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Monday, 5 March 2012

Review: Love or hate Windows 8?

I've tried Windows 8 before, back when the Developer Preview was made available. I didn't like it. But now that the Consumer Preview is available I thought I'd give it another whirl to see what changes have been made and to see if I liked it any better. (PS Yeah, I did screw up the alignment of some of the screenshots leaving a grey bar down the side. Sorry about that)

That windows looks very much like Windows 7 aero
Rather than set up a dual boot, I decided to go with a virtual machine this time. I'm running 64 bit Windows 7, so I downloaded the 64 bit version, fired up the 64 bit Microsoft Virtual PC, mounted the disk and set it to install and got an error screen telling me that I couldn't run the 64 bit version as my processor isn't 64 bit. Good start. So I tried Oracle's VirtualBox instead. Its already got a profile for running Windows 8 and installed the 64 bit version just fine.

It only asked a few questions (like what keyboard I was using and stuff) and then it was off and installing. It took a fair while to decompress the Windows files onto the hard disk but, once it had, it installed quite quickly.

Once it installed, it wanted me to personalize [sic] the colour. I get unnecessarily irritated by stuff like that. I've told it I'm British, in Britain, using a British keyboard and it still uses American spelling. Well, it's a beta, so that might yet get fixed. As you can see, I chose a dark grey colour scheme.

This is a particularly prominent aspect of Windows 8. It's jolly keen to integrate all your online stuff, so straight off, it's asking for a Microsoft account. Well, I've got a Hotmail email address that I use for signing up to anything I suspect to be spammy, so I was quite happy to let Windows 8 have a crack at that. It strongly hints that you won't be able to use the Windows app Store or share files online if you don't, but I haven't tested what happens if you don't use a Microsoft account.

Microsoft have a cloud storage (god, I hate that phrase) system that's currently called called SkyDrive (like so many Microsoft online things, it's had a billion names already). In theory you'll be able to share photos and stuff with just a click if you've got a Microsoft account.

In goes the password and off we go. Warning: I found a serious bug with the login process. After rebooting, when it asked for my password it refused to accept it. I checked and rechecked my password, even opening up a Windows 7 browser and logging in with the same password. The problem is that the password field in the Windows 8 login box will only accept a 16 character password. It'll happily let you type a longer one, but then refuse it without explanation. As my password is longer than 16 characters, I had to type only the first 16 characters to get it accepted. Jesus Christ, Microsoft; I know it's only a beta, but you'd think that logging in would be one of the first things you'd want to get right. When boot security is so much a part of Windows 8, it really does seem inexcusable that this made it through to the beta.

Tah dah! This is the new Start thing. It replaces the Start menu entirely (it was possible to turn on the old Start menu in the Developer Preview, but not any more).

As you can see, there are a bunch of panels instead of icons. It's all a bit tablety (that's a real word). Stuff that doesn't fit on the screen can be slid on by clicking the auto-hidden scrollbars at the bottom, a swipe of the screen (only if you have a touchscreen) or a twist of the scrollwheel on your mouse.

Each of these little panels is a Metro app (I guess the word 'program' is disappearing). Metro is the name of this shiny new interface and apparently it's very easy to write new apps using a combination of HTML 5 and Javascript, but you can use C and Visual Basic too.

Oh and yes, my username is 5 010102 100015. That's what it is on that email account, so that's what Windows 8 has decided I want my username to be. Hmmm. It means I've got a user account folder called "5". Grrr. I do wonder what would happen if I set my email name to "Windows".

Click the desktop panel and oh, everything looks rather familiar. It's Windows 7, without the rounded corners on the windows. Ah. Oh and note that the colour I picked to "personalize"my computer didn't carry through to the desktop. In fact, personalisation is something that is markedly missing from Windows 8. There's very little that you can change. And there's no Start button.

Oh, horror of horrors, there's another familiar thing. Microsoft has replaced the Explorer menus with that awful ribbon thing from Microsoft Office that everyone hates. Damn it. Oh and good luck finding the Control Panel. It took me a good thirty minutes to finally locate it. Well, you know how all that Explorer and Desktop stuff works, so I'm going back to the Start menu... uh, panel thing.

