As you know, I’m pretty excited about new toys and technology, but what you may not know is how excited I’ve been to try the release version of Microsoft’s (MS) latest OS: Windows 8 (W8). I’m excited about the
Metro Windows 8 design aesthetic, and really interested to see how MS managed to pull off an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the geek elite. (read the article but stay for the comments)
I have another objective though: I’m a power user by all definition of the word, and cannot sacrifice anything when it comes to my power suite of tools: Adobe CS, Lightwave, MS Office. These apps have to work. And if they work better, then as far as I’m concerned that’s what a new OS should bring to the table.
I’m happy to report with the exception of one major caveat (which was resolved, and was a Sony laptop issue in the end, see below) my upgrade experience has been eye-opening in a good way. It’s redefined my use of the personal computer. And it’s made me a more focused workflow.
I was using Windows 7 professional, and received a $15 upgrade voucher as a result of buying a laptop for my son this fall. He didn’t want the upgrade, so here we go.
The first order of any upgrade is to back up your existing system. Which of course nobody does. But I do have one advantage here: I installed Carbonite on this machine (and in fact I have it on all of my machines) which makes real-time or overnight backups automatically. It turns out this was critical in the success of my upgrade: when the W8 installer says it will start fresh, it doesn’t create a dual-boot system as I expected. Imagine my shock of launching W8 to find everything was deleted! Again, I was expecting to find an install option that asked me if I wanted to dual-boot (keep my W7 installation but also provide a W8 option on boot-up).
My panic lasted about 10 seconds when I realized Carbonite had been backing up my system diligently for over three years.
Two notes about Carbonite: you can transfer your license to a new computer (or new OS on the same computer) but it freezed the archive until you’ve restored what you need. Then, you unfreeze the archive. But in doing so, I believe your existing archive is replaced with your new stuff. I’m still in the process of restoring my files; if it doesn’t work right I’ll let you know here.
The other note about Carbonite: no, I don’t work for Carbonite. But if you sign up using my referral I get a free month or something. Email me if you would like a code.
The upgrade itself took about 2 hours and was beautiful. Very Mac-like as one Twitter follower observed.
By far the biggest source of anxiety is the start screen. I played with an earlier incarnation of MS Media Player that kind of took over the screen to play music and videos. It was very Xbox-like and I got the idea of it, but I felt claustrophobic and kept my finger on the alt-tab key at all times to get me out of this walled garden. At first blush, the new start screen feels like that: looks pretty, but where’s the Start button? A few minutes cycling the Windows key took care of any anxiety.
The Start Screen is the old Start button.
There are a few shortcuts you should learn right away to help navigating through W8 more enjoyable. The first one is the Windows key. It’s been changed to be a toggle: W8 start screen, and the Desktop. Back and forth.
The next gestures aren’t keystrokes but they are short events you do to bring up tasks. If you paid attention during the W8 installation you know about these after watching their demo video:
Note that with the top left, you see the entire contents of your Desktop as one application, because the new OS treats the Desktop as an application. You can have 10 old Windows programs running there, but the new launcher will only show it as the Desktop. Jury’s out on this one. As a power user, it’s kinda weird only seeing one charm for everything running, but it’s not a terrible migratory step to the new app workflow. Good news though, if you’re comfortable using alt+tab to switch between applications, this task switcher shows everything as unique tiles.
The Charms on the top right are context sensitive and work great. The best thing are Search and Settings. Depending on the app you’re using, they respond a little differently in a good way. So search with the Apps screen open searches for Apps. Search with the Music screen open searches for Music. Very easy to get used to and contributes to a faster OS.
Sliding the top of the screen down or down and to the side is very Amiga Workbench which makes me and a few hundred old geeks probably very happy. It’s a very satisfying gesture to drag an app down to close it. One tip: even though it looks like you’re closing your Desktop with all the open apps along with it, you’re just minimizing it. A bit of a UX inconsistency there.
There are a few growing pains associated with the new start screen. One that was solved with more effort than I expected: the lack of an onscreen clock tile! You cannot tell the time in Windows 8! There are a few clocks, but don’t necessarily have a live-tile option, or they show the time the last time the app was launched. That’s right, you have to launch the Clock app to see the time! Luckily there is ONE (and only one) app from Microsoft itself that has the time in a live tile. One colour. No font choices. 24 hour clock only (no AM/PM). Here is the link, and it’s amazing how bad it is and how it cannot be customized. Hoping that will be improved in the future.
