Is Windows 8 more of the same with a new coat of paint, or something better? Nathan Taylor gives his opinion so far.
Windows 8 is like no other desktop OS before it, but many power users may well find it not to their liking. And there are some pretty large changes in store – including a complete redesign of the interface and the underlying APIs. Microsoft clearly aspires to make Windows as much like a mobile OS as possible – and that may leave some high-end users out in the cold.
Below, I’ve walked through some of the changes I've noticed and given my opinion on them. I'd love to know your thoughts on the direction Microsoft is taking with the new OS as well, so please leave comments below. You can try out the OS for yourself – it’s relatively simple to set up in a virtual machine, and here's our guide to installing Windows 8 using VirtualBox.
Up front I have to put in a very important caveat: Windows 8 isn’t even close to done. This is about what we’ve seen so far in the Developer Preview and what we know is happening behind the scenes. Anything and everything is subject to change: there are certainly many features that have not yet been implemented or publicly detailed (like the rumoured new file system) and features that are in that may yet be removed or changed. The Developer Preview does not even qualify as a beta – it was designed to show the new API and interface off to developers, to give them an idea of what to expect and to give them a head start adapting their apps. It’s very, very far from the final product.
Death to the Start Menu
There’s no question that Windows 8 includes the biggest change to the Windows interface since, well, ever. As you’ll have no doubt seen in the many Windows 8 previews, the new “Metro” interface is based on the Windows Phone interface. It’s designed to be touch-screen friendly, with huge "live" icons ready for imprecise finger presses. For phone and tablet touch screens, it’s a pretty good interface.
The problem is that we’re also going to be expected to use it with a keyboard and mouse - and that’s sure to be the most controversial issue in Windows 8.
Metro with a keyboard and mouse is a strange experience. The application buttons are unnecessarily large for mouse targeting, and you’ll have to either scroll left or right to see them all, or zoom out of the interface to get a top-down view (which will be necessary as the number of icons grows).
Metro lets you customise the buttons somewhat – make them larger or smaller, group them into categories, remove them altogether or add new ones. But even with a good deal of customisation, it’s just not an efficient interface for mouse and keyboard control.
At first I thought it might not be a problem. The more traditional desktop interface is still there, accessible at the click of a button. Basically it seemed that the Metro interface would be used on touch-screen devices, while mouse and keyboard users would simply jump over to the desktop interface and stay there.
As of the Developer Preview, however, the Metro interface is unavoidable, and it’s sure to annoy a lot of users (myself included).
The first thing that power users will notice about the desktop is that the Start Menu is gone. Dead. Kaput. As of the Developer Preview, the only way to launch new apps from the desktop interface is through links embedded in the desktop or pinned to the Task Bar, or through Windows Explorer.
Another option is through the Search interface, which takes you back into Metro. In effect, the Metro-based Start Page is the new Start Menu. There is no option to go back to the traditional Start Menu.
According to the Windows 8 Developer Blog, the rationale behind this was that most people weren’t using the Start Menu often. They would pin their commonly used apps to the desktop or Task Bar. They only used the Start Menu to search for apps that were rarely used. You can still pin your apps to the Task Bar, and the hotkeys still work. But if you’re anything like me you have a lot of apps installed, and there’s not enough room on the Task Bar for them all. So to the Metro Start page or search dialogue you go.
Quite simply, as of the Developer Preview, the Metro and desktop interfaces are far too intertwined. Not only does it give the OS an inconsistent aesthetic, you constantly find yourself bouncing back and forth between them. You head over to the Metro Start Screen to launch a new app, bounce back to the Desktop to run it (unless it’s a Metro app), then back to Metro to change your Control Panel settings. But wait! The setting you want can only be changed in the desktop version of Control Panel, so we have to flip back to that.
The good news is that the transitions between desktop and Metro are absolutely seamless. It happens instantly – no waiting, no loading. But it’s extremely annoying, and will likely drive away a lot of power users.