As one of the most used applications in Windows, I thought I'd better check out Solitaire. Well they've pissed about with it a bit more and you'll notice the inclusion of the frigging Xbox Live crap in the top right. Microsoft are really pushing integration of online shit this time around and of course it's mostly pushing its own failed online shit. And also notice the nice prominent Undo button down in the bottom right. If this all seems a bit tablety, then you're not wrong.

Next, I tried the Weather Metro app and it's quite nice. There are a billion weather apps out there already, but this is indeed one of the nicer ones. It's even heard of the relatively obscure English country town in which I live. It's never heard of Celsius though and I couldn't find any way to change that (nothing I could find in the app, nothing in the Control Panel or Settings, nothing at all). But it's a beta and I'm sure that'll be fixed. You can scroll off to the side for more information. And once you've set up the weather app, it'll provide live information in its little box on the Start screen.

Yes, I did do most of this last Thursday
Just to punish myself, I decided to fire up Internet Explorer. Recent versions of IE have all seemed pretty much identical to me. I can't tell the difference between Internet Explorer 9 and 10 and I don't care. I'm not going to be using it.

Obviously, IE defaults to using Bing unless you tell it otherwise. It did make me titter slightly that The Pirate Bay was offered as an auto-complete suggestion when I typed in "the". Here's a hint, Microsoft: if people like the RIAA and MPAA aren't asking you to remove piracy sources from your auto-complete listings, then it's because your search engine is irrelevant.

So here's the App Store. It's quite nice. It works smoothly and it's easy to find stuff. One nice thing if you're trying the beta is that anything you download and install for free will stay free for the duration of the beta. It all works pretty well and it's fairly easy to find stuff. I didn't bother to buy anything because I'm not mental, but I did try a couple of free apps and they were all fine.

The Video app is pretty much a store where you can buy video and it works in a very similar manner to the app store. People in the entertainment industry whine a lot about piracy and yet do very little to provide convenient legal alternatives. When you look at the industry's own failed attempts at online music stores, it's a history of greed, awful interfaces and horrible proprietary schemes. When Apple came along with iTunes that all changed. Microsoft's video store is convenient, easy to use and right there on your computer, so maybe it might go some way to making legal video as accessible as the pirate alternative. Just so long as the movie industry doesn't get too greedy and charge over the odds.

At this point I thought I might try some real software to see how that integrated into Windows 8. Avoiding the hassle of trying to import files or mount discs into a virtual machine, I decided to download something. And what better than to install something by Microsoft's nemesis, Google? Amusingly, Google seem to have already designed at least some of their product web pages to fit with the Windows 8 look. Okay, so I've installed Picasa, so will it show up on the Start panel?

Yup, there it is. Both the Picasa icons have been bunged in there. Oh, imagine how cluttered this is going to be. Some software insists on installing crap like links to readme files, the authors's website, the user guide, an uninstall icon and all kinds of crap. Luckily it seems that Windows 8 is actually smart enough to just include the useful icons and not all the fluff.

You can arrange icons into groups and stuff, but it does feel a bit clunky and is not how I'd like to arrange things. If this was on a tablet, my furthest groups would be a couple of swipes away, but as I'm not it takes quite a bit of scrolling and is bloody annoying.

Whilst I'm at this end of things, I might as well point out a couple of things. Oh and yes, these particular screenshots were taken before I installed all those icons. Down in the bottom right corner there's a tiny little icon. If you hover over it, a bar appears that allows you to alter a few settings.

Actually open up the bar and you get a few other choices. And yes, this is where the shutdown button is - that took some finding. Previously I'd been logging out and shutting down from the logout screen. But it turns out that you can actually shut down from here. Man, that's well hidden. Oh and I think that "Unavailable" icon is for wifi. I'm not entirely sure, but that's what I reckon.

There are quite a few settings tucked away in here. Noticeably there are tools for resetting and reinstalling Windows. This probably isn't a big deal for advanced users, but it might just take the fear out of doing it for less experienced, so that's something I quite like. Those fucking blue tablety switches can piss right off though.

Yes, the Control Panel is still in there. So as not to spoil the fun, I'm not going to tell you how to find it, but know that it took me half an hour. I still haven't figured out how to close a Metro app short of killing it in task manager, so ten points to you if you beat me to that.

