that many other users reported. Lastly, I don’t use anti-virus software. THE #1 item that causes the most issues with Windows, of EVERY version, is anti-virus software. IMO, anti-virus software, especially Norton software, is a virus itself. If users weren’t so lost and clueless, and they actually read messages before blindly clicking “YES”, they wouldn’t need anti-virus software. User Account Control (UAC) helped this in many ways, then they turn around and blame Microsoft for the OS problems from installing some stupid search bar into Internet Explorer. End users are generally oblivious, and will install anything onto their computers, because they just assume everything is OK to install. The fact is, the more crap you have on your computer, the worse it’s going to run.

Windows 7 then came out, and I was more than excited. It fixed all my issues I had with Vista, and finally brought us an OS that was far more stable, and wasn’t a memory hog. Also, by that time, driver developers had gotten past the hump of developing drivers for their hardware for the new driver structure of these Vista+ Operating Systems. Much more was compatible, and it was possible to use Vista drivers on Windows 7. I’ve run Windows 7 since the day it was released to MSDN subscribers, and have never been happier with any of Microsoft’s OS’s.

Now, on to the topic of Discussion: Windows 8. I have hated this stupid Metro looking (Modern UI) interface from the start. I’m annoyed by the loss of the start menu, and many other changes like GIANT buttons and other stupid stuff. Great concept, but some users don’t have any desire for that. I liked that in previous versions, I could disable the start screen and get the standard start menu, and I’ve wondered why they didn’t make that an available option in Windows 8. Now in the RTM, that ability is gone. You must use the start screen to do everything you want to do, which I find pretty stupid. I was so frustrated by trying to figure this out, that I actually went to Microsoft and opened a support incident to talk to someone well versed in all things Windows 8.

First, to educate all on proper terminology: The newer applications in Win8 are not called “Metro Applications”. Many people all over the internet are improperly educating people that they are called Metro applications, but they are not. Microsoft employees have been specifically told NOT to use the term Metro, when speaking of Windows 8 design. The proper term is “Modern Application” or “Desktop Application”. There are two types. What we know as a normal windowed application, is a desktop application, and these lame new full screen applications are known as modern apps. There are many arguments that these are or are not “tablet apps”, and the people at MS indeed confirm that the idea behind these apps is for “finger use”, or touch screen environments. That could be a tablet, or that could be newer touch screen laptops, and they also work fine on a desktop with a mouse.

Now, to explain the fine line between modern applications and desktop applications. Many applications that come with the OS that are on the start screen, are modern applications. One application that is both, is Internet Explorer 10. Personally I’ve hated IE for quite some time. I use it as a secondary for web sites that work better with it, but Google Chrome is my primary browser. I’m annoyed by the fact that I can’t start Internet Explorer as a desktop application from the start screen, without it opening up the modern application version of it. The only way to open the desktop version of IE is by having it pinned to the taskbar. I hate IE enough that I don’t want it pinned to my taskbar. This is easily solved by creating a shortcut to “c:\Program Files\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe” in any location (i.e. the desktop), then right clicking that new shortcut and clicking “pin to start”. OR, you can go directly to: “c:\users\%username%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”, and create any shortcut you want, right in that folder. Coincidentally, going to the start menu\programs folder is how you also rename shortcuts within the start screen. There is no way to rename a shortcut on the start screen, from within the start screen itself. LAME!!!

What if you hate the modern applications from the start screen, and only want to use desktop applications? Just right click a tile on the start screen (make sure you have only right clicked ONE tile, since you can right click and check multiples at a time), and choose uninstall. This uninstalls the modern application version of that program. IE is an exception to this, as you can’t uninstall the modern IE without uninstalling the entire IE package.

When you bring up the start screen, you can just start typing on the keyboard to start searching for anything you want to use. A game, a file, an installed program, a news article, or whatever. This makes it easier than having to move to the right hand screen corners and click the search bar to start searching. However, this search routine is NOT capable of searching for the name of the program group in which a program is installed. So, if you install The “XYZ Program” and the “EFG Program” from “ABC Corporation”, and you know it’s in the ABC Corporation program, you cannot search for ABC. You must search for XYZ or EFG. Why they did this is beyond me.

