Windows 8 Impressions

March 3, 2013

Considering that I now spend the majority of my computing time on a laptop, I figured that it would be fun to put Redmond’s latest and greatest OS on my primarily gaming-oriented desktop. After using this machine on and off for a few months, some opinions have finally gelled as far as what works and what doesn’t.

Going into this process, I was pretty enthusiastic about Windows 8 and was actively trying to keep an open mind despite a lot of online vitriol flowing about Metro UI (or whatever name Microsoft is calling it now). I’m actually a pretty big fan of the Metro aesthetic due to the heavy use of clean lines and its emphasis on simple typography. Those who know me personally might say that I have an obsession with skinny fonts.

No Start Menu, No Problem

The most common complaint about Windows 8 that I’ve seen is about the removal of the Start menu, but I don’t miss it at all. Tapping the Windows key on the keyboard brings up the Start screen in Metro, and subsequently typing the prefix of an application name will quickly bring up a list of matches. I find this process a lot quicker than navigating a hierarchy of menus as my hands never need to leave the keyboard.

Of course, I was already used to using search-based application launchers before installing Windows 8, so I did not need to make any major changes to my workflow. In OS X I use Alfred or Spotlight, and in Linux I use the application search built into KDE. It does make sense that people who are trained on the launcher menu paradigm will require more time to adjust.

Metro-Desktop Integration

The integration between Metro and the desktop exists in some contexts, but it is not fully developed. For example, Metro apps can be launched from events in the desktop and vice-versa. But my biggest gripe is that there is little integration between the desktop’s control panel and Metro’s settings page. Both apps are relevant, and preferences are partitioned into two disjoint sets based on whether they apply more to the Metro world than the desktop realm. This division requires the user to go through an extra step of reasoning about where specific preferences are listed. I imagine that this division comes from the fact that Microsoft didn’t want to add legacy mode cruft to allow Metro to list desktop control panel pages. On a technical level I can respect Microsoft’s desire to make a clean break from the old Win32 era APIs, but the process definitely introduces some growing pains.

On a larger scale, I’m not sure why Microsoft did not opt to have legacy apps simply launch on top of the Metro UI like a second widget layer on top of the live tiles. There would have been some issues like how to integrate legacy and Metro apps together in the task switcher, but that problem doesn’t seem insurmountable. Maybe this level of integration would have deprecated more desktop functionality and APIs than Microsoft was comfortable with at this time?

Full Screen is Only Useful Half of the Time

This last aspect in one form or another has been routinely criticized by power users, and it’s a design direction that has influenced not just Windows 8 but also OS X, Gnome 3, and Unity. I didn’t give it much thought until I tried opening some PDFs and JPEGs of scanned documents, and the full screen Metro viewer apps opened up. Since I was using these documents as a reference for another task, it didn’t make sense to view them in full screen mode, and it would have been more convenient in the traditional windowed paradigm of having the viewer open side-by-side with my other open apps.

Of course, the Metro document and image viewers are only the defaults that come with Windows 8, and one can easily install 3rd party desktop apps to replace them. But there might be cause for concern in the future if Microsoft proceeds to move Windows x86 further down the walled-garden path.