Windows 8 Analysis: Part One, the Desktop

In a lot of ways, Windows 8 represents the largest change to the Microsoft desktop OS since the inclusion of a GUI in Windows 3.0 and the Start Button in Windows 95. The transition from Windows 7 – an OS purely focused on the user’s productivity and experience and working offline –  to Windows 8 which is a child born out of the Web 2.0 generation of always-online connectivity, hasn’t been painless. It hasn’t been very easy for most when testing things out, with a lot of changes not gelling well with users new to the concepts introduced into the desktop space like Metro and that Charms Bar on the right of the screen.

In my quest to figure out why I don’t like Windows 8 I’ve decided to write it all down for you, dear reader, in the hope that when it launches this year that you’ll be educated enough to figure out whether you want it or not. My opinions and preconceptions aside, whatever steps Microsoft takes to improve their software can only be a good thing in the long run for the company as a whole. Just as Vista was a stepping stone and driving force to make users adopt new hardware and embrace the 64-bit version in preparation for Windows 7, so will 8 be a stepping stone for Windows 9, further taking the Metro and Web 2.0 design changes into the next half-decade. I’ll muse on those musings later, but for now lets go through the desktop experience in Windows 8.

Note that I’m using the Consumer Preview and not the recently-released Release Preview. The Release Preview carries a new interface lacking Aero and a flatter GUI structure, but there’s very little different from what I’ve got set up here. For all intents and purposes they are the same OS. I disabled Aero Glass (Transparency) to get the same effect and performance boost. Windows 8 brings a lot of new ideas into the desktop space and shares a kernel with Windows Phone 8, a planned OS for the next generation of Windows Phone handsets which I’ll also be covering in a little more detail later. For now though, one can assume that the integration between WP8 and the desktop, laptop or tablet version of Windows 8 will be seamless, with wireless over-the-net syncing aiming to provide the same user experience across all four spaces.

Starting off with the desktop, there’s a lack of anything really eye-catching – I had to add in the icons for my Network and Computer windows, as well as Control Panel because the Metro one is very limited. The desktop in Windows 8 is meant to look like just another app, there to run ones that won’t be compatible with full-screen Metro. You’ll notice the lack of the Start button, a design change made very late into the development process. The desktop is rather clean though and still supports gadgets, although you’d be hard pressed to find any in the Windows Store right now. The GUI is faster than Windows 7 in certain aspects but I find that I can replicate the exact same performance with a few mouse clicks.

The Start button’s functionality isn’t even replicated in the same way in any one place in the new OS, with searches going through Metro instead. In Windows 7 you’d press Start, type in your search and you’d be given a list of the most relevant findings thanks to the way Microsoft implemented indexing. In Windows 8 you still press the Windows key, but when you type you’re doing it in Metro, which can only search for so many things. Once text is entered you can refine your results according to categories on the left, letting you search according to what you’re trying to do instead of aimlessly hunting for the app or setting you’re looking for. Its really a bunch of wasted space though. If Microsoft was really serious about this, they would have had all the search results pop up in the same page on the right and only then filter results as you click on the different categories.

For example, typing in “Power” first brings up the Windows Powershell entry, because naturally Apps are the first category to return results. You’d have to change to the “Settings” category on the right to get the power options that I was looking for. Its a bit like having having your favourite model or celebrity do a strip-tease in front of you, but you have to draw what they must do with stick-figures because they’d otherwise do the first thing that comes to mind. Its rather intuitive (the searching, I mean), but personally that’s one too many clicks and mouse moves already. In Windows 7 I click one button, type in the word, navigate using the directional keys and hit Enter without reaching for the mouse, which takes me half the time it does in Windows 8. In my later columns you’ll see this recurring theme over and over again – more clicks, more time wasted, more pretty interfaces and more screen swaps yanking you out of your productive state. Mind you, at least none of this is ever slow or boring.

