Continuing off from where I ended in my first analysis of Windows 8, I decided that if you’re purely going to work in the desktop, its actually a good, responsive OS that does exactly what’s needed. While I didn’t delve too deeply into the new features of desktop mode I felt that the improvements there alone would make upgrading to Windows 8 worthwhile. Today I wanted to have a better look at the replacement to the Start Button, now called Metro or Modern UI. Microsoft would prefer you not to call it Metro because of legal complications with a company in Germany that is called Metro Group, which is odd.

Modern UI is a new interface for Microsoft that will eventually span across all their product lineups and first debuted in Windows Phone. I’d like to refresh your memory and remind you, dear reader, that WP8 and Windows 8 share the same kernel just like iOS and OS X are the same thing deep underneath their skins. There are more similarities between the two than you would have found between the original Windows Mobile and any of its desktop counterparts. While Windows 8 isn’t exactly what I expected when I first learnt about it, there is a place for it in this world. Among tablets, table computers and even those touch-screen terminals in Airports, it has no equal and I estimate a rather large amount of users would actually welcome the new features. So, how does it handle?

[pullquote]From the clinical setup of the desktop, the user presses the Windows key and gets shoved into this sensory delight of shapes and icons, enough colours to make a dagga-smoker gleefully happy and the realisation that the internet has a really noticeable lack of privacy issues when you see the pictures of you from whatever party or gathering you were at last night.[/pullquote]Part of the reason why Modern UI was designed the way it is was because Microsoft identified that people wanted information clearly available to them at any given time, without too many distractions. Its based on the information and billboards you see at bus and train stops in most metropolitan areas, offering exactly the information you need about your next train or bus stop as well as potential delays and late or early arrivals. The Modern UI interface tries to embody this and displays everything you see in a clear, readable typefont that works well for any size and resolution screen.

The first discernable difference you notice when using the OS is that information flows at you through the Live tiles in regular intervals. Moving from Windows 7, a detached yet busy desktop that primarily relies on gadgets, the taskbar and a notification area to feed you constant information, to Windows 8 isn’t such a difficult learning curve to adjust to. I say “detached” because if you receive new e-mail, the only notification you receive is a changed icon on the taskbar and a fading notification on the lower-right side of the screen that you fervently scramble your mouse to when it pops up. And now that your attention has been dragged away from whatever you were working on, your mind moves onto things other than what you were busy doing (like Angry Birds). Windows 7 distracts you at the best of times and doesn’t always lend itself to a fluid working environment, not unless you hide your taskbar and disable visual notofications.

With 8 and the Live Tiles on the Start screen, all the relevant information flows in and out of your visual periphery in regular movements from one central location ready for you at the touch of a button, moving through the headers for your recently recieved e-mails, showing your last played music track and even popping up a new photo of you that’s just been added on Facebook. These actions are all separated into their own Tiles and have been given an appropriate size and colour based on how important they are to you. The size of the tiles can be changed to give some tiles more importance than others. Some people find this innately jarring the first time they see it because they’re used to the way things are on the desktop (detached and all over the place) and they seemingly can’t stand being inside a full-screen app when they have no visual indicators of what’s happening elsewhere. They go into full-on panic mode in some cases and may need some extra time to adjust to the way things are done. I think its the reason why so many people purport to hate Modern UI.

Its the bigger reason why the change from the detached, multi-tasking orientated and busy desktop to the calm, closeness of the Start screen scrambles with people’s brains. From the clinical setup of the desktop, the user presses the Windows key and gets shoved into this sensory delight of shapes and icons, enough colours to make a dagga-smoker gleefully happy and the realisation that the internet has a really noticeable lack of privacy issues when you see the pictures of you from whatever party or gathering you were at last night, doing embarrassing things with a wheelbarrow and your boss. While it requires you to learn some new tricks to keep up, Modern UI’s learning curve isn’t at all steep. Launching it gives me this eerie sense that things don’t have to be rushed and that I can always return to the things that need my attention in my own time. Its a calmer environment for busy minds like my own.

The colourful tiles on the Start screen are actually colourful for a reason. When you’re looking for things like your keys or your favourite soda, you keep an eye out for key-shaped objects and the colours of your favourite drink. Once you spot an element that resembles that, your brain takes that information in and decides whether its what you’re looking for. With the resizeable Live Tiles in Windows 8, you can set up things to the way you feel most comfortable when looking for information. In the same way that your body learns things through muscle memory, so your brain re-adjusts to searching for information on your computer the way its naturally been taught to do all your life for real-world objects. When launched by clicking on one of the Live Tiles, all Modern UI apps available on both the Consumer and Release Previews as well as all RTM images take up all the available space on the screen and always run in full-screen mode to give your brain a break and begin concentrating on the task at hand. Whether or not this suits you is something you’re going to have to decide yourself from time spent with the OS.