I suspect Microsoft could avoid a lot of angst by simply putting in a control panel option to restore the original Start Bar, perhaps with an additional option to jump straight to the desktop when Windows starts up. That way nobody can complain.
Over time, of course, Microsoft hopes and expects more and more application developers to transition their UIs to the Metro Design Language. This means fewer transitions between the traditional windowed interface and the full-bleed, full-screen Metro design.
While this may be aesthetically appealing, the transition to mobile-like full screen applications does give me some concern. As a power user, I like the option to have multiple windows open on screen, and having a visible Task Bar with all open apps accessible using a quick mouse click or hotkey press. I don’t want every app to be full screen, but that looks like it may be the way we’re headed with Windows 8.
Other interface tweaks: The Task Manager, the new copy dialogue and the Ribbon UI
The new Metro design language and revamped Start page aren’t the only UI tweaks we’ve seen for Windows 8 so far. The Developer Preview shows of a number of other changes in the OS that are really appealing.
The new Task Manager, for example is excellent. It offers a lot more information about processor, disk, network and memory use, but that’s just the beginning. There are (finally) controls for startup applications built in, as well as better management of services, a complete application history and more. Every power user should be pleased.
One thing worth noting for now is that you might be accessing the Task Manager often. One of the “features” of Metro apps is that there is, in general, no way to close them outside of the Task Manager. Metro apps work much like applications on mobiles – the OS suspends them when you leave them. If you run out of memory, it shuts down the oldest apps to free up memory. That automatic memory management has some conveniences, but I strongly suspect that I will often have to jump to the Task Manager to manually kill apps. Firefox is a good example; the browser slowly eats up more and more system memory, and I occasionally have to close and restart it to get that memory back. A Metro version of Firefox would require that I use Task Manager.
Of course, traditional desktop apps (that is, non Metro apps) can be closed the same way as they always could.
On top of the new and improved Task Manager, we have a much improved copy dialogue, which consolidates all current file jobs and allows much better conflict resolution. For example, if you’re copying two things at once, both jobs appear in a single pop-up window, and you can even pause one if you like. There’s also a great amount of information about copy rates over time. If you try and copy over existing files, a new conflict resolution dialogue appears that makes it much easier and quicker to resolve multiple conflicts. Much as with the Task Bar, these are excellent changes – not world-changing, but nice tweaks that make running the OS easier.
There’s a new Ribbon UI on Windows Explorer now, too, similar to the ones in newer versions of Microsoft Office. It’s a change that seemed a little unnecessary, but it does make a few things easier, and I have no complaints. On top of that, the new capacity to work directly with ISO and VHD (virtual hard disk) container files is extremely handy, akin to the ability to enter ZIP files directly in Windows Explorer.
The Control Panel has been reworked as well. I should say Control Panels now, since there are two – one for Metro and one for the desktop. The Metro one is very simple, very much like the control panel on a mobile phone. For you more detailed settings, you have to flip over to the desktop Control Panel, which is more like the Control Panel we’re used to seeing. I do like the design of the new Control Panel – it’s much cleaner and more logical, making finding elements that much easier.
Behind the scenes: WinRT, Windows Live and Windows to Go
Funnily enough, the thing that has got me perhaps most excited about Windows 8 is something that’s not immediately obvious using the Developer Preview: the new API, WinRT. Normally, this sounds like something that only actual developers would care about, but it’s something that should get power users excited to, since it offers some real application benefits.
So what is WinRT? In short, it’s the new native runtime for Windows 8, expected to eventually supplant Win32 for most apps (although, thanks to the vast library of Win32 apps, Win32 will be around for a long time still). It vastly simplifies the process of developing apps, though it can’t be used for low-level services like drivers.
What’s great about WinRT is that apps run completely sandboxed. They share no memory and no hard disk space with other applications. That means that they’re very secure. They also install into a single directory, and the installation should take only as long as required to copy the program files into that directory – a few seconds typically. Thanks to WinRT, there should be an end to “please wait while I configure Windows” install boxes and the final death of Windows “rot”, where a Windows installation becomes slowly corrupted over time by all the changes made to the system by installed applications. Ergo, no need to completely re-install Windows every year.
