While I'm not against change for the most part, I can understand why people get very passionate when something so ingrained in their lives is taken away from them. By this I am talking about the decision to remove the Start Button from Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. I can also understand that the alternative the same people are then presented with just doesn't do it for them. I am talking about the Start Screen and the Modern UI that Microsoft has brought to their Windows OS.
So I've decided to take a stand. I'm taking a stand against all the haters and trolls that do nothing but dump on Windows 8. Now, yes I am opening myself up to a raft of questions such as “why,” abuse about why I am taking a stand, and ultimately hate for taking a stand and sticking up for the much maligned OS.
Okay, first thing's first; why?
While I don't want to spoil the ending of the article, even though the title already does that, Windows 8 has impressed me. It's not been a completely smooth transition for me, depending on what I needed to do and what device I used it on.
So why don't I like it, or when is it that I loathe using the OS? One word springs to mind; laptops. I find the Start Screen very, very strange to navigate with the touchpad or a nipple mouse. I find that newer laptops, which can double the touchpad up as a multi-touch interface device, can be easier to use but I still don't like it as much as a conventional keyboard and mouse or a tablet. Just to add another negative into the mix, I've used it with an older tablet PC that utilizes a stylus rather than pure touch; it worked, but again it was clunky, just like using the laptop.
Other than that though, I can have no complaints. I'm not going to leave things at that either. I want to go into a bit of detail why I like the OS, from the UI to its performance. I guess I should start with the marmite of the OS, the UI.
The revolution, evolution and revolution of the UI
Any change to a UI in any version of software will irk some people. They will have functionality moved, renamed, added or removed because the vendors deem it fit to move the product forward. However, familiarity is going to be the key in convincing the user the newer version of their software is for them.
So, Microsoft blew the whole familiarity argument completely out of the water by not only removing the Start Button, but changing the Start Menu to the Start Screen. This is not the first time Microsoft has made such a drastic change to their flagship product's UI. For that you have to go all the way back to August 1995 and the release of Windows 95. So, let's throwback to the mid 90's and wistfully think back to those simpler times!
It can't be denied that computing, both in the home and in the work environments wasn't anywhere near as prominent as it is now. But Microsoft took a big risk, albeit in front of a smaller user base, with the introduction of the Start Button, Start Menu and Taskbar. Concerns were raised by users of Windows 3.x and Windows NT 3.x that they would need training and that adoption of the OS would be slow due to legacy application compatibility issues, part in thanks to the move from 16-bit architecture to a pre-emptively multitasked 32-bit architecture. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
It was the simplicity of Windows 95 and it's UI that brought computing to the masses. Microsoft got celebrities of the time - Jennifer Anniston and Matthew Perry - to promote the OS, bundled the positively epic music video ‘Buddy Holly' by Weezer on the installation media and got the rights to use The Rolling Stones' ‘Start Me Up' in the advertising campaign. All of this must have worked; Steve Ballmer himself said at BUILD 2012 that one of the three biggest events to happen during his time at Microsoft was:
The launch of Windows 95 which was really the thing that brought computing into the mainstream and opened up the internet with the first integrated browsers.
He's right. The OS, its simplicity, its marketing techniques and celebrity endorsements (if you could call them endorsements that is) all brought computing to the general population. Computers were no longer for the pasty white geek sitting in a basement writing code or fiddling with electronics, nor was it now restricted to the workplace as a device you used to get things done. Microsoft was in the right place at the right time with Windows 95, and it was the first OS I installed myself from media.
Ballmer added that the third biggest event is the release of Windows 8, going on to say that Microsoft is “all in” when it comes to the OS. Well, they're not going to slate their newest OS are they?
The evolution of the Windows UI
So, over the years, Microsoft has tweaked and improved the Start Button and Menu, depending on the trends of the time. The OS has always remained constant and consistent in how it works, functionality added and removed, with tasks and configurable options becoming more accessible, even to the most novice of computer user.