In practice its an efficient way of keeping you concentrated on what you’re doing because there’s no busy taskbar or notification area to distract you. Initially, returning to the Start screen creates sort of the same jarring effect I mentioned earlier but since you have zero distractions within a task, it makes it easier to return back to the Start screen without being overwhelmed because there’s a regular pace to which information flows to your screen. Its like Microsoft finally tailored app-switching on a Windows OS to the way your brain naturally works, because once you return to the task you were busy with, your workflow and thought train continues on as before. All the mobile OSes switch apps in the same way – they’re never really closed but merely put aside for later in a paused state and this is similar to how the human brain juggles things when its deciding what to do next.

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From a psychological standpoint and having both experienced and seen others go through the same motions when coming to terms with the new GUI, its nothing short of mind-blowing. Its like the company finally grew a pair of balls and put a shrink into the team planning the design philosophy of Modern UI. Funny enough, OS X and iOS only achieved the kind of design perfection and ease of use that they’re known for because Steve Jobs made the OS feel more natural to the humans working with it, right down to the way the typography in the GUI matches up with other elements on the screen. Apple probably employs a psychologist on their team to tell them if things feel more or less natural in terms of how their OS presents information to the user. If an Apple user ever tells you that working in OS X makes them feel better or calmer, its because the GUI actually lends itself to creating that feeling while you’re working. Naturally though, everyone is different and the effect doesn’t work on everyone right off the bat.

On the Start screen, all the information your brain needs is right there. The corners of the screen with their respective “hot areas” or the Charms bar lend themselves to your brain relating to them using muscle memory and the colours and backgrounds are composed of primary colours, with some artistic detail that doesn’t give your mind too much space to wander, allowing you to filter through stuff more easily. The desktop has been evolving to this point for years at a slow pace but this is the first time its taken the same leap to a more relaxed GUI design that mobile phones have perfected.

It turns you into some kind of efficient thought tank, giving you the same effect gamers get when they black out their room’s windows, turn off the curtains and either put the speakers or headphones on a little louder. It creates an immersive experience, something you just can’t easily create in real life because you have information literally flooding every orifice and receptor on your body that qualifies to be included in your five senses.

There’s still the desktop mode for that if you want to return to the old way of doing things but Microsoft really wants you to give it a chance and see how and why they did what they did. So lets look at some of the available apps in detail. I won’t go through them all because you get the gist sooner or later, but the ones you’ll use more often are worth a look.

INTERNET EXPLORER 10 FOR MODERN UI

The Modern UI version of Internet Explorer 10 uses the same code as the desktop version but comes with its own interface, one that will eventually be shared by Windows Phone 8. Its clean and uncluttered and when you’re on the page itself the whole screen is taken up beautifully. Those who already use their browsers in full-screen mode can tell you how nice the experience is. Right-clicking anywhere on the page brings up the tab interface and the address bar at the bottom. Once you left-click on the webpage or leave the overlaid interface alone for a few seconds, it disappears into the background so as not to obstruct your view.  The buttons to the bottom right offer a few options when clicked. The pin icon allows you to pin a webpage to your Start screen while the spanner offers you the option to search for words inside the page or view the same page on the desktop version of IE 10.

Yes, that does mean that the two browsers are actually completely separate – one design issue that I feel could have been worked on. If you leave a page open in the Modern UI version of IE 10 it just stays there and consumes memory and other resources. Thankfully the browser doesn’t support Flash websites just yet (I’m hoping it never does), but when it does you might want to make sure you close it, or else those pages just refresh themselves every minute and eat away at battery life. You have to do a pull-down of the app (click and drag your mouse from the top of the screen) to close it or press ALT + F4 to do the same thing. You can also ALT+TAB into another desktop or Modern UI app. Its annoying and one of the many separations that you’ll have to live with when working with Modern UI and the old desktop philosophy.

