Eric Stewart: Running Off At The Mouth

A couple of days with Windows 8

by Eric Stewart on Jul.04, 2013, under Computers, Technology

It’s easy to have a knee-jerk, negative reaction to significant changes to the familiar.  So it was with me when I heard that Microsoft was making the Windows 8 user interface for PCs to be identical to the user interface for tablets.  It’s not hard to see that an interface designed for touch might not be appropriate for systems using a mouse or touchpad, especially if the screen doesn’t have touch capability.  The reverse is certainly true; on a high resolution touchscreen, operating systems designed for the accuracy of a mouse (which should be easy to get into a 5 pixel by 5 pixel square to select a small icon) may not be useful with the often indiscriminate finger.

So it was, with some prejudice, that I installed a Windows 8 VM one night in the middle of CiscoLive on my work-provided Macbook Pro, and used it full screen while attending a few of the sessions (trying to ignore the fear of someone noticing me using Windows on a Mac for what would have appeared to be no real good reason).  I had read the articles and heard the vitriol about how much of a failure Windows 8 was with regular (no-touch) laptops and PCs.  But, being an employee of a large educational institution at this time, I spent some of my own money on a copy of Windows 8 Professional and did the install.  My first impression?

I can see what everyone is yelling about.  But they’re yelling way too much.

Is it different?  Yes.  Is it annoying?  Once you’ve played with it a while, only in the sense that there are things that are only accessible through “swiping” that just can’t easily be pulled up with a mouse (especially in a windowed VM, where going too far into a corner has you suddenly using the host OS instead of the VM).  Do you really need to worry about that?

Well, no.  Not really.

The first screen you see after logging in is the “Start Screen”, for lack of a better term: Commonly used programs and widgets (none of which I bothered to keep) that serves as a replacement for what used to pop up when you hit the Start Button.  Getting to your full list of programs may require right clicking and selecting “All Programs”, which brings up the full “Programs” list (with smaller icons, which I personally think would be a pain to work with on a touch screen, but I haven’t had the opportunity).  Now, fire off a program, and you end up with something resembling a familiar Windows Desktop, with one missing item: The Start Button (which will apparently return in Windows 8.1).  How do you get back to the Start Screen if you need to?  Well, you’re going to be using your Windows key a lot more than you used to.

Oh, and initially getting to that Desktop, where you might also have icons to launch programs?  So far for me, impossible without first launching at least one program from the Start Screen.

Here’s the funny thing, for me anyway: Once I install Thunderbird and Chrome (as I would ask that someone commit me to a mental hospital if I was found to be willingly using Windows’ version of Mail or Internet Explorer), the experience becomes pretty much the same as if I was on a Mac, Linux desktop (XFCE being my current preference), or Windows 7, as those are the two apps I use 95% of the time on any desktop or laptop I operate on.

So what does this mean?

Well, I’ve heard (and I don’t have a link for this, as it was actually a verbal exchange) that, underneath, a lot has changed and Windows 8 is supposed to be better at doing some things than Windows 7 does.  But other than that?

I see no reason to upgrade existing Windows 7 installs to Windows 8.  There’s no killer app, no must have feature, and the interface is sufficiently different (and possibly annoying on a workstation or non-touch laptop) to make Windows 7 slightly more preferable (especially on older hardware).  But is there a reason to downgrade?

No.  The functions that require swiping can be accessed through other means, and the operating system runs perfectly fine on a modern system.


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