Windows 8 – First Impressions

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So yesterday, Windows 8 was released to developers on MSDN. I took it home and installed it on an old Athlon 64 machine with 2 Gb of RAM, just to see how it would perform on a slow piece of hardware. The installation took hours… and then, when it was done, the experience began… and it was an experience – I can tell you that much.

Windows 8 is the John Forbes Nash of operating systems: utterly schizophrenic and completely brilliant. I can state unequivocally that you’ve never seen anything like it: the thing is years ahead of anything else on the market, and it completely redefines what a computer is supposed to be used for.

The first thing it wants you to do is to bind your user ID to a Microsoft account, on the understanding that if you do, you’ll have access to a bunch of online stuff that would normally appear opaque to you, or at least difficult to get at, such as their App store, and so on. So I did this. The setup program said confusing things like, “If you log in as opwernby@hotmail.com then you’ll have access to….“, so the first thing I did when I’d managed to get it to start was to open a command prompt and say, “whoami” — it responded “dsutton”… so it had managed to retain my Windows user ID, and at an operating system level, that’s who I remained.

Much has been made of Windows 8’s tiled interface, and that’s where the fun starts. The operating system is built around the concept of feeds: a feed can be anything: a news feed, a mail server, Facebook… you name it. If you’re a programmer, you can write your own feeds, or get your programs to hook into existing feeds.

Microsoft (and Windows) makes the distinction between old-style applications and “Apps”, the latter being applications which run off tiles in the new “Start” screen (Windows’ new RT mode). All Apps run full-screen: there’s no windowing at all — in this respect, the thing is like a phone or an iPad. The old Windows desktop is an App, as well, and with it, you get to run all the programs you’re used to, and to see Windows the way you’re used to seeing it. The Start screen is in some ways analogous to the main panel of the old Start menu: you can pin programs to it (they appear as “Tiles”) and if you move the mouse into the corners, it starts doing stuff. You can get an “All Programs” list, which is a 2D view of the old Start Menu’s hierarchy, separated into groups: right-click on anything in that, and you can pin it to the main Start screen… so after a bit of experimentation, you get your Start screen set up the way you like it, and you can always get at anything else if you want to. Desktop applications and Apps never meet: the RT side is completely separate from the Desktop side: it’s almost like running two separate operating systems, and it sort of helps to think of the Desktop as a virtual machine running Windows 7… and then it begins to make sense. You can pin Desktop apps to the start menu; if you run one, it switches to the Desktop and opens it normally.

The Windows-side desktop still has a taskbar, and supports toolbars and things, so you can set those up the way you always did… but it has no Start button: instead, the bottom-left corner of the screen flips you between the Start screen and the Desktop.

The Apps work completely differently. As I said, all Apps run full-screen. Curiously, there’s an Internet Explorer App, which is IE10, but running full screen, with the URL address field at the bottom, rather than at the top. In the Desktop environment, there’s the Internet Explorer we’re all used to, running the way we’re used to see it… are you beginning to see what I mean about schizophrenia, yet? Internet Explorer 10 is blindingly fast: the JavaScript engine is the fastest I’ve ever seen, and as far as I can tell, nothing else on the market comes even close to it in terms of performance. Testing it, I found that, natively, it had problems displaying some elements on my website which work fine in IE9, but when I switched it to Compatibility Mode for my website, it worked perfectly.

The “People” App lets you connect Windows to a variety of feeds, so I connected mine to Facebook. It then went and added all my Facebook friends to my Outlook address book, or updated those who already exist — amazingly, it got it right, and didn’t destroy anything. It then started displaying updates from Facebook, in a long, friendly-looking list. Clicking on one made it display the details of the thread in most of the screen, with the conversational posts in a list down the right. It looks nothing like the Facebook we’re used to, but still manages to convey all the information about things. I think that if I were to connect it to Google+, for example, it would probably display that in exactly the same way that it displays Facebook stuff: the feeds are homogenized and made to fit into Microsoft’s idea of what social networking should look like. It also appears that chat programs like AIM fit into their “People” App and are presented similarly.

Windows 8 is *very* fast. The machine was running about twice as quickly as it did under Windows 7; it also didn’t seem to matter how many Apps I had open at a time — nothing slowed it down. The memory management and task arbitration is astounding: Microsoft seem to have made a genuine effort to allow the operating system to impose as light a load as possible on the processor at any time.

On my machine, I occasionally experienced display problems: this is most probably due more to the fact that it has an old nVidia GeForce 6 chipset which doesn’t support DirectX 10 by hardware: occasionally, bits (or all) of the screen would experience corruption, and display garbage instead of recognizable text and images. Personally, I was amazed that it ran at all on that machine, much less that it was as fast as it was, and as smooth to operate.