WINDOWS MEDIA PLAYER FOR MUSIC AND VIDEOS

Moving onto what most people will be working with, Windows Media Player, it gets a revamp and is now split into two sections – Music and Video. The music player is decently featured if rather minimalistic and doesn’t offer much in the way of “oooh pretty!” graphics. That said it is rather functional although some users of the Consumer Preview may have recently noticed that its stopped working when you’re signed into a Live account – this is because Microsoft has intentionally stifled performance and capability in the preview apps to encourage you to either install the Release Preview or move onto the final RTM build which is due out in October. Its sneaky because now I can’t test out the playback feature anymore when I’m logged in, but its nothing that surprises me. What’s more annoying is that certain features of all the apps Windows 8 builds in aren’t available without signing in or using a Windows Live account.

The landing page of the music player shows you a certain portion of your albums that you have linked to it. Its rather cool to know that it doesn’t display random album covers all of the time – for the most part, it cycles through albums that have songs you listen to frequently. Like UB40? Red Red Wine will pop up on the landing page more frequently than, say, Nirvana, especially if you can’t follow a word of what Kobain’s screaming. There’s also a built-in online music store and a Radio Presets page, allowing you to tune into your local stations or any of the hundred thousand online stations across the globe. Did you know that Steven King has his own online radio station? The guy plays All Along the Watchtower more often than I change boxers during the day (twice, in case you were going to ask).

The movie portion of the media capabilities of Windows 8 is also pretty minimalistic, sharing the same design and layout of the music player, also with an online store and even the possibility of a rental one in future. Movies are always displayed in full-screen, with a preview mode of what’s currently playing sitting at the bottom of the screen when you first head into the app with a movie playing or paused in the background. In the same vein as the music player, you have to be signed into a Live account to be able to get the most out of it and even then I doubt serious movie or series fanatics will actually use it initially. Windows Media Center is better for HTPC enthusiasts, but that’s still a $15 option once the OS hits the public. Maybe you’re better off seeing if installing XMBC on a Linux OS is a better and less intimidating option.

The biggest change to the media player is the way codecs are handled, with Microsoft opening that part of the media player to developers who’d like to add in support for previously unsupported media files. You can add in codecs from the Microsoft website or the Microsoft Store to support whichever file formats currently don’t work, but the rest of the media player and its functionality remains the same. Also like the music player, you can’t switch from the Modern UI version to the desktop media player and have the same file waiting for you to resume playback – they are two separate applictions.

In addition, Windows Media Player isn’t actually present in desktop mode – it will forever be baked into Metro from now on, prompting people to possible consider alternatives such as VLC and WinAmp for handling their media instead. That’s probably a dealbreaker for the majority of you reading this. That said, both players are decently featured and incredibly easy to use. On a touch panel? God, you’d wonder how you did without it (which is the entire point of the design change, btw). The desktop’s mouse and keyboard combo may make it feel a bit weird, so investing in a MCE-compatible remote if you plan to use your PC for movies and series is a must.

 PHOTO VIEWING IS A BIT WEIRD WHEN ON THE DESKTOP

I’ve said this before but Microsoft really, really wants you to use a Live account and even sign up with your most-used social networks to get the most out of Windows 8. In the Photos app you can sign in and have your local and Skydrive photo albums available for you to manage. There’s also Facebook and Flickr integration and enterprising developers will soon include the other online photo hosting services like Photobucket or Picasa. Picasa is so widely popular that its even available by default in most Linux distributions, let alone incredibly well supported in both mobile OSes and for the desktop ones. Given the option I’d much rather have Photobucket there, but the Facebook one is pretty interesting. In the final code we’ll have the ability to do things like tag your friends, upload new photos and even manage your albums without having to launch the browser and open the social networking site to do so.

What’s different about this approach compared to Apple’s iCloud, is that your linked albums stay with your Windows Live account and on your Skydrive storage. You can log out of a session on your tablet to allow your colleague to use it and be relieved to know that he won’t see your photo collection of Indonesian fighting crickets or porn, because it won’t be linked there. Move back to your desktop, log in with your Live credentials and in about a minute, everything pops up as you’d expect.

Its this approach to privacy that I gave to stop a moment longer on and analyse a bit more. Because everything is tied to your Live account should you choose to use it, it means that your information is safe in your own hands so long as you have multi-factor authentication enabled for your account. If you bought out the extra Skydrive storage and keep your documents there (that aren’t work-critical) then you likewise have nothing to fear about information getting into the wrong hands. Why? Because your information is merely cached on the machine and probably has been encrypted. Not strong encryption, mind you, but good enough to deter most information thieves who aren’t savvy. There are even ways of flushing that cache whenever you log out, which we’ll probably discover as people play around with the final code a bit more.

