Windows 8: A Detailed Review

Windows 8: Microsoft Goes All In

Windows 8: Microsoft Goes All In

It is not easy to cover Windows 8 within a post but I will attempt to do so here. This review will look at Windows 8 in detail from a non touch perspective. I have personally aided the upgrades of 6 systems of which 2 of them are mine. My review will be centred around my experience running Windows 8 on a dual monitor desktop (30″ 2560×1600 & 19″ 1024×1280) and a laptop (13″ 1366×768″). Both of them run on first generation Core i7 processors and solid state drives. As such, this review is based on relatively decent systems.

 

Windows 8 is Windows 7 on steroids with a fresh new coat of paint. Whether you like that new coat of paint is subjective.

 

If I may sum this review in a line: Windows 8 is Windows 7 on steroids with a fresh new coat of paint. Whether you like that new coat of paint is subjective and I will try to approach this from all angles because the review hinges precariously on this. Let’s begin with something more universal and comparable to Windows 7.

 

 

Internals: Good improvements over Windows 7

Internals: Good improvements over Windows 7

 

Under The Hood

Besides dropping Aero, Windows 8 looks exactly the same as Windows 7 on the traditional desktop view. Nonetheless, there are multiple improvements that have taken Windows to a new level. I didn’t upgrade to get Modern UI, I upgraded to get an improved Windows 7 and that is what Windows 8 is.

 

Optimizations

  • Start Up / Shut Down / Sleep: Windows 8 boots really quickly. Windows 7 took around 12 seconds to boot to the desktop, Windows 8 sliced that to 5 seconds. That is more than half of a boot time I was previously pretty proud off on Windows 7. There is both an actual and visual speed boost here. Optimization to the boot process has yielded an actual speed boost. Certain unneeded processes have been sliced off and the necessary ones improved. However, there is also a visual element here. When you boot Windows 8, you boot into the Start Screen, also known as Modern UI. Modern UI is a very lightweight process that is ready to use instantaneously on logging in. However, the traditionally desktop continues to load at the background. Because Modern UI is the first thing that greets the user, Windows 8 gives somewhat of an illusion that the boot speed has increased. On personal tests, the actual boost reduced the boot time by about 4 seconds. The visual effect sliced off 3 seconds. Do note that improvements from Windows 7 to 8 are smaller on a Solid State Drive (SSD) as compared to traditional hard disk drives (HDD). If you are using a HDD, you’re very likely to see an even bigger boost to speeds compared to what I observed.
  • Faster File Transfers: Windows 8 has improved file transfers between drives and USB devices. I will not dive into the technical details but you will be able to observe an improvement in file copying speeds even on the now dated USB 2.0 interface. In the past, I had to use TeraCopy to improve file copy speeds. Windows 8 has made that utility obsolete.
  • Inbuilt Streamlined Security: Sources say that hackers have admitted that Windows 8 is very tough to break in. Skipping technical details such as memory allocation, one thing you will observe is that Microsoft has built the three security facets of Anti Virus, Anti Malware and Firewall right into Windows 8 from the get go. All these are subsumed into an expanded Windows Defender. What this means is that every Windows 8 system has the necessary protection required from the get go. Settings, definition updates and scheduled scans are automated. Of course, you can fiddle with things manually if you like but the average mainstream user will be well protected without lifting a finger.

Every Windows 8 system has the necessary protection required from the get go.

 

  • Improved Feedback: There are goodies for those who like to take a detailed view of their system. Resource Manager in Windows 7 was a useful but hidden tool. This has been merged into a new Task manager. The new task manager tells you everything you need to know. Which program is eating your memory, hitting your drive, taking the most network bandwidth and more. You can also track app history, start up programs and many other things within the new Task Manager. Besides this, smaller touches that bring better feedback include an improved File Copy/Move dialogue box. You get to track actual speed and average trends. These will not be important to mainstream users but power users will love improvements in this area.
  • Battery Life: Removing aero and optimizing system processes has seen the dwindling life of my 2 year old laptop battery actually increase. I received about 15 minutes of extra usage. Note that my battery at its peak could do 5 hours and after 2 years this has dropped to about 3. A 12.5% increase is pretty substantial for me.

New Tools

  • File History: Microsoft has finally brought in file versoining in Windows 8. What this tool does is to backup your files every few minutes (you set this) so that you can always go back to an older version of a document. Let’s say you made a horrible mistake in your Word document, hit save and close the file. That usually means that you can’t revert the error. With File History, you can restore an older copy of the file.
File History: Save and restore old versions of your documents

File History: Save and restore old versions of your documents

  • Storage Spaces: A very popular feature in Windows Home Server has been brought over to the consumer side. Storage Spaces is basically a software RAID solution. I won’t go into technical details but you can set it up so that your drives look like one drive. Let’s say you have two 1TB drives, Storage Spaces allow you to turn that into one 2TB drive. Or, you can choose to make it such that data is mirrored between both 1TB drives (AKA RAID 1). This can be useful in case one of the drives breaks down since the second drive is a consistent perfect mirror.
  • Mount ISOs Natively  ISOs are basically software images of optical media. Mounting an ISO is akin to putting a CD/DVD/BD into your optical drive. In the past, one had to download external software to handle such files. Now, you can just right click an ISO and mount it directly. Works flawlessly and is an even more elegant solution to long time third party options.
  • Improved Multi Monitor Support: Every version of Windows prior to 8 has been rather unfriendly to multiple monitor support. The taskbar will only appear on the main screen. Wallpapers were poorly mirrored  You had to buy utilities like UltraMon in order to get proper functionality. Windows 8 has fixed that. Taskbars are now available on all screens and can be set up to show only applications running on that screen. Multi monitors wallpapers have been solved with a span option. This change may sound small but it comes as a huge relief to users with multiple screens.