The App store works very much like the Apple one; you can buy and download Apps as you see fit. For a test, I installed the free Wikipedia App (which still needs a lot of work: for example, I couldn’t find a way to search for anything, but simply had to follow the suggestions it gave me for interesting things!); the installation process is similar to that on an iPhone: the App Store says it’s installing something, and on the Start page, the Wikipedia tile appeared, with “Installing” written on it. When it was done, it lit up, became active, and was available for use. Of course, the Apps you buy on the App Store are, without exception, Windows RT Apps: there are no desktop applications there, since that doesn’t fit the paradigm Microsoft is going for. Rather like the Command Prompt in current versions of Windows, I imagine that the Desktop will gradually fade away over time, with applications being replaced by their RT equivalents… but it’ll never disappear completely. You need it to get to the file system (which works the same way as it always did): there doesn’t appear (so far) to be any real RT equivalent of Explorer — the RT side of things does its best to shield the user from the fact that they’re using a computer. The App Store made several rather oblique statements to the effect that it’s not quite all there yet and won’t be until Windows 8 is finally released to consumers… but it was interesting: it gives a window into how the thing’s going to work.

The RT experience is amazingly unified. All the Apps appear to follow very specific design directives: they all use large, sparsely-populated screens with big, friendly fonts… and they’re all completely two-dimensional – gone are the shading and 3D look of the Desktop side of things. It becomes obvious fairly quickly that when the other Windows 8 devices (phones, Surface tablets, etc.) emerge, their presentation will be not similar to, but exactly the same as the PC-based Windows 8 RT layer. Microsoft is fairly obviously going for a unified presentation experience across all devices which even think about having a screen: this might work, in that the individual RT apps are blindingly and understatedly impressive… past efforts at this sort of thing (IBM’s SAA user interface, for example) have failed dramatically… but I can see this one working: it’s fun, and one finds one’s self digging at it, trying to discover everything it can do: beneath a simple exterior lies a whole set of tricks which you gradually discover as you play with the thing.

When I upgraded from Windows 7, the first thing the upgraded did was make me uninstall Microsoft Security Essentials, the virus scanner, saying, “This is not compatible with Windows 8”. I still haven’t discovered whether Windows 8 has its own virus scanner, or whether it’s largely unprotected; more on this later.

More evidence of schizophrenia: There are two control panels: an RT one, and the Desktop one, unchanged from Windows 7. There are two Windows Updates, also: the one in RT said, “You have seven updates to install. These will be installed at your regularly scheduled time.” The one in the Desktop said, “Seven updates” and showed seven Office 2010 updates, then let me install them on the spot. The RT control panel is for RT things (and a few system-level items, like printers and updates); the Desktop one works just as it always has, and lets you get at anything you want.

When you exit an RT App, it keeps running: just as with a phone, you’re really just switching between Apps and the Start Menu, but in a full screen way. Moving the mouse to the top-left corner shows what’s running, and you can right-click on processes and kill them… sort of like double-clicking the Home button on an iPhone. As I said previously, it doesn’t seem to matter how many Apps are running: the thing just doesn’t slow down – as an experiment, I opened ten of them, then switched to the Desktop and started doing normal stuff — the Apps had no effect on what I was doing and seemed to use hardly any RAM at all (remember I only have 2 Gb in the machine in the first place). This was very impressive to me: the prioritization of things is fairly obviously centered around the reaction time of the UI to the user, and the RT stuff will sacrifice what it has to sacrifice in order to ensure that everything the user asks for is delivered as instantly as possible.

Oh, yes – shutting down. This is a weird one, and I actually had to get Help for it — you move the mouse over to the right-hand side of the Start screen so that the “Shit I can do with the system” icons appear, then you go to “Settings”, then “Power”, and then “Switch Off”. This is not obvious at all… I think they dropped the ball on this one. Of course, when it comes to phones and tablets, this layout begins to make sense… but not for a PC.

In summary, then: do I like it? Yes – on balance, I do. It’ll take a bit of getting used to; the Start screen is entirely new and, while it’s sort of annoying to switch between it and the desktop, I found myself wanting to stay in it and use the Apps more: they’re so dynamic and alive that it’s difficult to describe the experience other than to say that switching back to the Desktop and using the applications I’m used to suddenly became disappointing… I found myself wanting those applications to exist as Apps instead. The thing is personable: you find yourself wanting to interact with it, find out how far you can push it and how much it can know: there’s almost a feeling of evil genius about it, as though you’re sitting in a control center with the entire world available to you all the time, presented as a series of active, ever-changing tiles. It’s a fascinating operating system: it’ll take years before it reaches its full potential – the entire world of PC software will have to make the adjustment, and it’ll slowly get better as this happens.

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