Windows 8: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

A hybrid cold/bubonic plague bug hit me last week. While sitting at home and throwing back doses of NyQuil, I had a chance to try out a preview of the upcoming Windows 8. Microsoft released a “preview” version through its testing channels to get some feedback on its progress. We’re in for some big changes — mostly good ones from what I could see, and a few annoyances to make things interesting. It seems Steve Balmer finally decided to get rid of the Windows 95 coding team and get some fresh talent as this new version is showing off something you don’t normally associate with Microsoft: polish.

Windows Vista, Google, and Apple all smacked some sense into the Redmond headquarters over the last few years. They managed to prove people don’t want a bulky and overloaded operating system. Consumers want an OS that starts instantly, navigates quickly, and shows relevant information. Windows 8 is the fruit of these hard-taught lessons, and has the potential to bring Microsoft back into the limelight.

The Good Stuff

The new tiled interface really grabs your attention. At first glance, you think “What is this??? It looks like something made by Playskool.”  Microsoft realizes the days of the standard PC are numbered, so they want Windows to run on everything…a universal operating system in a sense. That means tablets and phones are a high priority. Windows Phone 7 was a test bed for the ideas in Windows 8, and you can see the similarities. The bright colors and large tiles are meant to facilitate both mouse use and touch screens. What makes these tiles unique is they’re not just large, square buttons — each tile is its own little monitor that shows the status and updates of the app behind it. This active icon environment makes using Windows 8 very efficient as you can see a lot of information with a single glance, much the same way you can glance at your phone and see if you have new email, the time, temperature, new voicemail, etc.

Here’s a run-through of some impressive new additions:

Touchscreen Password Unlock

Most of us use passwords to lock our computers, so we’re very familiar with typing in a password each time we need to log in. Windows 8 wants to get away from text based passwords. To unlock your Windows 8 profile, you can set a series of taps or swipes on a picture to let you in. For instance, in the picture below, you can set your “password gesture” to be a tap on the  mountain in the upper left corner, a left swipe across the water, and a circle around the glass.

“Metro” Interface

Windows 8 has a standard “Windows 7-like” desktop option, but all the action is on its new default Metro Start Screen. Easy-to-read and informational tiles replace icons and the Start menu, meaning you can see everything you need to know in one look. The more I used the Metro interface, the more I liked it. Those familiar with the XBox 360 will feel at home as it has a similar feel. It’s definitely designed for tablet use, but seems to work fine on a computer. This is one of those things that I urge people to try before judging.

Grouped Apps

With the Metro Interface, you can use Groups instead of folders to organize your apps and files. Media, games, social networking, work…make a group and add your apps to the pile. This makes it easy to find what you need without having to dig.

Fast Boot

I hate restarting my laptop. It takes forever. It can take so long that a lot of people schedule their bathroom breaks around reboots. Reboots are a lot like commercials during a football game.

Well, the old “I’m rebooting my computer” excuse has now been thrown out the window. Windows 8 can restart in 8 seconds. Eight Seconds. My phone takes longer to start than that. Microsoft explained they’re using some new kernel sleep technology so the core parts of Windows never actually shut down, therefore it’s always ready to go at a moment’s notice.

More Social

Microsoft caters to the social networking crowd by adding in some really nice streaming tools. The Windows 8 “at a glance” mantra follows through here as you can see updates from multiple services at one time.

New Multitasking

Windows 8 takes a different approach to multitasking. Instead of resizable windows, each app carves out its own nook on the screen so it can be viewed in conjunction with others. The example below shows how you can watch a video and keep up with a newsfeed from your friends at the same time.

Built In RSS Reader

Most news sites have an RSS feed to give you instant updates and quick information. Previously you had to have your own browser-based tool to view these. RSS capability is now native in Windows 8. All of your favorite sites can now be previewed on one screen as soon as your computer powers up.

Reinstall Windows Without Losing Anything

The new Control Panel has a button called System Refresh, which essentially reinstalls Window 8, but leaves all of your documents, music, photos, and other files in place.