Moving right along, though. Hover the mouse in the top-left corner and you see the task switcher, allowing you to see at a glance what desktop and Metro apps are running at the same time. It doesn’t work in desktop mode if you’ve only got the desktop open, but as more apps pile on you’ll be able to switch between the open desktop and Metro apps. Note that only the desktop app itself shows and you can’t switch between open desktop apps using the task switcher – you’re limited to using the taskbar or ALT+TAB to get the job done. Additionally, those apps in Metro are still using RAM, so if Windows detects that you’re running an app that needs more RAM, it’ll close other apps that are still open, starting with the least important ones first. If you have 4GB or more RAM, you don’t have to worry. If you’re on 3GB or less, close your apps before you start up any games.

Apps apps apps apps apps. Man, I’m so sick of that retarded word. Whatever happened to calling them “programs?” Its those ruddy teens, I tell you.

Moving the mouse to the top-right shows the Charms bar. This appears everywhere in Windows 8 and gives you shortcuts to things like sharing to social networks, searching in Metro, another link to Metro, a link to attached devices like external monitors and printer and finally, a customisation options panel. I’d like to stop here for a moment.

I like the Charms bar. Its one of the improvements that make Windows 8 a little more bearable to an apprentice jaded hack like me. There’s a few predefined settings for setting up an external monitor, there’s the power button hidden away under Settings and, if you’re looking at a photo, you can share what you’re doing on your Windows Live account or through your social networks. Sadly, music, movies and desktop stuff can’t be shared, but pictures are happily uploaded if you’re looking at them through the Metro Pictures app. The more devices you have attached, the more useful the Charms bar becomes.

Moving the mouse to the bottom-left shows a small Metro Start screen that you can click to be transported back into Metro. You can also right-click to bring up a power user menu, offering all the links to the settings you’d probably need to change just about anything. I don’t understand why they have two command prompts though – just run the one as the admin if you have to choose between the two. Its one of the few nods to the system administrators whose job it is to hunt down whatever’s plaguing their computers or network and get it fixed – having these options with a simple right-click is great, although its nothing like God Mode. Oh yeah, God Mode also still works – it also has a few more options to play with as well.

So lets move on to a few other important changes. First up, Internet Explorer gets a push to version 10 and comes with a few changes of its own, mostly ones under the hood. Things like page rendering and refreshes have been sped up and the interface in general is more snappy, as is the quick loading time. There’s now the option to silently update the browser in the background, mimicking Chrome and Firefox and also suggesting that Microsoft may finally update their browser regularly, even if its only weekly bugfixes or security updates.

The Ribbon bar that we first saw in Office 2007 now makes its way into Windows 8’s general GUI, bringing all the options and a few new hidden ones to the fore, simplifying the case where users have to dig for context menus and settings for files and folders within the control panel. Highlighting any type of file gives you a Manage option at the end, giving you context-sensitive options for movies, photos and just about any other filetype. The Share tab is particularly useful, with sharing to groups and certain people just a left-click away, instead of a right-click > Properties > Bla bla bla situation. The View tab also has a check-box that you can click to reveal file extensions and allow you to rename them. If you have music or movies, the ribbon adds another tab that gives you options to play your media. So far I’m liking the power user side of the desktop. You can also turn the ribbons off if you’d like to get back that extra real estate on your screen.

The Ribbon is easily the second-biggest change to Windows following the removal of the Start Button. When you’re in different windows like Computer, Network and Sharing Center and the Recycle bin, the context changes depending on what you’re working with inside the window. Computer offers you hard drive options and network mapping options, Network offers options for adding in things like printers and Recycle bin gives you more granular options for control over your trash. In some places its a little clunky and may need some more work, but the extra options don’t hurt and may make the entry into Windows easier for newcomers.

Speaking of the Recycle Bin, there’s a little side-note I’d like to add in here: you no longer get notifications to make sure whether you really want to delete that file or not. Here today, gone the next second and you might be hunting around for hours before you realise that you accidentally deleted whatever it was and then emptied out the trash five seconds ago.

