Windows 8 Release Preview Impressions

I’ve been using the Release Preview for a week now and thought it would be a good time to provide some impressions.  With the previous (Developer, Consumer) Previews I only installed Windows 8 on otherwise “out of service” PCs.  For example, a system I used for testing Viruses, a notebook that had been replaced and otherwise not used for months, and an old tablet that I really only acquired to play around with Windows 8.  There were all clean installs.  With the Release Preview I upgraded one of my production systems, the notebook that serves as our “home PC” for a second home.  Upgrading and using a production system yields a very different experience than installing a fresh system.  The latter makes you focus on all that is new in Windows 8 while the former really lets you focus on how Windows 8 will change your existing experience.

With the exception of the Tablet, which is a Win 7 era device, all of the hardware I’ve installed Windows 8 on bear a “Windows Vista” sticker.  So three of the four systems are in the 4-5 year old range.  The production system uses a Celeron with integrated Intel graphics, so it is a rather low-end affair.  If I hadn’t actually looked to see what this configuration was I would have thought it was much higher-end hardware.  It ran Windows 8 smoothly.

The upgrade of the production system to Windows 8 Release Preview was quick and relatively uneventful.  I removed Microsoft Security Essentials and updated a few Toshiba-specific items, then installed the RP.  After installation I tested most aspects of the system and the previously installed software.  I found only one problem, apparently the driver for my CD/DVD drive doesn’t work.  Everything looks great until you try to access a CD or DVD, and then the driver reports that its database in the Registry is corrupt.  You can uninstall the driver and try again, but you get the same results.

Now that the preliminaries are out-of-the-way let me get to my impressions.  I’ll start with something a little negative, the duality of the desktop and Metro IE versions.  You lose a lot with the Metro IE, particularly if there are add-ins you like.  I use Web of Trust, for example, and that is out of the question with the Metro browser.  And it isn’t clear which settings are shared between the desktop and Metro IEs.  There is no solid information, for example, that the Tracking Protection Lists (TPLs) that you set up on the desktop (and there is no way to set them up in Metro IE) are actually enforced by the Metro IE.  Certainly you can find other settings on the desktop that aren’t enforced by Metro IE.  In addition, Metro IE just isn’t as easy to use (tabs being an example) with a Mouse as is desktop IE.  So I’ve decided to only use desktop IE on a desktop/notebook system.  This is an easy settings change made, of course, in the desktop IE settings.  Now whenever I click on an IE-related Tile or some software launches IE it is always desktop IE.  I’ll reserve my use of Metro IE for Tablets.

Otherwise on my production system I found a very interesting thing, I often forgot I was using Windows 8!  Sure enough most of the applications I run have desktop shortcuts to them.  Things like Alt-Tab haven’t changed as a good way to cycle through apps and browser tabs.  So I would easily go an hour or two before needing to “Start”.  And then most of the times I would go to the Start Screen I would operate just as I did on Windows 7.  That is, I would click on Start and then start typing to search for something.  As I mentioned in an earlier posting I had already abandoned the use of navigating the Start Menu hierarchy in Windows 7 except as a last resort.  So I don’t miss it.  The only time I would really get into navigating the Start Screen is when I wanted to scan through the new Metro apps.

Also as mentioned in a previous posting I tend towards running windows maximized, so that the full-screen nature of Metro apps is fine with me.  I easily mixed Metro and Desktop apps in my usage, again with Alt-Tab as my friend.  The upgraded production system doesn’t have a screen capable of supporting snapped applications, and I did miss this feature.  With the system I’m typing this blog entry on I have “Bing Daily” snapped to the side so I can see all the latest news.  So a snapped Metro app next to a desktop IE page, not bad.  I’ll never buy new hardware that doesn’t support the 1366 x 768 required for this feature to work, and the second home “House PC” will be replaced once Windows 8 ships.

I have learned some of the keyboard shortcuts that makes use of the desktop more pleasant in Windows 8 (by letting you skip extra round trips through the Start Screen).  I’d never really gotten into keyboard shortcuts (other than Alt-Tab) before, but now that I’m using a few with Windows 8 I wish I’d made heavier use of them in earlier versions of Windows and applications.  So I’m torn between thinking of the new ones in Windows 8 as being a cool new feature and as being a necessary accommodation.  Just to be fair I give the nod to the latter interpretation.

The Start Screen itself, a rather pleasant experience on a Tablet, is just tolerable on a Desktop or Notebook.  The core of the problem is that it is meant to be the real starting point for your interactions with the PC, but that is not the desktop model of the world.  On a Tablet you live in the Start Screen (which is why Live Tiles are useful).  But traditionally on a PC you lived in the Desktop and then used Start only to find and launch an application when there was no shortcut for it.  With Windows 8 if you are primarily using Desktop apps then you will prefer to maintain the “live in the desktop, use Start only when needed” model, in which case the switch to the Start Screen is a jarring and unpleasant experience.  I believe this is how most non-Tablet users will experience Windows 8 for the first year or two of its existence.  As time goes on, and the Metro app library becomes enormous and enormously interesting, even non-Tablet users will choose to live in the Start Screen and use the desktop solely as a container for running “legacy” desktop apps.  But I’ve now concluded I won’t get there for a while.