Why the hell do I have to perform 132 different steps just to shut down the machine? Microsoft’s answer to this is that the Operating System no longer “shuts down”. Everything happens through hibernation, and sleep. When you click shut down, your computer actually hibernates. Microsoft’s shift in this area is to move towards leaving computers on all the time. They suggest changing the power settings to have your PC handle shutting down. If you want to have a way to quickly sleep or shut down your machine, they recommend setting your computer’s power button to perform that quick action, rather than having a shortcut to it on a menu somewhere. Another thing I find pretty LAME.

For those that aren’t familiar with what Aero is, it was an addition to Vista that caused window drawing to be offloaded onto a capable GPU, rather than being rendered by the CPU. This made windows operate more quickly overall. In Windows 8, Aero still exists, but they’ve scaled it back to become this 2D, flat, ugly interface with no transparencies, no rounded corners, and 2-tone lack of beauty. The explanation from Microsoft was that this is for lowering the number of GPU/CPU cycles needed to render windows elements. That’s great and all, and I get the idea, but I am working on an extremely powerful desktop computer with a somewhat powerful video card. I hardly need to save power in that case. However, I would love to have that option. If Microsoft had been smart, they would have tied these things to power plans, and allowed the user to select a power plan to change the look of windows. On a laptio, when I’m plugged in, it resembles Windows 7 Aero with transparencies, curved edges, shadows, highlights, etc. When I unplug and go to battery, it removes all these effects to gave GPU cycles, and give me greater battery life. Unfortunately Microsoft decided that it was better to NOT give people choice, and to give them what they thought was best… a disappointment in my eyes.

The start screen is definitely something that I love and hate all at the same time. I absolutely love the idea of live tiles, and at-your-fingertips information. The problem is, my name is not Michael J Fox (apologies for the tasteless joke), and I have exceptional mouse handling skills, and certainly can click on a tiny icon. I don’t need Duplo, infant sized blocks to start my programs. I was just fine with smaller versions of application icons within the old start menu. Why they would force this upon me, is confusing. Again, a lack of CHOICE from Microsoft. These tiles also cannot be resized if they are not a tile for a modern application. If they are, then they only get two sizes anyway. Large and small (rectangle and square). Even then, they are still tiles that are 4 times as large as my finger, no matter what resolution. I can fit all 5 fingers on one tile on my 22″ widescreen monitor at 1680×1050 resolution. That’s hardly an efficient use of space. Where’s my CHOICE to make them smaller? Very unfortunate that I have no options at all. But strangely, go to the all applications section of the start screen (right click a blank area of the start screen, and click all apps at the bottom right), and it’s small icons with titles next to them. Interesting change.

Live tiles are awesome, but why is it that ONLY Windows Store, Modern UI apps can have live tiles? Why can’t an application be a desktop version, and have a live tile? Why can’t I build an app for my end users, and give them a live tile, without it having to go through the windows store. My applications are, after all, privately developed and privately used only by employees of this company. I find it extremely odd that this requirement exists.

Modern apps can be shown to you in two ways: full screen, or docked. full screen lets you only see that application, and nothing else. You can’t put anything on top of it to see two things at once. You can drag it to the right of left of the screen (if you are using a widescreen monitor) and then run a desktop application in a square resolution, or another modern UI app, but that’s it. It’s like taking a step back to the days of DOS, and giving you the ability to switch back and forth between DOS applications. Wow, what innovation. Now, for a tablet, this makes perfect sense. For a desktop, it makes absolutely no sense at all. I would literally never use any of these modern applications. Even the new version of Skype is absolutely terrible in this modern mode. I prefer the desktop version of skype, and will never consider anything else.

What I want it CHOICE! I want the choice to use the start screen, or the start menu. To use only desktop apps, or modern apps. The choice to launch a desktop version of an app from the start screen, or the choice to launch a modern UI app from the taskbar. I have started using Start8 from StarDock Software, which is a fabulous solution for these problems, and a steal at only $4.99 for the full version. The only thing this application doesn’t give is the ability to better customize the Aero look of windows. This is nearly enough for me to consider upgrading my primary desktop machines to Windows 8.

