Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Week Of Windows 8

'Do not try this at home', as they used to say on Brainiac before blowing stuff up in a microwave, or something equally daft. Last Friday Microsoft released Windows 8, its new and rather different take on Windows. And last Friday I downloaded Windows 8 and did an upgrade install on my oldish Vista PC.

A daft idea, usually, but my job is to support people with PC problems and that is much easier if I have already met those problems myself. It also looks dead impressive if someone contacts me with a really weird issue with the new Windows and I fix it in 5 minutes flat (carefully not mentioning the hair-tearing hours I had previously spent at home when I first hit that issue myself).

It is always good advice with new software to give it a few months to get the bugs ironed out before trying to use it yourself - they don't call it the 'bleeding edge' for nothing. Also, my recommendation is that you should never do an 'upgrade install' of Windows from a previous version - it's asking for a world of pain - and, if at all possible, you should install on current generation hardware. Typically Microsoft release Windows to run properly on the hardware which they think will be around about 6 months to a year after first release. A PC which was originally built when Vista first came out - even if it has been upgraded significantly since - is likely to have issues. Microsoft, though, state a minimum hardware spec. that my PC considerably exceeds.

The download and upgrade install took me about 2 hours, roughly an hour downloading and answering questions, and another hour leaving it to get on with it. Impressively, it just worked. No installation problems at all (apparently).

Logging on for the first time was a bit tedious, as it insisted on my giving them a Microsoft username and password. It is possible to skip this and just set up a 'local' account, but that brings its own issues.

Then you reach the start screen ... yeuch! A solid colour background overlaid with lots of plain, flat monochrome boxes, with writing and/or crude icons in them. I can imagine it doesn't look too bad on a 4" smartphone, or even a 7" tablet, but on anything bigger it looks like a child's drawing. Some of the boxes are 'live tiles' where the writing changes and sometimes pictures pop up (sports news is one); nearly all of them go straight to one of the rather naff Microsoft/Xbox/Bing 'apps' installed by default.

One of the boxes/tiles is a 'desktop' tile which takes you to a more familiar Windows desktop, although without a Start button. It's also without all the attractive 3D and transparency effects familiar from the Vista and W7 desktops - everything is very flat and old-fashioned looking, presumably to support the limited graphics hardware of phones and tablets.

Another tile is the Mail App, which should be really useful but isn't. The problem is that you click on it, it asks you what kind of email you use, and if you click on POP3 (far and away the commonest) it tells you that it doesn't work with that, so you should tell your email provider to give you something different. Talk about arrogance!

As mentioned, I chose an upgrade installation, keeping documents and settings, but losing all installed programs. This left lots of 'dead' icons on the main desktop and a lot of unusable games and programs on my 'D' drive (the 'C' drive programs had been archived out of the way into a folder called 'windows.old'). So there was a certain amount of cleaning up and reinstallation to do, but nothing terribly difficult.

There has been a lot of fuss in the media about the 'missing' Start menu; actually the blocky startup screen is really just the Start menu laid out inefficiently. You can press the 'Windows' key or click in the bottom left corner of the screen to toggle between the Desktop and Start views. From the Start screen you can view everything installed by right-clicking a blank area then selecting 'All apps' - which actually shows all programs, not just apps.

I mentioned that the default apps are pretty useless; the ones in the Microsoft App Store, at present, are not much cop either. Basically I had to go online and download programs I needed, in the old way. Windows Live Essentials can be downloaded for its decent email program, Windows Live Mail (which simply carried over the old settings from Vista's Windows Mail). Kaspersky installed with no problems, as did Firefox, iTunes, Steam and various games. Although the Start screen defaults to naff Xbox music and video apps, Windows Media Player is still available: just right-click on the Xbox versions and uninstall them, search for 'Media' - you search apps by simply typing from the Start screen and it goes straight to search - then right-click the Windows Media Player result and choose 'Pin to Start'.

With a bit of effort, it is not too tricky to set up a usable Windows 8 system, but two big irritants remain. The first is that it is slow. Reports say that Windows 8 is quick, but not on my hardware it isn't. Vista was probably slightly quicker, but what really makes W8 a pain is that sometimes you click on something and nothing happens for several seconds. Did I miss the click somehow? No, it eventually acknowledges me and starts to work, but that 'dead' time when I don't know if my program has started or not is very frustrating.

The other irritant is that the corners of the screen make Windows 8 app-related things happen. So I go to close a program by clicking on the cross in the top-right corner and I get the odd W8 sidebar instead; or I want to display the blank desktop by clicking in the bottom right corner and again get that sidebar, or the first icon on the quick-launch bar is just as likely to give me the Start screen because it is in the bottom left corner, and so on.

The old 'Blue Screen Of Death' (BSOD), with all its scary techie info and its really unhelpful hints for solving the problem is now gone. You still get a blue screen - although a softer, less scary blue - when the system crashes, but now it has a big sad emoticon :( and just tells you it has gone wrong and is shutting down. I guess you could call this the 'Blue Screen Of Sadness' (BSOS). I've only had this once in the week, which is pretty good I reckon. I have had several problems with waking up from sleep (I had to change a BIOS setting for that) and with hibernation (I fixed that by turning hibernation off). Windows update doesn't quite seem to be working right, and there are a few odd errors in the error log. But so far I think this seems to be the most stable properly new version of Windows ever.

In summary, after a week with Windows 8 I am finding it usable, but ugly, and with some irritating habits. I see no reason why anyone would want to change to it from Windows 7 (on a desktop); even from Vista or XP getting a shiny new PC would be the only convincing reason to upgrade, in my view.

It is clear to me that Microsoft view their desktop users as being essentially captive, there is no serious competition so we'll have to accept what we're given. Windows 8 is all about tablets and phones; personally I prefer Android, but those are the platforms where Windows 8 makes a lot more sense.

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