Odds and Ends

Other things they’ve finally added are universal spell check (not sure what the hold up on that was), universal zoom (allows you to magnify/shrink the screen with the mouse wheel or a pinching motion), and an easy Share feature that lets you share media and web items with your social media friends via drag and drop. All of this, and it runs on half the memory of Windows 7. How ’bout that!

The Bad Stuff

Some ideas are great, others not so much. It may be due to being an unfinished product, but there were some glaring flaws in Windows 8 that need to be addressed.

Apps Can’t Be Closed Easily

We’re all used to clicking the red “X” when we’re done using something in Windows 7. Well, the Windows 8 people decided that closing apps is too much work, so now the only way to end something you’re running is through the Task Manager. The Android operating system actually runs in a similar way (apps are supposed to close automatically when resources are needed), but I frequently have to use an app killer program to keep my phone from bogging down. The Task Manager is Windows “App Killer,” but it’s very inconvenient to reach. OS app management sounds good on paper, but in the real world users need to be in charge of their resources.

The Start Menu is Finished

We’re approaching our second decade of the iconic Start menu in Windows, and in Windows 8 its roll is clearly being diminished. In fact, by default there IS no Start menu — the new Metro interface shows you a “Start Screen” instead. You have to retool your thinking about organizing your files and apps. This will result in a large learning curve for the average user. It is possible to add the Windows 7 taskbar to the bottom of the screen…but it only works with legacy 32-bit programs.  New Windows 8 apps will not use the taskbar. Seems like this will cause a lot of fragmentation.

Powering Down Is Awkward

We all know how to shut down Windows: you click the Start button and click the “Power” icon on the bottom of the menu. Windows 8 seems like it doesn’t want you to shut it down…ever. You have to go through 4 to 5 clicks to power down Windows 8, with icons on opposite sides of the screen. It actually took me a while to figure out how to shut it down. Hopefully the Power Button Design Team simply didn’t get its project done in time for the preview and this will be adjusted in the final release.

The Ugly…

As I said, it appears that Microsoft has seen the death of the PC and therefore wants to make sure Windows continues to run on all replacement devices. Phones, tablets, “ultrabooks”, cars, kiosks, TV’s, you name it. It’s a decent strategy…Apple did it and is now the #1 tech company in the world. The problem is, unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t produce the hardware that it wants to employ. Designing an operating system that works universally on multiple hardware platforms while having no direct hardware control can lead to trouble. I’m worried that we’re going to see a flood of buggy first generation Windows 8 gadgets on the market, and the user experience is going to be marked as “Vista all over again.”

Conclusion

Windows 8 is going to be a turning point for Windows. It’s new interface is slick, it’s code is tight, and it’s vision is contemporary.

It also has baggage to deal with: compatibility with previous Windows applications, multiple platform support, no direct hardware control, and entrenched tablet competition from Apple and Google. Only time will tell if Microsoft can pull this off.  My Magic 8 Ball says “Concentrate and Ask Again.”

That thing never works.

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12 Responses to Windows 8: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Elizabeth Bandy says:

    I have been researching buying a new computer with WIndows 7. We have three computer with WIndows XP, and one with Vista. They work find but I feel like some things don’t work, since I don’t have Windows 7.

    When will Windows 8 come out?

    • The current goal is a release in mid-late 2012, so we have at least a year to think things over.

  2. James Bond says:

    “Tip of the day: Unix is great, Linux is great, but Winblows blows!”

    My company stopped using Winblows years ago – we got tired of throwing money at microsoft! Frugalware Linux on the other hand is fast, secure, rock solid, and last but not least it’s free!

    Do your wallet a favor and get off the microsoft bandwagon…

    • Ron Miller says:

      I’ve been using FreeBSD and Debian Linux for 6 years now; I’ll never go back to Windblows! Thank God for Linux!

      • Ah, some Linux lovers. Yes, Linux is decent to the tech savvy crowd, but there’s a couple of reasons it never caught on at a consumer or workstation level:

        1) There’s so many versions and flavors, it’s not easy to support.
        2) Hardware support is lacking.
        3) While you save money on initial operating system costs, you typically spend more on making other systems compatible.

        Now, with cloud computing, this is becoming less of an issue since all you need is a working web browser. Microsoft is clearly targeting the iPad and Android markets with Windows 8. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it.