I’ve hit a few bugs besides the driver issue along the way.  The worst of these was when (as I later figured out) my system apparently became disconnected from my Microsoft Account.  Apps that relied on Microsoft Account started giving me weird errors (essentially “App X isn’t working”) with no clue as to what the problem was.  To force things to reconnect you can switch your account type back to local, then back to Microsoft Account, which will force a new login and everything to be wired up properly again.  Microsoft  must  fix this problem (whatever it actually is) before RTM or risk discrediting one of the major advances in Windows 8.

The pre-installed apps are quite immature right now.  I could never use Mail to replace my direct usage of the Hotmail website, or of Outlook.  It just lacks too many features.  I love the idea of the Bing-based apps, and of Bing’s strategy of using Search to build apps instead of Search for Search’s sake.  But again these things are primitive right now.

There are two bottom lines for me.  One is that I rather like Windows 8 and enjoy when I go to do something new with it.  I am really looking forward to new Windows 8 hardware, particularly a Tablet that can replace my iPad.  Second is that when I use Windows 8 on a Desktop/Notebook system I’m going to continue to optimize my usage as a Desktop model and not force a Tablet usage model onto those systems.  At least for a while.


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3 Responses to Windows 8 Release Preview Impressions

  1. Bob says:

    Interesting to hear your initial thoughts. I haven’t tried the RP yet. Need to free up and wipe a drive first.

  2. waldtaube says:

    Hmm, I sort of have the opposite experience from you. I don’t find using the start screen to be jarring or unpleasant at all, even on a larger screen. On the contrary, I prefer it to desktop shortcuts because, since it’s really a popup menu of sorts, you can bring it up and click to open up a window on top of your existing window configuration without disturbing that. With desktop shortcuts, even if you use the Win-D shortcut, when you double-click on an icon it forgets your previous window configuration, so you have to manually restore everything. Another thing I like to do with the start screen is keep groups of shortcuts to folders and apps associated with activities or projects I’m working on. I can keep those groups off to the right most of the time, then easily move a whole group to the first page when I know I’ll be working on that for a while.

    On the other hand, I find switching between programs to be cumbersome whenever I’m mixing and matching desktop and Metro style apps, and actually this is my biggest problem with Windows 8. First it sometimes takes a second to think whether you want a desktop or Metro style app, then if it’s a desktop app, I have to first switch to the desktop, then switch to the app itself. Even realizing which app you want to switch to can itself take a bit longer when you don’t have the taskbar with common and running apps right in front of you. Then switching to the desktop itself is cumbersome unless you happen to know a shortcut.

    There are certainly some workarounds and shortcuts that help here. There’s alt-tab, although this is a bit wonky because since Metro style apps don’t follow the same manual lifecycle model that desktop apps do, you can never be sure if a given app that you haven’t used for a while will be there or not. For getting to the desktop quickly there’s Win-D, and there’s a nice and quick if obscure mouse method: Because “Desktop” is always the initially highlighted item in the shortcut menu that pops up when you right-click on the Start tip in the lower left corner, you can always get to the desktop with the sequence “move to lower-left, right-click, left-click” which once you’ve done it a few times you can do instantly without looking. I also benefit from a convention I’ve been applying to all my Windows 7 PCs for a while, which is to put some of my taskbar buttons in a specific consistent order and use the Win + shortcuts: I always have a web browser as Win-2, Visual Studio as Win-3, a media player as Win-4, OneNote as Win-6, etc. So I can continue using this method to get to these apps instantly even from Metro style apps. While these work for me, they feel too much like esoteric workarounds to work for most people.

    Since Windows 7 I’d almost say rather than “living in the desktop” I’ve been “living in the taskbar” and even though I understand the reasons it’s a shame to have that nice unified place for launching, switching, closing, notifications, monitoring long-running tasks, taking quick actions, jumping to common destinations within apps, even file and program management (e.g. I can drag and drop common folders from jump lists into other apps) be shattered into pieces.

    • halberenson says:

      That’s a very interesting perspective! I think I’ve seen myself really have three usage patterns. The first is on the tablet where I live in the Start Screen. The second is on an upgrade of an existing production desktop system, in which case I retain my traditional workstyle. The third is on a new desktop/notebook system where I don’t feel I’ve developed a style yet (because my usage has been so intermittent), but where I do seem to be migrating toward something more Start Screen-centric than desktop-centric. Because it seems that most initial desktop/notebook users of Windows 8 will be migrating from a Windows XP, Vista, or 7 system I think they’ll seek to mimic their existing workstyle and then have a similar experience to mine. But I also believe new workstyles will take hold over time (particularly after people get used to Windows 8 Tablets, and as Metro app availability explodes) and we won’t really know which of those predominates for a year or two.

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