Thoughts on the Windows 8 Release Preview

Windows 8 Release Preview dropped to the public last week. This release gives us a concrete look at the final form of the new OS. Between now and final release, there will only be a few bug fixes and tweaks.

Before I begin, I want to qualify that I’ve been using Windows 8 as my primary OS since February. I am not running this in a VM, and I spend 60+ hours a week using this system. I run everything on this machine; development tools, database servers, web servers, admin tools, utilities,  games,  videos, music, social networking, etc. My opinions are my own, but they are based on months of extensive use.

What I learned from the release preview is that Microsoft’s Windows 8 team is convinced that all the negative reaction to Windows 8 is simply change resistance. They appear convinced that once people get used to the new user interface, everyone will love it. For traditional laptop and destop users, I completely disagree, but the ship has sailed. What we see now is what we’re going to get.

I’ve already written at length about Windows 8 on a tablet, and the release preview doesn’t change any of my expectations there. So, here, I’ll concentrate on Windows 8 for x86 based desktops, laptops, and hybrid devices.

The metro UI is still horrible with a mouse and keyboard, and metro apps even more so. There have been minor improvements since the beta versions, but the fundamental nature of metro is still a highly touch-first design, and that isn’t going to change. The horizontal scrolling in metro is obnoxious, and even after months of use I still hate it. If you are using large screen monitors, or a multi-monitor systems, the full-screen windowless nature of metro apps is outright silly and wasteful. The inability to run multiple metro apps on multiple monitors is insulting  for a multi-tasking OS.

The stock Metro apps have been improved to show off what metro apps can do. Of course, that also shows off how limited these apps are compared to their traditional desktop cousins. Metro apps waste space like crazy, and common commands are still hidden away most of the time. Getting to the swipe out command bars always seems to take twice as many clicks as it should. I’m always wishing for a way to tell the apps to just leave the command bar open so I don’t have work so hard to get at them. I also hate the absence of a system-wide task or  status bar in metro. I’d like to see what’s going on with my other apps, see a clock, and most importantly status indicators that show my remaining battery time and network connection statuses.

And of course, metro apps are still sandboxed to hell and back, and are still unable to cooperate with desktop apps. Your metro apps don’t show on the desktop taskbar, which is REALLY annoying. The hot-corner switch list will show all the running metro apps, but not your individual desktop apps; it only gives you one item for the entire desktop and all apps running there. Switching between metro app and desktop app is still disorienting and jarring, though the transition is better animated in the release preview.

The only thing positive I can say about metro apps is that they can be quite pretty. Not pretty in any useful way, but visually appealing in a shallow and vain way.

The good news is that, other than the start screen, you can mostly just ignore metro apps and the entire metro UI. I have not seen anything that a metro app does that traditional desktop apps can’t do just as well or better, so ignoring metro is quite easy. The desktop, and the desktop applications, work just fine and work way they always have in the past.

In my opinion, Microsoft  had finally gotten the start menu right in Windows 7, but the new metro start screen is a sad regression that you are stuck with unless you obtain a hack that puts the start menu back (I have not done this, forcing myself to get used to the start screen instead). You can get used to the start screen and be productive with it. It has all the features necessary to do the job. I suspect that some users might come to like it more than the start menu, since it is actually bit easier for non-professional users to manage and organize. Of course, most desktop applications written before windows 8 dump a truck-load of useless and ugly icons all over the start screen, so you have an incentive to learn how to organize and customize it.

As for running traditional desktop applications, Windows 8 is quite nice. It is a good bit faster than windows 7, and there are a few minor touches that qualify as improvements here and there. The traditional file explorer has a ribbon interface that makes setting viewing options a bit easier. The control panel is still a total fucking usability disaster, but some of the utilities in the control panel have been slightly improved.

One thing striking about the the release preview is in how well it renders on screen. I’m using the same video card and driver that I was using in the last beta, but something about the release preview made even traditional desktop apps much prettier than they’ve ever appeared. It’s a subtle, but very distinct improvement.

I am still annoyed by the new, and over-hyped, File History feature. File history is obviously inspired by Apple’s time machine for real-time continuous backup and file versioning. File history also works well with the new system reset feature that can put your OS back to stock without requiring a format and re-install. Obviously, Microsoft is pushing this feature as a replacement for traditional disk and image backups, and it is a fine feature I suppose. But they’ve done their best to hide the full windows image backup tools. If you can find it in the control panel, it’s called Windows 7 File Recovery. But if want a full system backup that lets you restore your whole system after a complete disk crash, then this is still the better tool by far.

Hyper-V is another nice feature, and it finally lets you run 64bit virtual OSes. I’m glad to see Hyper-V on Windows 8, but this is pretty much the entire Hyper-V service you see on Windows Server. That means it has all the power you could want, but it also means that it is nearly impossible for anyone that isn’t an IT professional to use. I was hoping to see a more friendly front-end admin tool for it, something similar to Virtual PC/XP Mode on Windows 7 but with the full power of Hyper-V behind it. Setting up virtual networks and drives via the full server admin tools is not trivial, especially on a laptop that sometimes uses WiFi, sometimes is docked to a hard-line, and other times uses a built-in mobile broadband card. Fortunately, VMs are a feature that few non-professionals really need, so I don’t think this will hurt sales or customer approval in any way.

Overall, I don’t predict success for Windows 8 on traditional laptops and desktops, especially not in the enterprise. Metro running side-by-side with the desktop will be confusing for the average home consumer. For businesses, it will a training and support nightmare that most shops will simply avoid.

A lot of people are talking up touch-screen monitors for desktop and laptops, but I am not sure that’ll fly either. Holding your hands out like a zombie to use a touch screen is physically exhausting, ergonomically unhealthy, and very inconvenient. I personally have no interesting in smearing up my screen with my grubby paws, and cleaning a laptop or desktop screen is much more inconvenient than rubbing a tablet across your shirt every now and again. And all that’s ignoring the fact that touch screens much more expensive, and wont be widely available on most end-user PCs for while yet.

The only possible bright spot I really see for Windows 8 is in hybrid, or so-called convergence, devices. There are already a lot of very interesting devices with new and experimental designs being shown off. It will be neat to see how the hybrid device market shakes out over the next year or two. The real issue will be finding an actual customer demand for hybrid devices. I suspect that there may be some opportunities for a successful hybrid devices, but only time will tell. The sad part is, if this market doesn’t materialize, then I don’t see Windows 8 amounting to anything less than a complete disaster.

I predict that Windows 8′ will be a huge sales boost for Apple’s MacBook line, but no help to Microsoft’s own market share. I further predict that Steve Ballmer will be forced out as CEO next year. I will personally continue using Windows 8, while ignoring the annoying metro end of things. For experimentation, I will likely buy a hybrid windows 8 device of some sort in the near future.

At this time I could not recommend Windows 8 to any of my non-professional friends and associates.