Now, all of that terrible stuff said, most people are going to argue that it’s not that big of a deal. That I’m just complaining about a newer interface that I’m not willing to get used to. That I fear change, or something ludicrous to that effect. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m all for change, but this is one change that I really don’t care for. I’ve given it a chance, and every time I get back to my Windows 7 computer, it’s a relief that I don’t have to deal with that Duplo Blocks Windows 8 nonsense anymore. Windows 7 is prettier, cleaner, and just as fast. There are even many benchmarks out there that show games running more slowly in Windows 8 than Windows 7. There are no benchmarks showing a Windows 8 machine running better than a Windows 7 machine, aside from startup times, which is a joke since they are just looking at how long it takes to un-hibernate the machine. Do a true restart and there isn’t much of a difference between the two.

OK, time for some positives to Windows 8. I feel like this article has been loaded with shit talking, so now it’s time to point out the things I actually like about the OS.

I love that they’ve finally replaced MS Virtual PC with Hyper-V. This makes it easy for me to run smaller machines on my desktop machine, then move them off onto one of our servers that also runs Hyper-V. Hyper-V is more configurable, and a better overall setup than Virtual PC. Nice job Microsoft!

Multi-monitor support is definitely great in Windows 8, aside from a few flaws. I love that you can have multiple taskbars, and have each configured to have different programs, and then easily move the program from monitor to monitor, and it stays on that monitor. The annoyances I found were usually in animations. Click on an app icon on monitor, and the window animation comes from the start button location on monitor 1. But minimize an app, and it goes to the proper location. You also can’t run two modern apps on both displays, and due to this, when you have multiple displays, the start screen no longer scrolls left to right by simply moving the mouse to the side of the screen. You must click and drag, or use a scroll wheel. You can’t choose specifically which monitors you want the taskbars on. It’s either primary or all. In my case, I’d love to have it on monitor 1 and 2, but not 3 or 4. You can’t make the start screen span multiple displays. What in the hell is wrong with Microsoft? They definitely went half way on this multi-monitor support.

The new Task manager is pretty cool, adding the ability to see disk and network usage all in one place, rather than multiple tabs. I’m disappointed they took away the ability to see the activity of each CPU core. For this, you must use the more processor intensive Resource Monitor. The Task Manager also now adds App history, showing the usage levels of past running applications, including network usage amounts. You can now see windows startup items, and their impact on system startup. Processes are now better filtered by user, rather than just being sorted by a user. And you get an at-a-glance view of service status.

Reset and refresh is something I’ve wished Microsoft would add for years. I’ve always found it stupid that I must format and reinstall to get a clean system. Reset is the equivalent of taking a smartphone and resetting it to factory defaults, deleting all user specific data. Refresh removes all programs, but no personal data. This is a feature that IT departments will LOVE.

Windows to go is awesome, and it’s great to be able to have a small version of windows on a jump drive. Another feature that IT departments will love. Especially companies that use secure rooms for working on government projects. Long ago when I worked for Hughes Aircraft, they would install windows on Jaz (1GB) disks, and they would remove those disks each day and put them in a locked cabinet, in a locked safe, within a locked room. Each employee could use a different or same computer each day, and just drop in their Jaz disk. Now it’s all in a keychain. This even means you could have your own computer on your keys, and when you show up at a friend’s house, you can just boot into your own custom copy of Windows.

ISO disc images can now be mounted, and not just burned. This will save me tons of time by not having to extract an ISO file to disk just to be able to grab a single file off of it. Being an MSDN developer, MSDN stores EVERYTHING in ISO format, including something as simple as Office or even just Visio. Now I can extract a single file from that ISO without having to install winrar or something similar.

That’s it for now. If you are thinking about taking the plunge, I highly recommend not overwriting your Windows 7 install. There’s a high likelihood you will hate the new OS.

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