If you’re running a network with shared folders, there are a few more ribbon options you can take advantage of. Drive mapping within a network share is much easier with a few shortcuts in the home tab. You can now include networked shares within your Libraries, making the transition to shared folders a little more seamless. It also looks like Windows 8 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate will come with the Always Available Offline option, something you’d only find if you were running Office on older Windows systems.

What’s going to get most desktop users salivating is the new copy mechanism that looks like a Microsoft-developed rip off of Teracopy. Multiple copy processes can now be individually paused, allowing you to push through larger files that need more speed. Expanding the Running Actions window also shows you a graph of your speed over time for the copy process, allowing you to track and identify any bottlenecks. In my own impromptu tests, Windows 8 copies things far faster than Windows 7, especially when you’re transferring information from one drive to another – I recorded a average of 100MB/s between a 500GB and a 1.5TB hard drive, the highest speed I’ve ever seen between my two drives. In addition it looks like the Download Manager in Internet Explorer 10 now also maxes out transfer speeds, something that wasn’t possible on the older versions without a third-party download manager.

The copy process has also been improved for folders or files shared on a network. You can now right-click those files and the Send To option now also includes the root folders of your drives as a destination. This is great for media hoarders because you can just pile up everything into the root folder and sort it later. This also has possible applications for services like Google Drive and Drop Box, integrating their entry into the Send To menu for easy uploads.

Lastly for the notable improvements for the desktop, the Task Manager has had a revamp. We’ve had the same task manager since Windows XP with a few graphical upgrades here and there, but nothing in the way of anything special. This new one is a little different. The first time you launch it you are greeted by this tiny window that doesn’t so much on its own. Its neat and tidy, but its nowhere near as functional as you’d expect. But you’re wrong, you see, because you need to click that “More details” to see it really coma alive.

The Advanced Task Manager comes heavily beefed up and is really, really useful. The Processes page now details what exactly each process is using, allowing you to pinpoint which one might be strangling a network connection or chewing up free RAM. Its a great layout, but note that this is only available if you click on the “More details” link on the bottom left of the window. The Performance tab gives you everything on your rig in one shot, even mentioning system uptime and giving you a handy link to the Resource monitor. App history gives you (and Microsoft) an idea of how much time has been spent by apps and services being used by the CPU, a great idea when you’re singling out your sibling from stopping you from completing your homework because he/she/it played Diablo III for three frickin’ hours! The usage history is only calculated from apps that are either ingrained into the OS or bought from the Windows store, since those are the only ones currently allowing themselves to be polled. As time rolls by, you’ll be able to see how much time your employees spend playing Angry Birds. The Startup page brings the useful configuration tool out of the dearth of several layers of administrative options and passwords, allowing you to work out at a glance what you need to start up at boot or what could be disabled.

The last three tabs are something network admins will really appreciate. The Users tab shows the users logged in either through remote desktop or physically at the keyboard and also notes how many system resources they may be hogging. There’s also a drop-down list of the processes that their profile is running and each can be disabled on their own. Details has a slightly expanded list of the processes running, showing you the statuses and memory usage for each app. Note that iexplore.exe has a status of “Suspended”. When you’re switching into the desktop after minimising a Metro app, that app gets its services and usage suspended until you go back to it again. Its rather useful because I tested that with Internet Explorer sitting on a flash-heavy page and sure as sugar it suspended everything once I pressed the Windows key. Services finally also brings an oft-used page for admins and users trying to troubleshoot things to the surface, allowing you full control of services that you would have had from the same app under Computer Management.

I’d like to categorically state that I’d consider upgrading to Windows 8 just for the task manager and the new copying services. They are that good.

On the whole though, it all depends on your workload and your requirements as to whether Windows 8 is for you. Purely in the desktop, its worth the upgrade for users like me because I like fiddling and I work a lot with files and folders and networked shares at home. The updates these services bring is a welcome one and if Metro could be disabled, I’d upgrade without a doubt. There are still more power user features hidden away and as I’ll find them I’ll let you guys know. For now, I like Windows 8’s desktop mode. Metro is next on my analysis list.

Download the OS: Windows 8′s Release Preview is live today

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