So, bringing things speedily to October 26th 2012, Windows 8 hit the stores and Microsoft pulled out all the stops for its launch. The general feedback from Joe public seemed to be positive, with Surface tablets, All-in-One PCs and Windows 8 laptops being demoed and seen for the first time, outside of a Microsoft keynote speech, by the people that matter to Microsoft, their customers.
So, onto the UI and my first question has to be, is it that bad?
My Start Screen as it is at the moment
Well it depends on how you look at it. Or wish to use it. Using Windows Phone 7 for nearly two years prior to the general release of Windows 8, I was more than prepared for what Microsoft wanted to achieve on the desktop with the OS. As I've already stated, the navigation left me a little disappointed when using a laptop, but once I got the OS onto a test PC with a keyboard and mouse, my perception changed immediately and I realised that it wasn't at all as terrible as I'd experience so far. I've even had the opportunity to use Windows RT on a Surface and use Windows 8 Pro on a touch screen Ultrabook, and I have to say, the navigation works very, very well.
Post made by a friend of mine on Facebook after getting Windows in November
I've had many debates with friends and work colleagues around the UI and what it is like to use. The general consensus has been that, even before they use it, they respond with “it's crap!” Now, this is a little harsh, as I would understand if they'd used the OS and could get to grips with the UI, but from only seeing the UI in screenshots and videos, that's a little bit unfair.
Another post by a Facebook friend after getting Windows 8
The UI isn't bad at all. Microsoft are being very clever in providing the touch centric aspects of the OS as the main or first interface you see, while at the same time they have kept the traditional desktop experience there for all to use, if they so wish or need. Essentially, there are two UI's in the one OS out of the box. And I like both of them.
The Modern UI has been designed for touch based devices. We first got to see it, called Metro, in the Zune HD, Windows Phone 7 and then the Xbox 360 dashboard. It's a good interface, very much suited to touch based devices and the gesture controls of the Kinect. And with a standard keyboard and mouse it works well too. The Live Tiles are a revelation. For years, UIs have been becoming flashier, adding animations and detailed icons and graphical eye candy. But with the Live Tiles, while there is eye candy there, with the dynamic changing of the information on the tiles, icons for Outlook, Xbox Live, SkyDrive, Calendar and Xbox Music are all two tone flat icons. Microsoft has taken a step back from the bells and whistles and managed to produce something that offers the same for less. Theme colour on white and that's it. And you know what, I think it works, and works well.
A nice wee video from CBT Nuggets showing the UI and how to use it
Even the animations aren't anything special. They are simple. It's a common fact that the simplest things in life are the hardest to do right. But Microsoft has done it well. Transitioning between apps is nice. The apps flip/spin on and off screen. The Live tiles contain a mixture of flips and slides, while the whole time maintaining a very flat graphical look. I find it hard to describe the UI without over simplifying things, saying “it's class” or “I love it” but the overall look of the touch UI is beautiful.
Search works in the exact same way as it did in Vista and 7, but you just don't have a text box to prompt you to type what you're looking for. Instead, just start typing and you should get the desired results. Although, you will have to have at least a little knowledge of what you are looking for, with the search being broken down into Apps, Settings and Files.
The themes are slightly limited in number and there could be more options to personalize the UI (custom background on the Start Screen, without using third party apps like Decor8), but that doesn't take away from what is already a very simple, but perfectly executed touch UI. And the icing on the cake? The fact that no other touch UI looked or looks like it now, that's not a cheap Indian knock off! While they are mobile OS', Android and iOS both share a similar interface - a few screens of icons, search functionality and configurable settings. At least Windows 8 sets itself apart from the competition.
My desktop at the time of writing
And what of the UI on the traditional desktop? Aero has been semi-retired in favour of, the Modern UI. Obviously, the first thing you see is a clear lack of Start Button. But the Taskbar remains the same as Windows 7. What we get is the last remnants of Aero Glass transparency on the Taskbar, square corners to windows and square flat edges to tabs in the Ribbon interface of the desktop apps. Curves are pretty much ignored. While the desktop and Start Screen are different experiences, it's all been done to blend the look of both that little bit more. Personalization remains the same as Windows 7, being able to change the theme, wallpaper, font & icon size, it's all there. Microsoft has even bundled in a panoramic theme, Nightfall and Starlight, to show off the desktop across multiple monitors. Not that this wasn't possible in Vista, 7 or even XP for that matter.
