A replacement hard drive was sent to me last Friday and I took this as a chance to test drive Windows 8. Personally, I was not very excited about giving the Consumer Preview a look the same way as I took to the Windows 7 Release Preview. But for one night only, I gave Windows 8 a short spin. Here is how it is like on dual monitors.
I run asymmetrical dual screen monitors. The main screen here is a 2560×1600 30 incher from Dell. The secondary screen is a portrait rotated 19″ 1024×1280 panel also from Dell.
The secondary screen is excellent for reading. I have my social media on that end and also side browsers, news tickers, etc. It’s perfect for productivity and overall usage.
Booting and Logging In
Windows 8 installs and boots very quickly. I installed off a thumbdrive and the entire process took less than 20mins. Take note this is done on a mechanical hard drive and not on my SSD. I decided to keep my Windows 7 SSD untouched because I didn’t want any hassle re-partitioning. Boot to log in screen speed was excellent in terms of speed. It matches Windows 7 on an SSD easily.
The login screen is beautiful and this will continue be a theme for the entire UI redesign of Windows. Windows 8 is beautiful. There’s no question about it. But this post is not about aesthetics alone, it’s about usability and performance on dual monitors.
You drag the mouse up to log in. This is copying the swipe up gesture on phones and tablets. It is not intuitive for a non mobile user but we will come to that later. You have to sign into a Microsoft account at log in. There’s no longer a need to set up local users. All Windows Live accounts are converted to Microsoft accounts. I simply used a dormant one which I kept alive specifically for use with Windows 8. The entire experience at this point is a clear improvement to Windows 7. One can only imagine how fast this boots on an SSD.
Default UI Placements
The huge change in Windows 8 is the removal of the Start Menu. I have to make it clear that I hardly use the Start Menu. I use Launchy and that completely replaced the Windows 7 Start Menu for me. The Start Menu in Windows 8 is radically different. It’s a full screen launcher that is akin to the default screens on Windows Phone and Tablets.
For single monitor setups, the Start Menu will be the first screen you see after logging in. If you run dual monitors, the Desktop will appear on your primary monitor and the Start Menu on your secondary screen. In this sense, there is little change from Windows 7 because you get the Desktop on your primary screen.
I have to say it does feel weird to not have a Start button even though I barely use mine in Windows 7. It’s an iconic visual pillar removed.
Moving the Start Screen
From here on I will refer Windows 8’s Start Menu as the Start Screen and / or Metro UI. You can choose to move the Start Screen to the primary monitor as I have done here below.
Here’s the biggest caveat for dual screen users. You cannot run the Start Screen or Metro on both monitors. It will only run on one at a time. You can easily switch between them but you cannot have both. The moment I moved the Start Screen to the primary monitor my secondary monitor went to the Desktop immediately. The metro experience really breaks on a dual monitor setup. However, this isn’t an issue for single monitor users.
Again take note that while there may be a small percentage of people who run dual monitors, not many in this small percentage run asymmetrical setups like I do. So I have a unique problem on my hands.
Here’s the rundown, the Metro UI experience will feel better on a single screen monitor compared a dual monitor setup. And between dual monitor setups, it will work better on symmetrical setups as compared to asymmetrical one. I am probably in a very tiny percentage of users but the experience really breaks in my case.
Putting Metro UI Away
The next test was to try return to the Windows 7 style without any Metro UI elements. In short, you can do that without much problems. In Metro UI launch the Desktop and there you have it – double Desktop screens.
Everything runs as per Windows 7-ish at this point. There’s nothing really new besides performance and control tweaks which I won’t cover here. They have been covered to death on other tech sites. So the good news here is I can ignore the entire Metro UI thing if I want to. Using Launchy, I won’t ever need to bother with Start Screen. The only time Metro UI will appear will be when you log in and to hit the Desktop button in Metro to resummon the familiar Desktop and banish Metro to the back end.
Digging Into Metro
If we run Metro as a standalone UI, it works fast, smooth and beautiful. Right clicking mirrors the options menu on tablets. You get more options when you right click as seen in the image below. The options appear at the top.
Metro’s version of the task bar is similar to Android’s ICS app switcher. The task bar is found on the left hand side and you can return to the Start Screen or swap to other Metro (or Desktop) apps at this area. There are no problems for single screen users because you only need to slide your mouse to the left to activate Metro’s task bar.
