RANDOM REVIEW: Windows 8

EATING MY PEAS

My Windows 8 Desktop
So Purdy…

I first gave Windows 8 a spin when the Developer Preview was released back in 2011.  As I have not purchased a new computer since then, I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the final product, but judging from prevailing opinion as well as feedback from customers, it seemed that I wasn’t missing much.  As I work in tech support, I figured that I was going to have to support Windows 8 sooner or later, so I decided to eat my peas and installed Windows 8 on my laptop: a 14″ Toshiba P745-S4102 with 6MB of RAM.

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

The install went fairly well, but I made the mistake of not wiping the drive beforehand, so I had lots of icky bits left over from years of Windows 7 use.  I would open up my boot drive to find rouge directories sticking out their tongues at me in glee.  Obviously the thing to do was to delete them, so I got delete happy and of course, deleted an important directory.

So just like I did during my adventures with OS X, I had to start all over again.  I formatted the drive, reinstalled Windows 8, and was back in business.  Windows 8 seemed to be a little more happier after the second install, so lesson learned: always format the hard drive before dropping in a new OS.

THROWN FOR A LEARNING CURVE

Up until Windows 8 you could count on a few things like the Start Menu and Control Panel to be there.  No mas.  The Start Menu has been replaced by the Start Screen and other options are accessed by pulling up a ‘Charms Bar’ that is accessed by moving the mouse to either the upper or lower-right hand corner of the screen.  Moving the mouse to the lower-left hand corner reveals a shortcut to the Start Menu, and the upper-left corner pulls up the last program opened and a list of currently open programs if you move the pointer down from there.  The interface is not intuitive and poorly explained, you get zero help and are tossed into the Start Screen with nary a tooltip to help you.

A great example of how obtuse things are is the method for shutting down the computer:

  1. Bring up the Charms bar by moving the mouse to one of the right-hand corners…that is, assuming you know its there.
  2. Click ‘Settings’
  3. Click ‘Power’
  4. Click ‘Shut Down’ from the pop up menu.

Is it any wonder that people are upset about having to re-learn how to use their computer again?  Expect to stumble around Windows 8 for a while (I certainly did) until you learn its intricacies or say ‘screw it’ and download a Start Menu replacement.

APPY, APPY, APPY

Mess of tiles on Windows 8 Start Screen
…or not!

One of the big reasons Windows 8 has received so much grief was because of the removal of the apparently-beloved Start Menu.  I admittedly gave them static about this too, but having poked at it again, I now get what it is Microsoft had in mind when they removed it.

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have given us the concept of apps, or small programs that only do one thing or access a single service.  Like many of you, I’ve gotten accustomed to doing things via apps.  When done right, they’re great: you open up the app for whatever it is you want to do and take care of business instead of having to open up a browser, navigate to the website, login and all that.

Microsoft and Windows 8 want you to do everything in apps, and while I like this idea and would like to embrace it, the fact of the matter is that for whatever reason, the Windows 8 apps I have used have either fallen short of my expectations or just plain don’t exist.

The official Twitter app is one example.  I have multiple Twitter accounts, randomizer9 is my main one and I have one set up for The Rules of Tech Support.  The Twitter apps on my phone and iPad both allow me to switch back and forth between identities with a few taps, but the Windows 8 app only lets me login to one account, which reduces its usefulness.

Some apps just don’t exist.  The most glaring omissions for me are Facebook and Gmail, though I can set up the Mail client for use with GMail.  I’m also surprised that there isn’t a version of Office that uses the Metro interface.  Granted, I don’t use very many apps to begin with, so its not that big of a deal to me, but other folks who love apps might be disappointed in the selection, though it should get better with time.

THE DOCKING DESKTOP

Luckily, the desktop is still around and is accessed by clicking the Desktop tile.  While the Start Menu is persona non grata, much to the consternation of lots of folks (including myself) programs can be docked to the Taskbar just like in Windows 7.  I found myself docking each one after installing them.  This works pretty well for me and I haven’t really missed the Start Menu all that much, especially since discovering this handy list of Windows key shortcuts.

Unfortunately, installing legacy programs barfs icons all over the Start Screen just like it did before.  It is a little jarring to see the a nice purdy Metro Start Screen morph into icky tile-o-rama with a tap of the Page Down key.  The big problem with the Start Screen is that there is currently no good way to organize tiles that were installed by legacy programs.  Sure, you can move them around, but one of the nice things about Ye Olde Start Menu was that it kept things you didn’t need out of the way.  Hopefully the upcoming Windows 8.1 will resolve some of those issues, otherwise I’m not sure what I’m going to do once my Taskbar fills up with docked programs.

I have experienced no compatibility issues with older programs and hardware as of yet which is pretty darn lucky considering I still use Microsoft Money 2000 and WinAmp 2.9.

WHERE’S MY MEDIA CENTER?

I feel bad for Microsoft at times because even when they do things right they often don’t get credit for it or the Thing Done Right is completely ignored.  Windows Media Center is one of those things.  Media Center turns a TV-tuner equipped PC into a pretty decent PVR and can even stream TV from a PC to an Xbox 360, which is awesome.  It was created during the Windows XP days (remember Media Center PCs? Yeah, me neither) and came included with certain versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7.  It does not come with Windows 8.  If you want Media Center you now have to pay an extra $9.99 even if you have the Super Mega Deluxe Happy Version of Windows..  So much for doing it right.