Verdict

I think it is universally accepted that Windows 8 brings nothing but improvements to Windows 7 within the scope of the traditional desktop. It is very hard to find something negative to write about under the hood changes. Pretty clear cut positive verdict here.

 

 

Modern UI: The Start Screen

Modern UI: The Start Screen

Modern UI – The Start Screen

The more contentious point is Modern UI. Formerly known as Metro UI, this represents the shift in Microsoft’s strategy and its plan for going mobile. I first tried Modern UI in the Release Preview and I didn’t like it. But Microsoft has cleaned things up and the former dichotomy between Modern UI and the traditional desktop has eked away.

 

The Good

  • Fast: The Start Screen is fast and snappy. This is very important because a slow Start Screen would make a very poor impression for any new Windows 8 user. The Start Screen scrolls horizontally with your vertical scroll. It may not sound intuitive but it turns out fine and users understand it within seconds. It helps Modern UI a lot that the Start Screen is blazing fast. As mentioned earlier, this also helps boot speeds.
  • Beautiful: Beauty is subjective but I have hardly heard anyone who has complained about how the Start Menu looks. It is bold and Microsoft has managed pulling off multicoloured Live Tiles while keeping the entire presentation easy on the eye.
  • Informative: Live Tiles are icons that do a lot more. It first appeared on Windows Phone and has made its way to PCs. Live Tiles offer users dynamic information at a glance. For example, the tile of a RSS Reader will update every few seconds to display the latest feed. A photo tile will act like a slideshow. Live Tiles represent the key differentiating factor of Modern UI as compared to any other OS (even preceding versions of Windows).
  • Multi Tasking: The 1/3 view is great on most screens. It is really nice to be able to put an Instant Messaging program on 1/3 and your main app on 2/3. Again, this is not found on other mobile based operating systems.
Multi Tasking: IM on the left, your main app on the right.

Multi Tasking: IM on the left, your main app on the right.

The Bad

  • Switching: App switching within Modern UI is good. App switching within the traditional desktop is fine as well. It becomes confusing for users when they switch between non minimized traditional desktop apps and Modern UI apps. For example, if a user is to have a small calculator on his desktop and switches to a Modern UI app, not only does the calculator window disappear, the entire desktop goes away as well. New users will find this very disorienting. The traditional desktop in many ways served as the anchor point for Windows. Microsoft has chosen to shift that point of reference to Modern UI, rendering the desktop as an app and traditional apps as apps within the desktop app. You can see why it gets confusing here.
  • Initial Default Programs: Default programs for viewing all picture formats and PDFs are Modern UI based apps. This means that users are instantly made to face that confusing switch mentioned above right from the start. All these will cause frustration until the user adapts.

Usage

How much of a change the new Start Screen (and the demise of the old Start Menu) depends squarely on the user. To me, the removal of the Start Menu was of no effect because I never touched it even in Windows 7. Everything I did was via Launchy. Windows 8 felt like a boosted Windows 7 with this additional fancy new plaything called Modern UI. Obviously, most users do not operate Windows the way I do. This section explores use case scenarios and the available options:

  • Embrace Change & Dive In: Get used to the dichotomy and swinging between the desktop and Modern UI. After a few hours of usage, most users will get used to it. This method is what Microsoft hopes will work. As compared to the Release Preview, the experience of fully embracing the desktop and Modern UI is not that bad as first thought to be. A normal keyboard and mouse works fine. If you want a really nice experience, get a touch mouse or a touch pad. Also, make use of all the tips and tricks to navigate Windows 8.
  • Delineate Desktop & Modern UI: This is the method I took. I make a very clear distinction between Desktop Apps and Modern UI Apps. I do from time to time make very conscious choices of mixing them up but most of the time I keep them separate.  This makes Windows 8 feel like two products for the price of one. At the moment, it works out really well. I have a productivity mode where I sit in the Desktop with my multiple windows over two screens. And then, there is a content consumption mode where I flip to Modern UI and browse around, read news, mail and social feeds.
  • Get Rid of Modern UI: This obviously represents the tail end of the spectrum. You can get rid of the new Start Menu by using utilities such as Skip Metro (to stop the Start Screen from showing) and Start Menu replacements such as ClassicShell or Start8 or a beta offering from Pokki.Your ability to avoid Modern UI will last only as long as these programs are updated / supported.

