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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Windows 8 RTM: Final Thoughts

I've been using Windows 8 for the last week and documenting my thoughts in the following posts:
This final post highlights all of the major changes and expresses my overall thoughts on the OS.

After six days of putting Windows 8 through its paces I think I have a pretty good feel for the OS. I did my best to use Windows 8 RTM as my primary OS for the last week and pretty much stuck to my guns. Microsoft changed a ton of stuff - not all for the better - and I'm starting to see why so many people are voicing their displeasure with the new offering.

The Good

  • Gaming is Largely Unaffected

    The desktop environment of Windows 8 is basically Windows 7 with some minor changes. As a result, everything you're running currently should continue to run fine within Windows 8. techPowerUp published an article a couple of weeks ago comparing performance between Win7 and Win8 in several games; results were within a couple of percentage points of each other and differences are probably due to variability in testing.

    I noticed the other day that Windows 8 doesn't close down Metro apps when you're finished with them, instead keeping them open to enable quick switching. That's fine as long as it doesn't decrease gaming performance. To find out I ran Unigine Heaven 3.0 three separate times: once on Windows 7 as a baseline using the Nvidia 301.42 driver, once on Windows 8 using the 306.02 beta driver, and again on Windows 8 with some Metro apps open in the background. I ran the tests at 1920x1080 with "normal" tessellation, 4x AF and 2x AA.

    Windows 7
    Windows 8 clean run
    Windows 8 with Metro apps open

    In each case I opened up Heaven and let the entire benchmark run once before beginning the test in order to minimize the impact of loading textures from the hard drive. Results are pretty uniform despite the fact that this is in no way a scientific test - Windows 7 is nowhere close to a fresh install, I'm using different drivers (one being a beta version), and I only ran each test once. Still, it makes me feel pretty confident that the impact of Windows 8 on gaming will be minimal. We'll see what happens when we get some DX11.1 games, but for now everything looks good.

  • The Desktop UI is Visually Appealing

    This comes down to personal preference, but I like the matte look of everything and I don't really miss Aero being gone. Windows 7 and Windows Vista looked pretty similar, so the subtle tweaks to Windows 8 give it a distinct visual style.

  • Increased Multi-monitor Support

    Windows 8 supports multiple monitors out of the box and gives you a few extra options that were only possible previously with 3rd-party apps. It's pretty easy to stretch a background image to two or more monitors and you're also able to assign a separate image to each. There are also several taskbar options available, letting you do things like clone the entire taskbar across each monitor or show only the active windows visible on a monitor in its individual taskbar. Unfortunately, tray icons and things like the clock are only visible on your main screen, which kinda sucks.

  • Improved Task Manager

    I covered the new look of the Task Manager in a post from a couple of days ago. It's useful and it looks pretty, so there's not much more you can ask for. The Performance tab looks like it's the best change - it actually provides useful information that's easy to digest.

  • Hybrid Boot

    Windows 8 hybridizes the traditional Shutdown command by turning it into more of a "log off and hibernate" scenario. Since you're not starting from scratch every time you boot you'll end up at a usable desktop much faster than you would with a previous version of Windows. I'm not sure it would be necessary with an SSD, but it definitely worked as advertised with a mechanical HDD.

    Image source: Building Windows 8 blog

  • Easy Screenshots

    There's an automated screenshot hotkey in Windows 8 - pressing [Windows]+[Print Screen] saves the entire visible desktop to a .PNG to a Screenshots subfolder inside of your My Pictures folder. You can still use the Snipping Tool or the old Print Screen and copy/paste method, but if you're taking a screenshot of your entire desktop or a Metro app the ability to auto-save the image is nice. It doesn't work with games, which made me a little sad.

  • Windows Defender

    Microsoft has more or less merged Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender, meaning there is a minimal footprint anti-virus solution integrated with the OS. I already use MSE in Windows 7, so this is nothing groundbreaking, but it's nice that it's included. I can see it being especially nice when you're dealing with the PC of a family member who might be a little less computer savvy; it should be easier to keep things up to date and out of the way while ensuring that their PC is protected.

    At the same time, you're not restricted to using MSE/Windows Defender. Installing another AV program disables Windows Defender, so in the end you can with whatever you've been using.