 CONCLUSION

Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth you’ve probably heard, Windows 8 is not that bad.  Yes, it does have some annoying habits, such as the made-for-touch interface and missing Start Menu, but I have learned to live with those inconveniences.  That said, I understand why some people are upset: Windows users (such as myself) have grown accustomed to the Start button/menu being there for nearly twenty years.  For Microsoft to just yank that football away like Lucy does to Charlie Brown is just not right.  I know workarounds, but lots of folks either don’t or don’t want to go through the trouble/hassle.  Microsoft reached just a little too far ahead in that regard.

I understand what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8.  I even like the idea of doing everything quickly in apps instead of having to constantly go to the web browser.  Unfortunately, the apps either don’t measure up in terms of functionality or they just aren’t there, which means I end up constantly having to go back to the desktop, which defeats the whole point of the new interface.

The much-touted quick startup and shutdown is nice and my laptop appears to be performing as well as it did before, though, as with any new system, one should be leery of potential conflicts with old hardware and software.  I haven’t hit any snags yet in that department, but time will tell on that.

To wrap up: Windows 8 isn’t quite The Future just yet.  It takes steps in the right direction with its app-centric design but is hamstrung by sub-par apps that will have you going back to the desktop over and over again.  If you are one of these folks that just can’t live without the Start Menu, there are third party add-ons, but I can’t vouch for their usefulness or reliability.  Once you get over the steep learning curve, 8 isn’t all that bad, but it isn’t as great as it could have been, either.  The upcoming Windows 8.1 should make things better so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.  While I’ll be sticking with Windows 8 for the short-term, I won’t be tossing away my Windows 7 install disc anytime soon.

3 out of 5 tiles.

GAME OVER?

videogamesI think I might be done with video games, or at least done with buying new consoles. I have been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600 but my enthusiasm for new games and consoles has grown smaller and smaller with each sequel/lookalike/dark-haried protagonist/space marine game announcement for the last year or two.

One reason is I just don’t consume as much media as I used to.  I see movies very occasionally, watch little to no television and don’t buy very many CDs and Blu-Rays anymore.  A bigger reason is a feeling of ‘been there, done that.’  The Big 3’s E3 announcements impacted me with a great big ‘meh’ as I saw the sequel numbers get higher and higher.

So let’s run down the list:

SONY

I like to describe my PlayStation 3  as my “Blu-Ray player that also plays Ratchet and Clank.”  I can count the number of PS3 disc games I own on my hands, and most of the downloadable ones I have are games that I reviewed for original-gamer.com  It should say something that I still haven’t finished Ratchet and Clank: Full Frontal Assault and have yet to even purchase Sly Cooper 4.  As I have nearly zero interest in JPRGs or any of the Sony exclusive titles, I don’t see any reason to get a PS4 anytime soon.

MICROSOFT

The Xbox 360 was easily my favorite machine of this generation, though it bears mentioning that about a third of the disc games I own have either ‘Rock Band’ or ‘Guitar Hero’ in the title.  I’ve also purchased about a dozen downloaded titles and the Kinect is always fun when friends are over.  The Halo and Gears of War series have both been entertaining, but I have little interest in seeing them drug into the ground a la Capcom.  The TV functions of the 360 were also nice: I used it to stream and record HDTV from my PC via Windows Media Center to the living room TV.  I was actually intrigued by the Xbox 360’s TV functionality but the high price and anti-consumer policies Microsoft may or may not be imposing mean I won’t be getting an Xbox One in the near future.

NINTENDO

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” the old joke goes.  Nintendo has finally gone to the well once too often because Mario has become the new Madden as far as I am concerned.  I think the breaking point was when they started making sequels.  I may yet acquire Super Mario Galaxy 2 but my initial reaction was “Oh boy, they added Yoshi…whee.”  When New Super Mario Bros. 2 was announced,  I saw the ads about the whole ‘collect a bajillion coins’ thing and thought, “That’s IT?”  I am intrigued by the Wii U, but its initial lineup landed with a great big thud and the current game drought makes me feel like I didn’t have it so bad after buying a launch 3DS.  The sad thing is that the one franchise I would like for Nintendo to drag into the ground is one they’ve completely forgotten about: StarFox.

PC

I haven’t done any PC gaming for quite a few years now.  Seriously, the last PC game I bought was Portal…on disc…at Circuit City.  Oddly enough, I may end up playing games solely on my PC from here on out.  Since most of the big multi-platform releases end up on PC, I shouldn’t miss very many of the few AAA titles I’m interested in and there are loads of smaller devs doing interesting things these days on the indie scene.  Maybe I’ll get an Ouya after its had a little more time in the oven.

So there you have it.  I have been a gamer for well over 30 years now, and while it has been loads of fun, it may be time to hang up the controller for good.  Will it happen?  Who knows, but my current consoles and 3DS are doing just fine for now.