Last week I was handed a copy of Windows 8 at the launch event in Johannesburg, and I was honestly excited to get home and try out Microsoft’s latest operating system. Every single review out there focusses on the new Metro interface, even though Microsoft can’t call it that – they call it the “modern” UI. Yes, it is a doozy, and it takes some getting used to. But the true magic of Windows 8 lies under that interface, and it’s great to see where Microsoft is heading in the future.
Installing Windows 8
Microsoft is really trying their best to get people to move to Windows 8. Whereas previous versions were pricey to upgrade to, the Windows 8 upgrade is available for $40, provided you have a nice fat broadband connection, because you need to download the image.
If you are upgrading from Windows 7, the upgrade process will transfer all your data and apps without issue. It will run a quick assessment to see what will work with Windows 8, and then off you go. If you are installing to an older hard disk drive, the process takes less than an hour (depending on how many apps you have already). If you have a nice zippy solid state disk, the install is done within 30 minutes. I did an install from scratch to a 7200 rpm hard drive, and the process took about 35 minutes.
Metro / Modern / The UI that killed the Start Button
Once installed you will be greeted by the new “modern” interface which is really pretty, but is also very confusing at first. You will also notice that the Start button is gone. In fact, this new screen full of tiles is the new Start Menu. Windows apps will now run in one of two ways – old “desktop” based apps which will run in a standard resizable window, and the new “modern” apps which work in a tablet centric full screen way (although it can be resized). Microsoft sells these new metro apps through their Store (yes, much like the AppStore and Play Store). Apps install quickly and without issue, and (most) of them look simply stunning.
The apps follow the same left to right panning as Windows Phone, which means that Windows 8 is actually a very pleasant operating system to use with a touch screen. But therein lies the first issue with Windows 8 – you can really sense that a standard mouse and keyboard setup is handled like a second class citizen. The new UI has lots of little menus and bars that pop out from the side of the screen which are very natural to push out with your thumbs when using a slate like device. With a mouse, you need to put your pointer in the corners of the screen. Yes, you do get used to it, but without any guidance it does not seem entirely intuitive. Case in point – here is how to sleep your desktop machine:
1) Slide your mouse to the top right corner, and the “charms bar” appears.
2) Click on the settings gear icons (yes, settings).
3) Another menu pops up from the bottom. Click on the power icon.
4) Choose sleep.
These steps are needlessly complicated, especially for someone coming from any previous version of Windows. But it’s a one time issue – people had the very same issue the first time the Start Menu was announced (“What? Click Start to switch off my machine?!”). After the initial learning phase, the user interface quickly becomes great to use. In many ways it does feel faster – for example firing up the new Start screen becomes a quick action with the mouse – quick drag down left and click the button. Searching for something inside an app? Search is now always within the charms bar – sweep to the top left, and click Search. I think users will appreciate this consistency.
But the big issue with this new UI, is that most of your windows apps will still run in the traditional desktop UI, and a select handful will run in the new Modern UI. This is also true for menus and settings within Windows. For example, the traditional Control Panel is there in its bog standard window, but there is a separate “PC settings”. This PC Settings menu follows a much simpler layout very similar to the Settings menus on tablets.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how many apps were ready to use in the Store, and it is very clear Microsoft made a lot of effort to get developers on board with the new platform. At the launch event Microsoft showed off Standard Bank’s very impressive looking app (which is still not live in the store yet). In my first few searches I found some SA favourites, including News 24, DStv Guide and also 22Seven. I was really impressed by how great the 22Seven app looks, especially considering that their current website is built in Flash, so it’s great to see how good the app looks inside Windows 8′s new UI principles. Another app that also looks amazing on the new UI is Evernote, and I think it shows that over time there will be some great apps as the developers get used to the new design principles.
Microsoft’s own apps that come bundled with Windows 8 are good as well – I especially liked the Bing Finance app that has all the JSE index stocks integrated as well as features like a watchlist and commodity prices all within the panning interface. There are also apps that we all expect from our tablets, but are now on all your PC’s, like Weather, an integrated calendar and Mail client. It also quickly imported my gmail contacts and calendars, as well as Exchange accounts.
