Robert Hampton

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29th October 2013

8ers gonna 8

The Apple v Microsoft rivalry, always simmering away in the background, exploded last week. Apple CEO Tim Cook made a thinly-veiled attack on Microsoft while unveiling Apple’s new products last Tuesday:

Our competition is different. They’re confused. They chased after netbooks. Now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs.

You don’t need to have Alan Turing’s code-breaking skills to work out that this was a reference to Windows 8. Just like every other Star Trek film is a dud, so Windows XP (OK, at least by the time Service Pack 3 came around) was followed by Vista (aargh!), then 7 (a decent OS which I genuinely like) and now 8 (oh dear).

The newest version of Microsoft’s OS was slated from all sides, firstly for chucking out the familiar Start Menu (a key part of the user interface since 1995) in favour of a new design, and secondly for seemingly being designed for use with touch screens, with keyboard and mouse navigation almost an afterthought.

Until recently, my only exposure to Windows 8 has been through helping to set up a couple of laptops for people in work. It was an intensely frustrating experience. The Desktop was still there, along with all the traditional Windows features (Control Panel, Explorer, Task Manager), but having to go through the Start screen to access them seemed so much more cumbersome than before. The real low point came when I had to Google how to shut down the PC. Turns out you have to hover the cursor at the bottom right of the screen, click Settings in the Charms bar, then Power, then Shut down.

The “Shut down” option being hidden under “Settings” gives some idea of just how illogical Windows 8 felt. I consider myself an expert computer user, but Windows 8 will make you feel like Nan using a computer for the first time. It was certainly enough to finally push me into switching to a Mac – I reasoned that, if I was going to have to relearn a whole new OS, it might as well be one that makes sense.

When my Mum’s creaking XP machine needed replacing earlier this year, I actively sought out a Windows 7 machine for her, so that she wouldn’t have to relearn how to do the stuff she does every day. This was mainly for my own sanity, as my patience runs out very quickly when I have to show people how to do things on computers.

Reports first surfaced earlier this year that Microsoft was working on an update to Windows 8, and the Start button might be making a comeback. Tech blogs were full of “embarrassing climbdown” stories. Microsoft announced a free preview of Windows 8.1 earlier this year, and I was intrigued enough to download and install it. I use Windows 7 through Boot Camp on the Mac, but – not wanting to mess with that install – I installed Windows 8.1 preview in VirtualBox.

Reports of the Start Screen’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s still there, in all its “glory”. If you want to launch an app, you need to start typing in its name (which brings up a search box) or hover around the bottom of the screen where an arrow will appear, which you can click to open the “all apps” menu. That’s a recurring theme in Windows 8 – sometimes there is absolutely no visual clue as to where you need to click. If you were paying attention during installation, a little animation actually reminds you to click in the corners of the screen to do things. It’s a far cry from Windows 95, which only needed “< - Click here to begin" as a prompt on first boot.

Windows 8.1 Start Screen Windows 8 "All Apps" List

The “new style” apps – no-one seems quite sure what to call them; Microsoft used “Metro” in prerelease publicity but then dropped the term, for reasons unknown – open full screen by default. This is “new-style” Internet Explorer 11, which by default displays without any toolbars at all – although you can right-click to bring up the address bar.

Windows 8 Internet Explorer

To get two apps side-by-side, you need to launch the first app, then move the cursor to the top of the screen until it changes to a hand symbol, then click and drag to shrink the app to a draggable box. Then go back to the Start screen and launch the second app. And voila! Two applications running at the same time! (There may be an easier way; if there is, I haven’t found it)

Two apps side by side in Windows 8

If your screen is large enough, you can have up to four applications running at once (my VirtualBox is only running at 1024×768, so can only manage two). As this wonderfully facetious article at PCGamesN puts it:

Windows 8.1 can now run up to four apps at the same time, one in each corner of the screen. And by utilising the full potential of 64-bit processors, users will be able to reposition these apps wherever they please. Top right corner? Sure thing. Bottom left corner? Why not.

The revolutionary concept of overlapping windows, first embraced by Microsoft in Windows 2.0 in 1987, is very much downplayed. However, if you really must, you can still use your PC the boring old-fashioned way. Click the Desktop “tile” and we’re suddenly back in somewhat familiar territory. A task bar! Icons! Windows that can be positioned wherever you want!

Windows 8.1 Desktop

What we have here is basically Windows 7 with the shiny Aero effects replaced by “flat” design. The Start button was missing entirely in Windows 8.0 (you had to do yet more hovering in corners) but is back where it belongs in 8.1. Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from that horrendous Start screen. Click the Start button and you’re instantly catapulted back into tile hell.

The desktop behaves just like any other “app” and you can run it side-by-side with a Windows Store app, should you so desire.

Windows 8.1 Desktop and App Side-by-Side

There is a Start Menu of sorts – right clicking on the Start button will bring up a list of options to access system settings, and – crucially – options to Shut Down and Restart. It’s being touted as a big improvement, although you can’t help but feel that this should have been included in Windows 8.0. Maybe Microsoft thought Windows 8 was so wonderful that people would never want to turn their computers off.

Windows 8.1 Start Menu

So, that’s Windows 8.1. To me, it still feels a bit of a mess. Is it an OS for tablets or PCs? What is Microsoft’s vision for the long term? Is the Desktop going to be deprecated in future? Are we supposed to start migrating over to Windows Store touchy-feely apps? If so, I can see a lot of power users (and indeed, ordinary users) being unhappy with this. The “new-style” interface with its big chunky icons and buttons does not really lend itself to serious uses. Switching between “old” and “new” style apps is jarring – the user interfaces are completely different.

It may work better on a tablet computer, although Microsoft faces an uphill struggle to make inroads in a market dominated by Android and iOS. I definitely don’t recommend upgrading from Windows 7.

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One Response
  1. Pingback by 2013 was a big year for… « Robert Hampton
    5th January 2014 at 5:57 pm

    […] Adobe’s new advert for Photoshop befuddled me, but that was nothing compared to the bewilderment I felt upon using Windows 8 for the first time. […]