      • Ron Miller says:

        What is Doug smoking? Obviously he seriously lacks knowledge of the Linux distributions! Linux has caught on like wild fire – the general public and especially businesses have been merging to Linux for years!

        Doug, do yourself a favor and do some research…

      • Ron,

        I realize people tend to be passionate about their operating systems (the “I use it so it’s the right thing to do for everyone!” syndrome), but I am actually working in the current industry, and Linux doesn’t even show up on the radar on the workstation level as a whole.

        If anything is going to start a fight for workstation space in the coming years, it will most likely be some flavor of Google OS, but even that is just a guess.

  3. Ron Miller says:

    “…and Linux doesn’t even show up on the radar on the workstation level as a whole.”

    That’s pretty funny. As a senior software engineer for my company, we’ve seen a huge merge to the Linux OS for business workstations. The overall cost savings, performance, reliability, security, efficiency…have lead to this merge. As for the general public, Linux might not show up “as a whole” because their too busy playing with their cell phones, iPods, and other silly toys.

    It’s not a case about being passionate, it’s a case about facts! The Windblows OS is just an inferior product! (For the reasons listed above.) Want to make an enhancement to the Linux kernel, no problem. Want to make an enhancement to the Windblows OS, you’re SOL! And let’s not even get into the microsoft licensing nightmares!

    Nice try Doug…

    • Usage share of Operating Systems August 2011

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_operating_systems

      A Gartner forecast calls for Mac OS to ship on 4.5 percent of new PCs worldwide in 2011 and 5.2 percent in 2015. Gartner does not expect Google Chrome OS, Google Android or HP’s webOS to get ‘any significant market share’ on PCs in the next few years, and expects Linux operating systems to remain at less than 2 percent share over the next several years.

  4. Stepsoiptok says:

    My brother want to become a pixel editor. Is it a good job?

  5. Tom Zupancich says:

    Doug, I often enjoy your articles. They are clear and you use language all can comprehend. Thanks for that. Am I missing something or can we print just the text part “printable” without selecting the whole page. Appreciate any help. Tom zupancich

  6. Shander says:

    The biggest issue is that they are removing user control over how things are displayed and found. I like windows 7 only because I turned off all of those irritating pop up icons and stacking of documents of the same kind on the control bar .. I have 4 word documents open and three browsers open now and I can see the title of each document on separate tab/bars at the bottom of my screen.. static and very thin… maybe only 30 pixels high if that on a 1600×1200 screen (which is a second monitor…selected as a primary monitor but rarely used as a work space.. just a place to visually have documents i am consulting open on… maybe and excel spreadsheet, a reference page, a previous word document which I am excerpting parts from etc. Some of these open programs or documents are likely partially buried under other Windows or minimized on my control bar with a glance without needing to hover and squint my eyes. A simple icon with TEXT in a uniform font and size is quickest for me to read even as I type this, I can assign part in a quick glance without a snippet of loss of thought. How I cascade/tile/overlap my windows is very particular to me…

    I can have my favorites bar on explorer browser pinned open and visible in its stacked files to the left of my chrome browser even as I don’t see the rest of it. My favorites bar in explorer also functions as a “to do” list with the un-categorized bookmarks often representing near term things I’m going to want to look into… as opposed to other types of to-do lists that I look at actively but do not want “slow burn” , but non distracting or attention calling reminders of.

    The key is, that by organizing my desktop.. which to me means which files and programs I have open on my desktop and where I have them dragged to and how I can reach them with a slide of my mouse… that empowers me to work without any sense of working within someone elses rules..

    … I don’t need to be “polite” to a personal assistant , which is what these linear things are like (anyone remember that crappy wizard that used to jump up in windows? may he rest in peace)…I can bob around in my unexpected fashion … no do I need to answer to a bosses edict that I organize his way which might be “one thing at a time son”

    Am I right and others wrong ? NO ! we’re all right and the past user interfaces allowed enormous flexibility in the very structure of how people organized themselves. From my experience with the windows 8 phone (which I could not use and returned after wasting more than a dozen hours trying) they are very much about dis-empowering choice other than which icons you want displayed in their

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