Being an ex-Network Administrator, I’d like my fellow admins to stop and consider that for a moment. This is very close to near-perfect information security when you’ve completely logged out of a Windows 8 device, assuming your users keep their Live account properly secured and a bot, keystroke logger or piece of monitoring spyware doesn’t sneak its way onto the machine. You can have Windows 8 Enterprise installed for the Bitlocker Drive Encryption for better security, but this pretty much means that Bring-Your-Own-Device is less of an administrative headache. Windows 8 also comes with an option to refresh the OS (returning it to a factory state) before you hand it off to the next owner or user, which means that re-assigning devices on your network to employees means that you won’t have to worry about information getting in the wrong hands.

What will irritate you is that opening any picture in desktop mode, by default, will launch the Modern UI photo viewer. For the sake of your sanity, change the default to Windows Picture and Fax viewer. You won’t go tearing out your hair after opening one too many photos of cute kittens your mother just sent you. Its different for the built-in PDF viewer (yes! Finally!), but I’m actually glad to be rid of Adobe’s bloat, slowly but surely extending this to every single one of their consumer apps. You can keep everything from their Creative Suite, I just have a loathing for Flash Player and Adobe Air’s constant mucking about with every system I work on.

PRODUCTIVITY AND MAPPING THE WORLD AROUND YOU

 

For those of you not buying Microsoft Office 2013 right off the bat, there are a few bundled applications designed to help keep you productive. The Calendar once again takes up the whole screen and has a few useful views to switch between – month, week and day. All three use as much space as possible to display information about your appointments and reminders. Some are colour-coded according to which calendar they belong to because Windows 8 identifies them as more important than others. You can change this yourself but its a nice touch. Day view is where you’ll be spending most of your time, with an agenda view spanning over three days – also useful is the fact that your daily schedule is also presented to you on your lockscreen. Its rather useful when you’re identifying things like deadlines or projects that need to be completed. Surprisingly, that calendar you see there is my Gmail one, which was picked up when I entered my account settings for my Gmail address into the built-in e-mail apps. That’s pretty impressive considering that setting that up took no effort on my part.

The Microsoft Office 15 beta is out if you want to give it a try, but it won’t work very well on Vista or XP for that matter (won’t even install on XP. Trust me, I tried). Office 15/2013 really wants to be run in with Windows 8 and as soon as that download finally completes on my sl0wer-than-snails-in-peanut-butter ADSL 384KB/s line, I’ll report back on how the experience is. Like the rest of  Modern UI’s app design, it allows you to concentrate on your work without distractions, turns the Office interface into a more finger-friendly one and doesn’t ask you to pay too much attention to too many things. Give it a try when you can, I know I will.

The Maps application was recently updated and looks pretty good. Being outside of the US, Microsoft doesn’t rely on their Bing database for searches in sunny South Africa, choosing to rather use local mapping agents to get the information you need. In the past, that would have been a serious problem, given that our local mapping clients are usually rubbish and have information quality issues, but here’s where the partnership with Nokia stepped in to save the day. Nokia bought out Navteq after being business partners for years, with Navteq already in the long process of building up databases of local restaurants and attractions for Nokia Maps users when visiting countries that weren’t called Finland.

Maps in Windows 8 uses the same databases when in countries outside the US and does a pretty good job of figuring out what you’re looking for. For everything else it can’t find, it refers you to a Bing or Google search to find the information you want and I hope in future that this brings Windows Phone’s Local Scout to our shores. Microsoft practically owns Nokia at this point, so they might as well adopt the Navteq solution entirely. This wouldn’t be a bad idea, since you can’t yet download maps for offline use unless you’re a Nokia Lumia owner. If Google can do it, then Microsoft rightly should follow as well.

GETTING THE GAMERS CLAWED IN WITH XBOX LIVE

Seriously, the one place that will guarantee that Windows 8 sells in decent volumes is the Xbox Live integration. Not only will this allow non-gamers to get into the action themselves with some titles purchased off the Xbox Live network, but it’ll also list the “Games For Windows” titles that you’ve linked to your account over the years. This is where  your stats will be shown, where you can customise your avatar, buy new games off the online market and see stats of your friends. Because I haven’t gotten hold of the RTM images of Windows 8 yet, I can’t say if there’s any chat functionality baked in but I’m sure Microsoft couldn’t have overlooked that part. Once again, this is a service that gets better with extra features you unlock by signing in with your Windows Live account. But here’s where things get interesting.

