First Thoughts on Windows 8

I was a year late in upgrading my desktop PC and that meant that an additional 12 months of flotsam built up around my operating system. All of the tools out there that allow you to migrate from one PC to another are a joke–the last thing I would want to do is bring all my old junk to a new system.

With the debut of Windows 8, I knew that it was time to clean house. And can you ever buy good houses these days: 3.5Ghz processors, 16GB of RAM, 2TB of storage, onboard 32GB SSD drive dedicated to a cache, and 2GB of dedicated video, all for barely $1,000.

And a copy of Windows 8, whether I wanted it or not. And at the time of my purchase, I wasn’t sure. In our local paper’s Technology section, a well-intended but misguided reviewer scared me with his warnings about how Windows 8 requires that all applications run full-screen. I wondered if the product was to be renamed Wall 8. I didn’t feel any more comfortable about this new OS when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer fired its chief architect just two weeks after its release.

My new PC arrived Saturday afternoon and I am writing this to you on Tuesday. So far, nothing has blown up and no objects have been hurled across the room. Is this a product of my new PC or the $5 additional dollars I spent yesterday? Here’s my story…

I will start by saying that I don’t think I will ever buy a notebook or a desktop PC again without an SSD drive. My notebook has one as its only drive and my desktop now has one acting as a cache. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but both machines scream in utter silence. While it is hard to ignore their skewed dollars-per-data ratio, it is impossible to ignore how much they improve the computing experience.

You’ve probably all heard the basic narrative by now: Windows 8 has eliminated the Start Menu and Start Button in favor of an entire Start Screen. That screen sports tiles that can represent native apps, services, shortcuts, and traditional apps. On a tablet or smartphone, those tiles make up the entire experience; on a desktop or notebook, you alternate between the tiles and the more traditional Desktop, depending upon your needs and preferences.

Upon booting my new desktop, Windows 8 makes its presence known through a series of questions, observations, and narratives. Irrespective of what anyone thinks of the new paradigm, it is obvious that much care went into the design. Its digital persona exudes ease of accomplishment.

My biggest fear was the continuing erosion of keystroke access for basic functions, which began with Windows XP and continued through Windows 7. I begrudge nobody who prefers to work with a mouse; having choices to suit our preferences is at the core of smart interface design. But I take it as an indisputable fact that I operate faster with my keyboard than anyone could with a mouse, and I have watched with disdain as Windows has become increasingly mouse-centric in the name of user-friendliness.

So I was relieved at first blush that I could function with my fingers. From the comfort of my keyboard, I could move around the interface, launch apps, bring up the Control Panel, the so-called “Charms,” and get to my Desktop. In many cases, keystroke access is improved under Windows 8 and the list of keyboard shortcuts is much longer with 8 than 7.

And it’s fast. It’s much faster than Windows 7, as tests on my old PC make obvious. Screens draw quickly and the flat interface acts as if it finally unencumbered with shadows, 3D effects, and transparency. My pet peeve with Windows 7 was its poor contrast between interface elements. For instance, it was always difficult for me to distinguish between an active app and a background app, because the title bars were too close in shade. That is most definitely not the case with Windows 8 and the level of interface customizability far surpasses its predecessors.

While I haven’t yet used it on a tablet or smartphone, I can imagine how Windows 8 would be appealing on either. More to the point, I could picture myself logging in to my Windows Live account in order to recreate my work environment on remote PCs and tablets.

All of this is to say that I understand the paradigm shift that Microsoft is proposing for us (okay, imposing on us), and I appreciate its value to multi-platform and multi-generational computing. With Google getting ready to announce more Android computers and Apple getting ready to take over the world, Microsoft has no choice but to create appeal across a wider demographic than office workers working on office PCs.

But here is where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object: most of us are office workers. And we expect our office to work a certain way. I recall making this same observation when Microsoft debuted Office 2007 and its otherworldly Ribbon interface. We want to treat our office equipment like appliances. We expect our computer to function like our toaster; we want to be able to take it for granted. I’m not saying that change is bad and I am not running for town Luddite. But we need to have a certain comfort level with our technology.

At its most basic level, this translates to our continuing to use traditional Windows applications and that means having our traditional Desktop nearby. I took satisfaction in designing my Start screen with tiles for all of my most-used apps, but it all started to seem a bit silly. Here I am in Firefox on my Desktop, whereupon I jump to the Start screen to click my Premiere Elements tile, so that I can then be taken right back to the Desktop. The constant jumping back and forth was making me dizzy.

I could place icons for these apps on my Desktop or pin them to the Taskbar, but that is finite real estate and both are decidedly keyboard-unfriendly activities. I discovered the semi-hidden Win+X menu and explored how any command could be placed on it, but it too would become very crowded.

The defining moment came when I decided to head over to eBay to purchase a larger NAS drive. Force of habit kicked in: Start | Right Arrow (to Favorites) | E (for eBay).

I ended up in some cute new eReader for my Kindle.

The writing was on the wall: The Start screen is nice but when there is work to be done, I can’t be bothered with it. I need better access to the tools of my craft. The solution came in the form of a $4.95 utility called Start 8, one of several after-market responses to Microsoft’s gamble. Start 8 restores the Start button, the Start menu, and offers me all of the control that I need over my environment. There are free add-ons, as well, but Start 8 is better and worth the small investment.

I’ll bet the house that soon you won’t need to spend on this: Microsoft will cave and announce an update to Windows 8 that restores the Start menu to the Desktop. In the meantime, I have made comfortable peace with Windows 8.

While Microsoft might have misjudged the value of the Start menu to us, I am not ready to indict Windows 8. At a minimum, it is a faster and more reliable version of Windows 7. When I convert my notebook to it, I am going to appreciate the ease with which I can replicate my preferred environment. And should I ever get a Windows-based mobile device, I might be singing praises for Windows 8.

And in the meantime, I’m just fine with my tacked-on Start menu.


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