Verdict

It is in no doubt that Microsoft is forcing Modern UI because Modern UI is its strategy to move forward. This change is going to be as painful as the ones users felt back when Windows 95 launched and eradicated the Program Manager (remember?). The new Start Screen is not all bad. In fact, it is a compelling platform which has multiple benefits for productivity and content consumption.

My personal recommendations are as such. It is better to go with ‘diving in’ when you are ready. Windows 8 is here to stay and Windows 9 will build on it. By embracing change, you open yourself up to the many new features and apps available. Modern UI is not a bad thing. It is well designed and your dollars spent on Windows 8 should reap the enjoyment of a very fresh new feature.

I have experimented with living only in Metro and it is very doable. The apps available plus Google’s Chrome release for Modern UI has made it possible. Apps are only going to improve with time. It doesn’t make much sense to avoid Modern UI in the long run.

 

How users react will determine the success of Modern UI. Initial responses have been largely positive.

 

Microsoft’s bold decision is a sign of the giant platform Windows is. It needed to move forward but it has billions of legacy apps to support. You can’t wipe that out in a flash. This dichotomy was a necessary evil. How users react will determine the success of Modern UI. Initial responses have been largely positive but the long term market response would be a better indicator.

 

 

Windows Store: Microsoft's App Store

Windows Store: Microsoft’s App Store

Apps: Windows Store

Microsoft has aggressively priced Windows 8 for the first 3 months (ends 31st Jan 2013) for a big reason. It needs its app ecosystem to take off. To do so, you need tons of users to jump on and entice developers. Judging from the intial take up of Windows 8, developers will soon be onboard in numbers.

 

The Good

  • Design: App developers have taken design cues very closely from Modern UI. The app store currently houses great looking apps with streamlined design. It is hard to find an app that looks jarringly out of place. This is a rather big achievement for Microsoft considering the mayhem of the Android app store in the early days. Design is a very important factor in app creation and the initial bunch have set a good quality baseline. Users will be happy in general.
  • Sync: All your apps are tied to your Microsoft account and any changes you make will be synced over all your devices. The level of syncing is unprecendented. In iOS and Android, settings on apps do not sync across devices at all. In Windows 8, every app I have handled over 2 devices sync really well both native and 3rd party Modern UI apps. Obviously, you can change sync settings as you like too.

The Bad:

  • Mobile Ports: Some apps are mobile apps ported over. It is a little harsh for me to highlight this since the Windows Store is barely 4 days old but new users must be warned that not all apps have been built from ground up to work well on PCs. Mobile apps will work great on touch screen devices (tablets) but not so with the mouse. It is quite easy to spot which apps were made only for tablets and which were made for both PCs and tablets – see if your scroll wheel can cause the app to scroll.
  • Infant Apps: Apps are in infancy stage. Some apps were obviously rushed out as a place holder. Examples include Evernote. The point here is that you will find many decent apps now but not all are fully featured. These are growing pains that should ease off within months.
  • Price: Apps on the Windows Store are not as dirt cheap as the US$0.99 we are all conditioned to on iOS and Android. Most apps cost between US$2.99 and US$6.99. Whether or not these prices will change depends on the market.
There are many good free apps but paid apps are not cheap,

There are many good free apps but paid apps are not cheap,

Verdict

The Windows Store has its basics right and all it needs is time. Users will be mislead to thinking that they will walk into an ecosystem with tons and tons of great apps. Windows 8 is brand new and barely a week old. If you wish to jump in early, prepare yourself that apps will take a few months to catch up.

That said, the starting point in the Windows Store is considerably better than that of iOS and Android. On top of that Microsoft has reportedly promised over 100,000 apps within months. I won’t challenge Microsoft’s outstanding record in its unmatched partnership with developers.

 

 

Conclusion

After trying the Release Preview, Windows 8 has come as a surprise to me. I was initially very skeptical about it, even thinking I may skip the upgrade. I will recommend Windows 8 because it is polished and there are too many benefits to sacrifice over the fear of a new Start Screen. Microsoft needed to do a good job with this OS and has done so. It is not surprising to see many other tech sites giving Windows 8 glowing reviews.

Everyone knows the next battlefield is the mobile space. Apple’s approach is to create something very different (iOS) from OSX that is polished for mobile use. Google’s approach relies on a lightweight platform, in fact any lightweight platform, that accesses its web services. The solutions are largely based on Android, Chrome and Chromium (read: Chromebooks).

 

Windows 8 is the only OS that brings traditional desktops and mobile interfaces together. Successful or not, time will decide.

 

Both Apple and Google have been unable to marry mobile and traditional desktops. Apple believes it is impossible to do so but Microsoft is taking a bold step with Windows 8. Windows 8 is the only OS that brings traditional desktops and mobile interfaces together. Successful or not, time will decide.

Apple’s Tim Cook coined Windows 8 as a flying car. I don’t know about Tim but I think flying cars are really cool. Microsoft has made big bets on Windows 8 and it is looking good. If Windows 3.0, Windows 95 and Windows XP are landmarks in the history of Operating Systems, Windows 8 surely joins that league of innovation and forward looking change.



Comments are closed.