The So-so

  • File Transfers

    It seems like everyone praises the way that Windows 8 handles file transfers. The actual window that pops up when you initiate a transfer is indeed much improved: there's a graph displaying transfer speed, you can pause transfer operations, the estimated time is a little more accurate, and multiple transfers all show up in the same window.

    Maybe I misunderstood the hype or was reading into things too much, but I was assuming there would be a performance increase alongside of the UI improvements. Don't get me wrong, all of the stuff listed above is great, but transfers are more or less handled in the same way internally as they are in Windows 7. To prove that point, I copied the installation folder for CounterStrike: Global Offensive (5.42GB with files of varying sizes) from one partition of my HDD to another in both Win7 and Win8. Both operations completed in exactly the same amount of time, 2 minutes and 9 seconds. If I'm copying a large file or large folder I usually end up hiding the window and doing something else while I wait anyway. The changes are nice, but the window will probably be minimized most of the time.

  • Desktop Window Color Scheme

    In an earlier post I voiced my displeasure with the Windows 8 color scheme. As I mentioned above, I like the overall look of the OS, but I usually tweak the color scheme to give me a black taskbar and black window borders. Unfortunately, that setup looks like this in Windows 8:

    Window titles and min/max icons never change to support darker colors. In addition, deselected windows flip-flop back to a light color. Do not want.

  • Who moved all of my stuff?

    This is more of a minor gripe and a resistance to change, but it needs to be noted. After getting rid of the Start menu Microsoft had to figure out where to redistribute all of the features which previously called it home. Instead of clickable buttons for everything we've got Metro tiles and invisible Hot Corners that activate hidden slide-out menus. It's really not that big of an adjustment for a power user, but it'll definitely take some time.

    Things are a little more manageable if you take the time to learn some of the available keyboard shortcuts. I found myself using the Windows key a lot more than I do normally in Win7 (which is almost never). The biggest "wtf were they thinking?" change comes with the location of the Shutdown command; after opening the Charms bar (right side hot corners or [Windows]+C) you select Settings -> Power to uncover the shutdown/restart/log off options. Alternatively, you can bring up the full-screen CTRL+ALT+DEL window and click the power button in the bottom right before selecting "shutdown," but all of this made me miss Windows 7.

    Again, I feel like playing Family Tech Support Guy is going to get a little harder with Windows 8. I can already hear the phone calls and see the emails asking how to perform certain tasks or find things in Windows 8.

The Bad

  • Boot to Metro Start Screen

    People developed hacks and tweaks for earlier preview versions of Windows 8 that would allow you to bypass the Start screen and boot directly to the desktop. Unfortunately, Microsoft is actively working to kill off these tweaks and I wasn't able to find a workaround for Windows 8 RTM.

    No one logs into Windows 7 with their Start menu open by default, so I'm wondering why I need to click "Desktop" or hit the Windows key every single time I turn on my PC. Obviously Microsoft is hoping that people start using Metro apps for web browsing and checking Email and Facebook instead of using a traditional desktop browser, which I guess is valid. Still, give me the option to default to either the Desktop or the Metro environments; don't force me into something I'll want to bypass every day.

  • Metro App Design

    The Metro interface is obviously aimed at the tablet market; there's no getting around that fact. Metro programs are all full-screen apps that display on a single monitor - it's kinda jarring to see my Rainmeter stuff in the desktop environment on my second monitor while I'm looking at a brightly-colored, tiled, full-screen Metro app on my main display.

    Metro apps are also incredibly horizontally-oriented; everything scrolls left and right instead of up and down. I can see this working great if I was holding a tablet on my hand and swiping left an right, but I'm not. The scroll wheel on your mouse works to move around within apps, but when I first started using Win8 I actually caught myself using the side scroll buttons on my mousewheel for probably the first time ever. I posted this last week, but it's worth showing again since it demonstrates just how wide some of these apps can get: here's a shot of the Newegg app displaying a page that's seven screens wide at an impressive resolution of 13917×1080 pixels.

    In the end, I'm not sure how many Metro apps I'd actually use on a daily basis. There's a lot of seemingly useful stuff, including apps for news, weather, currency exchange, and shopping. However, I spend the large majority of my non-game-playing time with Firefox open, so if I really wanted to check the weather forecast or look at the Newegg Shell Shocker deals I'd just click each site's bookmark and open a new tab. Interface-wise everything looks nice and polished, but productivity-wise I can save time by just staying inside the desktop environment and doing what I normally do.