Steam is a online gaming market with millions and millions of customers that they service each year. The service now sells games as well as applications from a range of categories and it grows its userbase every year. If Valve wants to compete equally with Microsoft on their latest platform (and not a half-supported Linux distro), they’ll have to develop a Metro version of their client, and so will EA’s Origin if they want a free ride on the bandwagon. “Wait,” I hear you say, “don’t both these services already have good desktop clients?” Ah, that they do, but that’s tied firmly into the desktop. The Xbox Live icon is one of the first things you see when you launch the Start screen and its something that users will always click on out of curiosity. If Valve and EA both make Modern UI-based clients that outdo or match the default Microsoft one, they’re going to be able to compete once again by having their service pop up in the same area on the all-important Start screen.

In the same vein, if they have Live tiles that constantly feed you information and keep you in the loop about your favourite games, then they’re guaranteed to see gamers install the clients on their machines the first chance they get and even buy a few things right off the bat. Steam’s Tile could cycle through your recent achievements, upcoming games and their weekend sales and discounts while EA’s could do the same and more, cycling through screenshots of their upcoming games to generate more publicity and hype. Valve’s boss, Gabe Newell, has been complaining a lot about Windows 8 but I believe that’s because he doesn’t want to fight Microsoft for sales (face it, Valve has had it easy for years) and he doesn’t want to have to pay the company for the Steam Modern UI-based client to be available on the Microsoft store. All Modern UI apps are only available through the online store and it means that, just like major and indie titles on Xbox Live, a small fee is required to have the app on the service.

SO, IN CONCLUSION, WHAT I’M REALLY SAYING IS…

Windows 8 is good. In fact, its really, really good. It may come as a shock to your system when you begin using it, but I urge users to try it in a separate partition or even in a virtual machine for just a little while longer. The launch is less than two months away and I, for one, will be moving to a 64-bit version of Windows 8 Professional. But not because its essential or anything (really, Windows 7 is about as perfect a desktop OS as is) but because change is good. The transition from the mindset of working in the desktop, where your brain is forced to multi-task and focus on every little thing you see, to the closed-off Metro that lets you relax and concentrate on only the task at hand is a refreshing one. I’m calmer, somehow, when working with the OS in the same way that games allow my mind to take a break from the outside world and bury myself in something I enjoy.

And that’s where people lose the plot and the reason why Windows 8 works. Your brain has been taught all these years that multi-tasking is something you should be doing, but your brain doesn’t work that way. You can’t compartmentalise things and work with them all at the same time. You can have them occupy a memory space in your brain and return to them later, but you need to focus on tasks individually if you’re planning to get them done properly. That’s why I can’t have music playing while I’m writing, or have noisy distractions during my work hours – I just can’t allow my memory spaces become occupied with things that don’t matter at that point in time. You finish tasks quicker if you’re concentrating on them, the same way in which power users choose to set up their download managers to do one download at a time rather than share bandwidth between the top four on your list, because things go through quicker that way. If you occupy too many memory spaces and you have to delete some temporary information to open up space to remember something else, we forget what we were doing, or thinking about, or asked to do by other people. Returning to it isn’t so easy.

In that respect, Windows 8 brings in a need for more technology to be crammed inside your computer, laptop or tablet – ironically, in the exact same fashion that Windows Vista did. Ideally, you need a 64-bit install with at least 4GB of RAM to get the most out of it. You don’t want to be consciously closing off apps because it means that re-launching them puts you right at the beginning with the landing page. Its part of the Modern UI philosophy to have them always stored in background RAM, ready for action when you decide to return to where you left off. For gamers and power users, I’d suggest that 8GB of RAM is where you should be starting off, not because you need that memory for games, but because launching RAM-eating games like Crysis 2 when you’re on 4GB or less RAM will force the closure of apps you were previously working with. If you’re okay with that, then lower memory amounts will be fine. Multi-core processors will be the order of the day and this is where the eight cores inside AMD’s FX-8150 might finally flex their muscles properly. SSDs? Well, the OS boots up quickly enough on regular hard drives to not require the speed-up by default, but it will be a welcome performance boost.

In the end, ladies and gentlemen, I can’t and won’t be the one to convince you that Windows 8 is worth the $39 upgrade fee, or the $15 extra option should you buy a new machine between now and the end of January 2013 with Windows 7. What I can tell you is that it feels better overall, is less resource-intensive on your hardware and smarter all at the same time. If you’re on Windows XP or Vista, upgrading is strongly suggested. Its a huge departure from the desktop you all know and love, but its due time for a change and I’m welcoming it after having used it for the last five months. And after all this time, I’m pretty satisfied with it. Go on, give it a try. You really have nothing to lose.

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