If you move the mouse to where the Start Button would have been, you get a little image of the Start Screen fade up (or Charm) to show you the experience is still there, albeit loosely. The Charm Bar is presented when you move the mouse over to the right corners of the screen. Finally, any Modern apps that may have been opened, but you've switched back to the desktop, can be accessed by moving the mouse to the top left corner of the screen. It's a very streamlined interface, and if you pin your favourite apps to the Taskbar, you've put yourself in the position of never having to leave the desktop for the Start Screen.
The final point to make is that Aero Peek still exists, but unlike Windows 7, where you can see a very distinct button-like graphic at the extreme right of the Taskbar, Windows 8 doesn't have it. It's like it's been hidden, but the option still functions in the same way.
I don't know what really to say about the UI without going into an in depth review, one I would not be qualified to make. As much as I've repeated what people have read and already know, after doing so I have to ask, what is the problem with the UI(s)? I mean, you're getting a two-for-one here, why can't you make one of them work for you, without needing to resort to an application like Start8 to feel like you're using still using Windows?
OS performance and subtle changes
Without pretending to know what I'm talking about, I know that Microsoft have made a sea of changes under the hood for Windows 8. They do it for each version of the OS they build and ultimately release. But how has the changes they've made, made a difference between Windows 8 performance and Windows 7? Well, it depends on how you look at it again.
Installation is a dream. There are just far fewer steps to have to go through and, from DVD, the installation is completed in around 20 minutes depending on your system spec. Installing the OS from USB stick is even quicker, taking just over 12 minutes for me to be sitting at the desktop after installing on a PC recently. I've even installed it on my wife's netbook! While the spec isn't stellar, it's a decent system that ran Windows 7 Starter. But the install (and subsequent performance) of the device is downright outstanding. But then again, none of the HP bloatware exists on it anymore!
Boot and Shutdown times/speeds have been greatly reduced with the introduction of Windows 8. I've had the OS boot, from cold on a system spec of Pentium 4 631, 2GB RAM, 160GB 7200RPM hard disk and a Radeon X600, in 20 seconds. 20! That's insanely quick, given the six and a half year old spec of the system. The netbook also boots in 15 seconds. It's insane.
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum with the main PC I have at home that I, my wife and kids use, the longest part of the power on/boot process is the POST and motherboard detecting the hard disks. I see the Windows 8 Boot screen for all of three seconds, with a blank screen for just over two then BAM, time to logon. The Windows boot takes all of 7 seconds, with the other 10 being the motherboard doing its thing. It's not like my PC is the highest spec either. It's good, but not great; Core i5, 8GB RAM, 120GB SSD and a 9800GTX.
Microsoft have worked hard on getting the boot times down to as quick as possible with this version of Windows, but they do start that you should be able to jump in and out of Standby and Hibernate rather than a straight power on/off all the time. The Windows Engineering Team posted a very detailed blog on what they did to reduce boot times and how they did it!
And what of the OS performance? Again, two different experiences exist, the traditional desktop and the Modern UI. And while both are quick at opening, closing and switching between apps with speed and fluidity, is there a noticeable difference between Windows 8 and its predecessors? Well, in reality no, but should that matter?
Across all the systems I've used Windows 8 on, it's been a dream to use. Once at the Start Screen, as soon as I click on an app, it's open. I click on the desktop, I'm there. When on the desktop, I can transition between my open Modern apps and other desktop apps with the same swiftness as Windows 7, so I really can have no complaints about the performance of the OS from an application point of view. What about gaming? I play Football Manager, CS: Source and the Angry Birds games. The games are quick to load and don't have any negative impact on my general system performance either. I do a bit of photography as well, so how is opening the RAW images and editing them in Photoshop for me? Absolutely spot on! As PS is installed on my SSD, it loads quickly. Very quickly, around 2.5 seconds in fact. I can't really compare it to my previous install on Windows 7, as the install was running from a standard 7200RPM drive (hardware RAIDed as well), but I'm sure you've guessed it's super-fast on 8 in comparison to 7.