    I can't really think of an instance when a full-screen Metro app would serve me better than a desktop equivalent. Maybe that will change as new apps are released and existing ones improved, but I basically ignored every Metro app I installed with the exception of Minesweeper and Solitaire.

    A full-screen laser light show after I won a game of Solitaire

  • Media File Defaults

    Speaking of Metro apps - things like pictures and movies open up in Metro apps by default. There's nothing wrong with the apps themselves, but when you want to preview an image you're unceremoniously yanked out of the desktop environment and dumped into Metroland. You can edit your file preferences pretty easily, so it's not all bad, but I still don't like all of the switching back and forth.

  • Not So Hot Corners

    This is by far the thing I hate most about Windows 8. I'm using a precision gaming mouse right now and I've even turned off mouse acceleration in Windows to give me greater control of the pointer. Why is it that I need to flail around the corners of my screen to open up the Metro app switcher or the Charms bar? Why not give me something that I can actually see instead of forcing me to find a nebulous hot corner before moving vertically up or down to open a menu?

    Just about everything can be achieved with hotkeys, which is good, because relying on hot corners with multiple monitors can be a little challenging. Apparently it was worse in previous versions of Windows 8 and they've since extended the target area and made the corners a little "stickier," but it's still easy to overshoot the corner and move onto your second monitor.

Final Thoughts

Now we're left with the big question: should you buy Windows 8?

This is obviously a complicated answer. On one hand, most of the usability and interface improvements are pretty solid. On the other, Windows 8 is a horrific Frankenstein-esque combination of separate tablet and desktop interfaces that are forced to co-mingle.

One thing that stands out in my mind is the controversy surrounding the Start button and Start screen. Why couldn't they leave the Start button in there and just have it take me to the Metro environment? I'm not using a touch-based PC; I want visible buttons to click instead of vague hot corners and mouse gestures. I'll concede that I rarely use the Windows 7 Start menu as it exists today, so I'm not super bothered that it's gone, but the fact that there's just a gaping hole there makes me wonder whose feelings were hurt by the poor Start button.

At its core, Metro seems aimed at the consumption of content rather than the creation of it. The interface is sleek and modern yet minimalist and imprecise at the same time. It's obviously made with your fingers rather than a mouse pointer in mind. After using Windows 8 for a week I'm actually more excited about the prospect of using a Windows 8 tablet or touch-enabled laptop rather than installing the OS on my desktop. For the moment, most Metro apps are replaceable via their desktop equivalents; I feel like I'd rather stick to the desktop 99% of the time. Microsoft is attempting to unify a bunch of different platforms with Windows 8, and this first attempt is starting to look like a "jack of all trades, master of none" scenario.

A bunch of 3rd-party apps are popping up that promise to restore Windows-7-like functionality to Windows 8. As far as I'm concerned, if you do that, why not just stick with Windows 7 in the first place? A lot of the features of Windows 8 are simple improvements that are nice to have but not essential: native USB 3.0 support, extra multi-monitor features, quick booting, the new Task Manager, etc. Windows 8 also introduces Internet Explorer 10 and DirectX 11.1, though I doubt I'll ever use the former and the latter won't matter until we have games that take advantage of it.

So, bottom line - upgrade, skip it, or wait it out?

Right now I'm conflicted due to the availability of two specific offers. If you purchased a Windows 7 laptop after June 2nd or plan to purchase one before the end of January you'll be able to take advantage of a $15 upgrade offer for Windows 8 Pro. Those of us not in the market for a laptop can snag a copy for 40 bucks thanks to another promotion, even if you're upgrading from Windows XP.

I'm a sucker for a good deal, and $40 or less for a legitimate version of Windows is probably too good to pass up. With that being said, I'm going to keep my eye on whether or not Microsoft addresses some of the issues I brought up above - give me my black taskbar and window borders, damn it. If Microsoft doesn't change much between now and release I may end up waiting for a Service Pack and/or until some usability tweaks emerge that restore some desktop functionality to the OS.

Windows 8 is not a bad operating system. Metro feels tacked on and the OS is unique and takes some getting used to, but Microsoft has at least attempted to innovate the same desktop environment that we've been using for more or less 20 years. In the end, we might be looking at a Vista-esque failure if the public doesn't jump on board. Regardless of its success, hopefully Windows 8 will set the stage for Microsoft to have a major success with future iterations of Windows.

Verdict: Wait It Out.


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