Multi-tasking is smooth and runs without a hiccup. This should be expected since it’s running on a full fledged machine. For multiple monitors its a little bit more tricky. You can just glide to the side of your screen if you have another screen next to the former. Microsoft has implemented a pretty good method by delaying your pointer for a few milliseconds before you cross over to the second screen. It’s probably the only viable solution in this case but definitely not a clean workaround.
Tiling on Metro UI is often called ‘1/3 tiling’. On a desktop machine it is not strictly 1/3. The smaller tile has a fixed width. It would make sense on a desktop end to allow tiling proportions to be dynamically adjustable but the constraint that Microsoft is working against here is that apps created in Metro are not made to be dynamically resizable. They have a full screen mode option, a 1/3 option and a 2/3 option. Only 3 strict viewing options that makes it easier on developers to manage.
This is not neccessarily a bad thing. Metro apps work well as a side bar (1/3). In the shot below, I run the Desktop with Metro as a side bar and it works great. I can put my IM, news ticker, score board, etc on the side and it flows perfectly. Of course within the Desktop you can still dynamically tile windows anyway you like so there are no compromises here.
When given the chance to use the entire screen. Metro apps really shine on the big stage. Horizontal scrolling is done via the mouse wheel. It is pretty intuitive here. The basic apps are wrappers for Bing and they are very well presented. Google probably has the biggest share of online data, but Bing’s presentation here is unmatched. It’s beautiful on the big screen. I was able to get info quickly within the need to click.
Metro UI has done a good job with scaling. To look good both on a phone (720p) and on a 1600p screen is no joke. Microsoft has hit the nail on the head with a scalable UI. Metro is good and there’s little doubt I have about it after using it.
After using Metro, I don’t really want to go back to the Desktop. Take note that this coming from a user that is especially apt at handling the Desktop. Because of my long exposure to Windows and also time spent at work and play on the machine, I often exploit every trick to improve my productivity on Windows.
Yet, I don’t find Metro debilitating. Behaviors will have to change but I’m not sacrificing much productivity because the new apps are offering me information in a manner unmatched by being able to screen grab, synthesize and handle mutiple windows on the good ol’ Desktop in a split second like I formerly had to on Windows 7.
The point here is simple. Under Metro you will find yourself being do more without trying.
The Big ‘But’
Metro UI is really well done. If not for the Desktop and Metro UI dichotomy, I would rate Windows 8 highly. What Microsoft is not doing right here is the manner in which they intertwine Metro UI and the old Desktop. They make them two very separate experiences within a single setup. This will be jarring and confusing on end users. If I want to use the Desktop I don’t want to be pushed into Metro UI because the Start Screen is there. If I’m using Metro UI, I don’t want to be shoved into the traditional Desktop when I launch legacy applications.
Also a new user is going to be utterly confused until he moves his mouse (probably in frustration) to the side of the screen where all the menus pop up.
How to Fix This
What they should have done is to allow traditional apps to launch within Metro UI within a Desktop wrapper. This is akin to running DOS applications in a windowed DOS screen. Keeping Metro UI as a fixed base is very important because users want to have a base they can familiarize themselves with. The current method feels as if you are switching bases every time you move between the Desktop and Metro. This can get really disorientating for new users. Windows 8.1 or Windows 9 needs to address this issue. Metro has to be the base and traditional Desktop apps should appear as an overlay within a wrapper on top of Metro visually (or as a full screen / two third app).
Also, it is mandatory to have a video teach users how to use Metro at first boot. Not doing so can be lethal. To be fair, Metro UI is intuitive after you do it once. The problem is that people will need someone to guide them the first time. Just like Apple did with their recent OSX update, Microsoft has to put a short introductory video at the start to teach users how to do what they usually did in the past with the Start Menu. This includes, how to shut down, how to switch apps, where the hotspots (or charms) are. It isn’t tough so a short video will suffice.
Microsoft has a great UI on their hands. The current glitch in execution may ruin it. The company is fully betting themselves on Metro where it all their machines from phones to the XBOX will use the same interface. It’s a great idea and a great UI. Execution must be better handled and fine tuned. Else, it might get really ugly for Redmond.