Lest this all sound terribly negative, I should point out that there are some things I do like. The new Task Manager for example is rather nice. I particularly like the disk activity column, jolly handy for when your hard drive is thrashing away and you've no idea why but nothing is using the CPU.

Popping back to the Start menu, I noticed a little 4 displayed on the app store thing. It turned out that there were four updates already. The weather thing still hasn't heard of centigrade though.

Nipping back to the Start panel, let's have a look to see what's happened with apps I've opened and logged into. Yup, the mail software and calendar are now displaying stuff. Even the weather app is getting in on the deal. And over on the far right we can see the financial app is tracking pointless stock exchange figures. Hoorah. Oh and if you're eagle-eyed, you'll spot I changed the username to Windows. And yep, it did create a user folder called Windows too. Ha ha ha.

Whilst downloading random shit to install, Windows wasn't keen on me installing unsigned software. It'll still let you do it (if you select "more info"), but I suppose this might sort of be slightly useful maybe.

Oh and I realised I'd been running this vitrual machine in 1024 x 768 with which Windows 8 seemed pretty comfortable. What would happen if I upped it a bit? Well I shoved the screen up to 1600 x 1200, which is a lot more like what I actually run. Things didn't scale. Here on the weather app, you can see that the text remained the same size, leaving a huge space for that background picture to fill. Oh dear. And the app wasn't wide enough to fill the screen, so that hourly forecast stuff you can see on the right is actually part of the next screen over. Not clever. Microsoft have said that Windows 8 is primarily designed for widescreen displays which will be able to show two Metro windows side by side using 'snapping' and that they're introducing proper multi-screen support. Well my main monitor is in front of me and my secondary is to the left of that. How's that going to work when all the Metro apps I've seen so far scroll to the right?

So what do I think of Windows 8? Well, back at the Developer Preview stage I wrote that it was "shit" and would be a "failed version of Windows." Have I changed my mind at all? No. If anything, it's worse. At least with the previous version stuff like the Start button could be brought back if you really wanted. Now, the system is much more locked down, forcing you to use the Metro interface a lot of the time. It's clearly a tablet operating system. Sure, it's nice to see a bit of competition for Apple's iOS, but it just doesn't work on the desktop nearly as well as it does on a tablet.

If you live in the countryside as I do, Windows 8 is a bit of a bandwidth waster. All those little weather  and mail apps and all that crap are constantly pinging away at your connection to check their status. It doesn't add up to much, but most people where I live are on less than 1 megabit connections. They're not going to like having to give up any of it to what is essentially just eye candy. Not me though; I've got fast internet (and I'm not telling my neighbours how to get it).

There are some good things though. The new task manager is really nice, but fixing something defective isn't as praiseworthy as actually doing something good. There's a nice feature where you can load up all your settings and stuff onto a USB flash drive and carry them with you. The way that disks are handled is quite interesting and allows drives to be pooled and RAID-style mirroring to be used. Reinstalling and over-writing your Windows installation is nicely handled, though it is a bit of an admission of failure. It does boot up quickly as it dumps the kernel memory to the hard disk on shut down, but again I'm not terribly impressed that they've just made hibernation actually work. Oh and I've got an SSD and hardly ever reboot, so that shit ain't doing nothing for me personally. Probably the best thing it does is the way it handles memory and task switching, hopefully meaning you can alt-tab out of a game without it crashing.

So in summary... yuck. Where's Windows 9?

If you fancy giving it a try for yourself, I'd suggest running it in a virtual machine. It's not sufficiently different from Windows 7 to be worth dual booting. If you are going to VM it, then I'd further suggest that as soon as you get it up and running that you save an image of it like that. It doesn't play nice with every aspect of virtual machines yet and can get a bit crashy.

Grab a copy here:
Note: if you want an ISO (and you do if you're going to VM it) then scroll down for the tiny ISO link or click here:
It is worth downloading the default installer thing as it's only a few meg and will do a check of your system to see if your existing hardware and software is going to be compatible. You can cancel out of it before it actually starts to download the main install files.

Zero calories, same great taste
If you'd like to use the Metro interface without installing an OS, then I'd suggest Omnimo. It provides a skin that looks and feels like the Metro interface, but is infinitely more configurable. It's also free.

Omnimo is actually a skin for Rainmeter, a desktop widget thing, so you need to download both. They're tiny and they just plain work, so it's no hassle.

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