Another note about apps: the store feels very version one point zero. Lots of strange useless apps, and some obviously missing ones (like a formal Twitter and Facebook app, a good clock app), and a free version of the original Angry Birds. But the good ones (NYT, Tweetro) are very, very good.
I’m going to jump ahead a bit and address one of the most startling benefits of working in W8: productivity. In a nutshell, I find it interesting how as computer users we’re so accustomed to having two, three, five or ten windows open and stacked on top of each other. Or perhaps your desktop looks like your real desktop (ie: messy and cluttered).
It’s very distracting.
With its one-screen design, W8 forces you to focus on the one task at hand. For the first few days, I was definitely in withdrawal not being able to see all of my apps open at once, and that strange one-third view just infuriated me. Working in Desktop mode with all the stacked windows felt like cheating for sure. But it seems to have paid off and things like writing this blog post go better without distractions.
About that ‘one-third’ view I mentioned. With proper W8 apps that have been written to take advantage of it, it’s amazing. In web design, we call it responsive design, where a site’s content reformats to fit the intended space. In this case, apps like Tweetro reformat to take advantage of the narrower screen. The New York Times app is another example of an application designed from the ground up to support the positive constraints offered by a one-view or in this case, two-view heads up. I like it.
I need to spend a few moments discussing Desktop mode. If you’ve been a Windows user since Windows 95, this is the mode you may be the most familiar with. I’ve been running all sorts of ‘classic’ applications like Adobe Creative Suite, Lightwave, and Word, and they all run great. In fact, as is to be expected with a fresh install of the OS, they run better than before.
A note about Internet Explorer: there are two versions! This is a way to preserve the existing userbase I suppose (Desktop version) and show the world how a full-screen version (W8) can improve your web browsing experience. Yes, i did say IE will improve your life. It’s very fast, very complient, all web pages load so far. Keep in mind something else that took me a while to learn: use the right-click to access tabs and the URL bar, along with pinned favourites. To get to your favourites, you have to move your mouse to the bottom. As you do so, the bookmarks comes up.
As with any fresh install of the Operating System, everything is snappy. But what I didn’t expect was that everything would run faster and better than before. Classic apps run great, but the new W8 apps from the App store are stunning considering we’re using a three year old laptop. I can’t believe the performance increase in my machine, which has been echoed online.
Boot up in particular is astonishing: I’m up and running in well under one minute from a cold start. Incredible.
The Windows App store has an alarming lack of quality content. There is no official Twitter client (I’m using Tweetro and it’s OK). The IE10 app just disappears from the Start screen unless you make it the default app (that’s more than a little strange). The included picture viewer is very nice, but above all the sweetest suprise is the free (for now) XBox Music service. I think this goes for at least $10/m and it’s free with your W8 installation.
The only downside of the installation happened a week after I made the leap. I took my laptop home and tried to connect to my WiFi. Immediately I noticed the WiFi switch didn’t light up green when slid to the ON setting. No amount of sliding could bring it online. Tethered to a LAN cable, I spent the better part of the weekend scouring the web for a solution.
I can’t be the only Sony Viao laptop owner upgrading to Windows 8 who will encounter this problem, so here is the solution:
It worked! Not only that, now I can turn the WiFi off and on again with the switch just as before.
Note this wasn’t a W8 problem, rather a problem with Sony Vaio and other laptops that have a hardware switch on the front or side of the laptop. Thanks to Qualcomm Atheros for their suggestions on Twitter as well.
The big question: “Do I upgrade”?
If you’re a bit of a geek, and want to be on the bleeding edge of user interface experience, and want to experience a fresh and fast new lease on your old laptop, then go for it. You don’t need a touch interface to experience W8. In fact, most of my time was just with an old mouse until I got the tablet hooked up to it. A tablet was definitely nice. Touch might be perfect. Time will tell.
There is a learning curve. In fact, I consider myself an above-average geek and it took me days. But part of the problem was there weren’t a lot of blogs or support out there talking about average people going about their business on the OS. Hopefully this blog post will help you make an informed decision.
Let me know how it works out for you! I’ll be updating this page regularly over the next few days.