Windows 8 (is here to stay) review

November 12, 2012 on General Technology by Craig Nakamoto

It is time to try out Windows 8 again.  I installed the preview version earlier this year, but I was very disappointed.  Last week I installed the production version of Windows 8 and set it up as I would a home machine, and then I installed Windows 8 Professional and attached it to a business network (domain) to test in a work environment.    Here is what I found, and here are some very concise practical tips for getting started.

[For those interested, here are some tech details of my test setup: I installed both operating systems in virtual environments on my Mac OS X MacBook Air (2GHz Intel Core i7 w/8 GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM) laptop using the free VirtualBox virtualization software from Oracle. I downloaded the DVD images of the installers and mounted them on my SSD for the installation. I gave both environments 2GB of RAM for testing.]

The installation was very fast (probably because of my hardware setup) and painless. I laughed out loud when I saw two of the mandatory screens on the installation: 1: you have to pick your colour scheme and 2: they play a short video over and over at least three times to show you how to bring up the new start button. If I remember correctly, these were two of the most vocal complaints after the preview was launched. People didn’t like the default colours, and people could not find the start menu (this was my favourite example of the missing start menu).  We people, apparently, are morons.

I won’t bother re-iterating the details of all of the other reviews out there. Suffice it to say, for those who do not know, there is a new user interface called Metro. It is very similar to the latest Windows Phone interface. It consists of tiles (squares and rectangles) that represent apps / programs. In my opinion, Metro is clean, modern, and looks very sharp. It was extremely fast and responsive on my computer and after learning how and where to stick your mouse, it was very easy to navigate.

Please note that Windows 8 seems to be primarily designed for a touch interface.  All of my testing is with a mouse and keyboard.  Here are some practical tips for once you get up and running (assuming you do not have a touch screen, because if you do, things will probably be more familiar, and easier).  I did not have any trouble navigating around once I knew how to find everything.

Some important concepts:

    •  there are two kinds of software applications in Windows 8, I will call them apps and programs (even though these words really mean the same thing), some apps are included (like Mail, etc.), and others can be purchased (like Angry Birds, etc.) through the ‘Store’ app on the start screen (think iPhone type apps) and programs / utilities (like Paint, Control Panel, Microsoft Word, etc.) are what most Windows users are used to (some are actually both, like Internet Explorer)
    • apps just run full-screen and are unrelated to the desktop
    • programs run in the desktop (and appear in the program bar, can be resized, minimized, etc.  as per Windows 7)
    • both apps and programs can appear as tiles on the start screen

Here is some important terminology and interface components of Windows 8 (and how to find them):

    • the start screen is what you see when you log in, it is the new metro interface with active tiles (squares and rectangles that represent apps or programs)
    • to get to the start screen: click on the bottom left corner of the screen, or open the charms menu (below) and click on the ‘Start’ button
    • the charms menu is a small vertical menu that appears on the right side of the screen, it contains a link back to the start screen, but it also contains a Settings option, which shows the computer settings options, unless you are in an app (not a program), then it shows the app settings
    • to see the charms menu: move your mouse to the top right or bottom right corner of the screen to see the charms menu
    • the all apps screen is a screen that shows you all the programs and apps on your computer
    • to see the all Apps screen: right-click on a blank space on the start screen and you will see the all Apps button appear along the bottom of the screen
    • the desktop is your old familiar desktop, but without a start menu, this is where your programs will appear and run
    • to see the desktop: click on the ‘Desktop’ tile on your start screen

And here are the tips:

    • to find an app or program, just start typing when you are on the start screen and a great search interface will appear
    • to see the admin tools: from the start menu click the ‘Settings’ button on the charms menu and then click on Tiles to turn on the display of admin tools, and then they will show up on the ‘all apps’ screen
    • to get any program (including admin tools) to show up on your start screen, go to ‘all apps’, right click on the app, and then click on the ‘Pin to Start’ button on the bottom of the screen
    • as mentioned above, app settings are found on the charms menu while you are in that app (program settings are where they always were)
    • when you are in an app, there are typically no visible menus or controls, just right-click your mouse and they should appear along the top and/or bottom of the screen
    • strangely, there is no music or video app installed by default, but these are easy to find and install for free from the Store app (remember to search, just open the Store app and start typing, for example, I typed ‘microsoft’ and hit return to see all the Microsoft apps, including Music and Video)

I have not spent much time with the built-in apps, but they all look really good.  The maps app is beautiful and it has to be the most minimalist full-screen map app that I have used.  I set up the Mail app with one of my Google Apps accounts and it was very impressive.   Unfortunately I could not get the Mail app to connect to my Exchange server, but I already had that set up with Outlook without any problems.  Only time will tell if the apps are really as good as my first impressions.  The (App) Store seems to work really well and it looks great.

So far I have only had one problem on Windows 8, which was that some of the apps I downloaded do not work.  They seemed to launch, but then I am just kicked straight back to the start screen with no error message at all.  A quick Google search told me that I needed to apply the latest Windows Updates, which I did, but that did not help.  I don’t have time to investigate further right now, but since this was my work environment, it may be related to my domain security policies.

In summary I have to say that I am very impressed with Windows 8.  Windows 7 is a great operating system, but not comparable to Mac OS X Lion or Mountain Lion.  I have always maintained that Apple and Microsoft have each lead the way at different times.  However, since iPhone and IOS, Apple has been distancing itself at a rapid pace.    I think Windows 8 has a good chance of closing that gap.  There is a big learning curve for most people, but it is a necessary inconvenience.

Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival. W. Edwards Deming

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