What's that you say, application compatibility? Well, I've had no issues, but that's not to say some people haven't or won't. But the pitfalls of compatibility, that I have experienced, started as far back as XP's release. And since then, there has always been that little caveat of “will all my applications work” with whatever version of Windows is released. All I can say is, everything I've thrown at Windows 8 has worked and worked well.
Battery life is the last performance upgrade I received with Windows 8. I can remember when I first went to Windows 7 on my laptop and I got an extra 20 minutes out of the battery. The same was true of Windows 8 as I was able to get an extra 15 minutes out of my battery over Windows 7. It's the changes to the UI and the changes under the hood that have given me that little bit more time with using device.
Ultimately it's the changes under the hood and the changes to functionality that have been made to Windows 8 that will set it apart from its predecessors. From an admin point of view, the Task Manager and improved file transfer information is a joy to work with. IE10 is now a very good browser, and while it will still need improvements to compete with Chrome and Firefox on a performance level, an out-of-the-box browser like this is great to see. It's a long way from IE6 now! Pretty much all audio and video formats I use play without any issue, PDF's open without needing Adobe and Flash is bundled in as well. What more could you ask for from an out of the box experience?
What Next for Microsoft?
The answer to that is actually in the question. Windows Next, as it's been called but now knows as Windows Blue, will be the version of Windows to supersede Windows 8. Can we expect Microsoft to give into certain pressures that the Start Button and Start Menu should return? Not at all, and they have said it's gone and won't be back.
While it's being classified as an update or even a service pack, what sort of user experience can we expect from the OS? Well the obvious one is more changes under the hood (read kernel changes) to improve performance, boot times, ease of install and battery life. UI changes are expected, but it'll be more about customisation rather than giving the users something back. Aero will be completely removed in favour of the Modern UI.
The one major change that rumour has Microsoft pegged to go with is faster development and release cycles, much like Apple and Google do with their OS'. This would be of benefit to them as they could address issues with the OS much quicker. But it has been said that more frequent releases of the OS could hurt the business market. Enterprise customers are notoriously cautious when it comes to the early adoption of new a new OS, especially if legacy application compatibility is involved.
Finally, when can we expect the updated OS? It's been suggested that it could arrive in 2013. That would definitely fit in with the faster release cycle talk!
So, why then?
When it comes down to it, Microsoft has created a very good OS. Windows 7 was the right OS at the right time, and it recaptured the market for Microsoft in a way that Vista should have but didn't.
While many people will always be unhappy with the changes Microsoft has made to the UI for Windows 8, I happen to love it. Whether it is the simplicity of the live tiles and themes, to the performance of the OS when doing what I need to do, I am more than happy with what the OS has given me. Even in work, where I have to support Windows XP and Server 2003 up, I can't wait until the customers I deal with start to purchase the software and the hardware to compliment it, specifically tablets.
We can talk about sale figures and public opinion, but when it comes down to it, had Microsoft kept the Start Button and Start Menu, but kept the Modern interface graphics for the desktop, there would be more positivity around the OS overall.
In nowadays tablet hungry consumer market, a proper, touch capable OS was what Microsoft needed to produce. So what better than to slap a UI that was already tried and tested in Windows Phone 7 onto the Windows 7 OS? That may be simplifying the process, but that's what was done. And instead of providing two ways to use the OS, Microsoft went with the touch UI right from the off, scrapping the traditional and going with the new UI. It was the only way to move the OS forward, even if that was at the expense of some of its users. Bold move Microsoft!
So, why do I like it? The performance, the UI, all my software and hardware works, Microsoft's brave decisions and its open and transparent development of the OS. But I like it because it's different. I like it, much like I love Windows Phone, because there is nothing quite like it on the market. And to me, that's a great thing.
Benchmark images courtesy of TechSpot | Love Windows 8 image courtesy of HDWallpaper