As an added sweetener, Microsoft has built new features into Windows 8 called Refresh and Restore. These tools, built into the backup section of the Control Panel, restore the system to factory conditions. Refresh keeps your personal settings and files and any Metro apps you’ve installed from the Windows Store, but reverts everything else – including removing applications not from the Windows Store. Restore gets rid of everything and completely reverts the system to factory conditions.
As the guy who gets the call whenever the computer of somebody I know dies, these features – WinRT, Refresh and Restore – sound like godsends. Every Windows admin should be just as excited.
Another major new capability of Windows 8 is Windows to Go, a feature that I haven’t seen in action but sounds very useful. Apparently it’s possible to set it up using the Developer Preview, but it requires jumping through more than a few hoops – and I couldn’t get it to work.
Windows to Go allows you to install Windows on a portable USB flash or hard drive. That means you can take your personal installation of Windows with you, which is perfect for contractors and people who move between PCs a lot. I’m curious to see how this adapts to different host system configurations. According to Microsoft, what happens is that the first time you put it on a new PC, it has to go through and do all the usual hardware detection and driver installation; but it remembers a given PC’s hardware configuration, so you only have to do that once for each PC.
Adding to the mobility of Windows 8 is the use of a Windows Live ID as an optional replacement for the traditional Windows Login. It’s actually very cool, since it automatically stores some personal information on Microsoft servers that stay with you no matter where you login. Much as we’ve seen Google do with Android, we can expect more and more integration with Microsoft’s online services for users who do use their Windows Live login. A given SkyDrive, for example, could be available from wherever you log in. If you move to a new PC, all your old settings and files could come with you in a process that’s just as easy as logging in. If Microsoft implements this as well as Google has, the pain of moving to new PCs could be very much eased.
One of the great things that Windows 7 did was roll back the system requirements from Windows Vista. Impressively, Windows 8 looks like it will have even fewer system requirements – which is definitely a positive development, especially now that Windows 8 will run on the slower ARM processors. It also supports UEFI for much faster startup times.
Running natively on a relatively old AMD Phenom 9550 system with 4GB of memory, the Developer Preview ran extremely smoothly and booted much more quickly than Windows 7. It even ran smoothly in a VirtualBox virtual machine (with hypervisor acceleration turned on) with just 1.5GB assigned.
A clean, idle install of the Windows 8 Developer Preview used just 540MB of the available system memory when I installed it into a virtual machine. For comparison, I also installed Windows 7 into the same virtual machine and it used 713MB when idle, which is a pretty impressive difference. The Windows 8 developer blog here describes how Windows 8 achieves those results: a combination of eliminating replicated chunks of memory, on-demand services and application cues about memory priority. So far, it’s definitely working, and we can hope this memory discipline makes it to the final product. It certainly makes the OS look more viable for tablet-like devices.
The take away
From the Developer Preview and publicly released information, Microsoft looks like it has already done some great work on Windows 8. The Task Manager, the lighter system requirements, the improved security and system resilience and many other elements have received subtle and not-so-subtle improvements.
But there are some questionable design decisions in there as well. The move to Metro is a big call. It essentially tacks a mobile phone interface onto a device which will very often still be controlled with a mouse and keyboard. And, for now, Metro looks to be largely unavoidable. What’s more, Microsoft is actively courting developers and trying to convince them that Metro is the way to go. And it has some merit for everyday users – it’s more secure, it automates memory management and application closure, it uses simple Android-like notifications, obviates management of screen real estate and the UI is big and easy to use on a touch screen.
However, for those of us who like to install lots of applications, who often have a dozen or more programs open at once, who like to control what is and isn’t taking up memory and who like the ability to manually manage screen real estate it could be a concern. For now, I’m still willing to give Windows 8 the benefit of the doubt, but if the Metro style becomes ubiquitous, then I might well find that it’s time to switch to Linux on my desktop and laptop.
Have an opinion? Add your comments below.