Microsoft is also really pushing its cloud agenda with Windows 8, and in everyday use it works great. Just like with Apple’s and Google’s platforms, you can download apps which can then be installed on any of your other “authorized machines”, which is great considering how many of us use multiple PCs in our lives. Settings also follow you from device to device – for example, change your wallpaper to green on one machine, and a few seconds later you can watch your other machines follow. Skydrive is also integrated with the folder system, so your documents are also available on all your machines provided you are willing to switch to Skydrive. But Windows 8 makes it so easy, so Dropbox can maybe expect some real competition from Skydrive.
Under the hood
All of these new UI elements don’t mean squat if your PC cannot handle it. But this is one of the great parts of Windows 8 – if you have Windows 7 currently installed, you can be certain that Windows 8 will run even faster. I have installed Windows 8 on a small low powered machine running an AMD Neo 1,5GHz CPU (yes, slow) and 2GB of RAM, and had hardly any slowdowns. Microsoft also did some magic with the bootup process, so boots happen in about 2/3rds of the time compared to Windows 7.
But because Windows 8 is moving to a more tablet centric design, you expect apps to load instantly just like on any other tablet device, so a SSD is highly recommended – and it is clear that Microsoft is seeing SSD’s as the future as well. Small design changes like auto sensing of SSD disks are all around – like disk defragmenter has been renamed “Disk Optimizer”, and runs scheduled maintenence on drives. Hard disk drives get defragmented, whereas SSDs get optimized using TRIM commands (because SSDs and defragmenting do not go together). The good thing is that the OS is smart enough to figure this out by itself.
Microsoft has made a lot of small changes to the “desktop” interface as well. File handling and copying is a lot smarter – for example, you can pause ongoing copies in the background, and the actual stats of the copying is a lot more useful than in the past. It shows speed of copying, with a nice graph showing ongoing speed if you want. The Task Manager has been improved as well for the first time in years. You can see which apps used the most of your 3G data for example, using a “metered” networking option.
One feature I was particularly happy about was the new “Storage Spaces” feature. It basically works as a drive pooling mechanism without any complicated setup procedures. You simply add drives to your machine, regardless of interface or size, internal and external, then choose if you want to expand the storage pool within the machine. The storage spaces can have different redundancies set, so you just keep on adding drives. For example, you can build a data mirroring storage space from three different drives, and if one fails, your data is still safe on the other two drives. Simply swap out the failed drive (ideally with something bigger) and the system rebuilds the storage pool. This is great for media packrats, and is a great replacement for users who used Windows Home Server in the past.
Should you switch to Windows 8?
Here’s the thing – if you always want to be on the cutting edge and do not mind learning new user interfaces, you have probably already ordered your copy of Windows 8. Sure, the lack of the traditional start menu might confuse some, but the new Windows Store has some truly great apps that are the future of Microsoft’s computing. The operating system’s performance is brilliant, and most users will really be happy to use a machine that is actually faster than before.
But if you are happy with Windows 7 you might have a tough time being convinced to switch to Windows 8. There is a lot to learn, and it very clear Microsoft really tried to catch up in the tablet market with this OS. Windows 8 might be a treat on a touch screen device, but normal keyboard and mouse users will not be lining up to upgrade. Despite Microsoft’s assertions, I also do not see enterprises moving to Windows 8 in droves, but that is more an issue of the Windows Vista legacy than an issue with Windows 8 itself. Ask the IT guy at work what he thinks of Windows 8 – if he has not used it, he might be very quick to call it the next Vista. Which is not true at all. It is really a great operating system, and I think Microsoft is on the right track with their new Metro interface. Windows was ripe for a redesign, and it’s good to see Microsoft being truly innovative.
Only time will tell whether Windows 8 will really take off – new machines might ship with it, but I fear many users will be very hesitant to upgrade to it due to the initially jarring new interface, despite the very attractive price, which is a shame.
Storage Spaces Image: Win-Next / Seagate