posted by Thom Holwerda on Fri 2nd Mar 2012 16:16 UTC
IconWednesday was the big day for Microsoft - the largest overhaul of its operating system since Windows 95 (heck, I'd argue the overhaul is far larger than Windows 95) went into consumer preview. I've been running it on my Asus ZenBook since its release, and in all honesty, it's not as arduous as I expected. I'm not planning on doing a full review, but I do want to mention a number of things - both positive and negative - that stood out to me.

First and foremost, I want to point out that we're pretty lucky. Up until only a few years ago, innovation in the desktop space was completely and utterly dead in the water. Whether you were using KDE, GNOME, Windows, or Mac OS X, they were all virtually identical. Fanatics of any of these platforms may have argued otherwise, but the fact of the matter is that none of them were, in any way, shape, or form, innovating. I was bored out of my, well, you know.

And then the iPhone happened. And Android happened. And the iPad happened. Suddenly, Microsoft found itself in a difficult position - they were non-existent in the biggest growth segment of the industry, and sales of PCs were dwindling. They had to respond, with Metro on Windows 8 as the result. Ah, the beauty of competition - the V12 of progress in the technology industry.

Whatever you may think of Metro - or Unity, KDE4, and GNOME3, for that matter - at least they're trying to do something else, to bring the industry forward into different and potentially interesting directions. Sure, these experiments may not lead us anywhere, but that's the whole point of science, and I'm happy to be part of the scientific process - even if it blows up in my face every now and then. The desktop is fun again.

With that said - Windows 8. I first want to write a few general words on how I feel about Metro on the desktop now that I've been able to use it for the first time (the developer preview kept blue-screening within seconds after boot), followed by a list of things that stood out to me, in no particular order.

I can get into this

I've professed my doubts about Metro on the desktop on numerous occasions. Especially the lack of proper window management had me worried, since window management is such a central aspect of desktop computing I simply can't grasp not having it. As it turns out, my worries were justified - but only to a point. The truth of the matter is that I can most certainly get into Metro - as long as it's on a small screen.

Windows 8's Metro works very well on my 11.6" ZenBook. On my laptop, I run applications in full screen anyway, so Metro isn't that big of a switch. After I got accustomed to all the new gestures and techniques, I realised - to my own surprise - that I was having fun. For the first time since I used my first Mac back in 2003-2004 (and BeOS before that, in 2001), I felt excited while using a desktop operating system, as if I was using something truly different and new. There are problems, issues, and curious omissions, but I can look past them because I get what Microsoft is trying to do.

The fact that the Metro design language seems to be written specifically to appeal to my sense of aesthetics helps, but still.

It's far from perfect, though. The interface requires a lot more clicks and precise mouse movements than the regular desktop, and especially on trackpads that's not going to be fun. To make matters worse, Microsoft has neglected to put in any meaningful support for multitouch trackpads, leading to the crazy situation where you have to scroll up and down to make the Start screen go from left to right. It's bonkers. Obviously, I should be able to use two-finger horizontal scrolling for this.

There are several UI elements which I'd much rather want to be persistent - the tab bar in Internet Explorer, specifically. To switch a tab, you first need to find an empty area, then right click to bring up the tab bar, and then select the right tab. One additional click may not seem like much, but you'd be surprised at just how often you switch tabs when browsing the web. IE would greatly benefit from a persistent textual tab bar at the top. This applies to several UI elements - I should be able to tell the application switcher to be persistent as well, for instance.

Where the interface really falls apart - as expected - is when you start using it on a big boy screen. I have a 24" 1920x1080 display, which is absolute overkill for full-screen Metro applications. My friends happen to know my dislike for running applications full screen on this display, so they always tease me by full-screening everything when they come over. With Metro, they don't have to. Just great.

The feature where you dock applications on the side in a 25:75 split view does little to nothing to address this problem. Considering the excellent Aero Snap side-by-side view in Windows 7, it baffles me Microsoft opted to only include a 25:75 split, instead of the much more logical 50:50 split. On displays this size, 25% is too small, and 75% is too large. In other words - it's useless.

Still, despite these issues with the mouse-driven interface and window management, it's still pretty decent for a first attempt, considering they basically adapted a touch interface to mouse controls. I'm hoping that a little more refinement will make mouse navigation less click-happy, and I'm sure all the user data we're currently sending to Microsoft will help in that regard. I hope they improve their window manager as well, adding more split views to the mix - especially a 50:50 split.

Lastly, the split between Metro and the traditional desktop is jarring, but I think this was done on purpose to get developers to choose Metro. Had Microsoft themed the desktop to look like Metro, developers would feel less inclination to go with Metro-proper. There's arguments to be made for both sides, I'd say, but for what it's worth, as jarring as the transition is, it never really bothered me.

Random thoughts

  • Remember how trackpads on Windows PCs suck balls compared to those on Apple's PCs? Turns out that - at least on my ZenBook - it's not Asus' fault, not Sentelic's fault, not the driver's fault. After installing Windows 8, I installed the exact same versions of the trackpad driver/settings panel as I have installed on Windows 7. Yet, the trackpad is now every bit as good, responsive, and smooth as it is on Apple's machines. Scrolling, gestures, regular mousing, all smooth as butter. This absolutely stunned me. In other words, it was Windows' fault all along!
  • Windows 8 is fast. Insanely fast. Booting, resuming from sleep, connecting to wifi, launching applications, going to sleep - it's all near-instant. Absolutely amazing. Windows 7 already ran circles around Mac OS X and Ubuntu when it came to responsiveness, but Windows 8 is just insane. Very, very impressive.
  • My ZenBook runs considerably hotter in Windows 8 than it does in Windows 7, and the fan spins more often and faster as a result. No idea why.
  • The Mail, Messenger, People, and so on applications are near-useless. They were obviously a rush-job, and it shows. First, they force you to link your GMail, Facebook, Twitter, and so on accounts to your Microsoft Account before you can use them (this is obviously done because Microsoft wants access to the data in those accounts for advertising purposes). Second, they are barren, lacking in the feature department. Third, they are buggy, with visual hiccups and crashes. They clearly need a lot of work.

  • Internet Explorer in Windows 8 is fast. Really fast. Easily the fastest browser I've ever used. Sadly, it often forgets cookies, forcing me to log into all my sites manually.
  • Closing the desktop turns me on.
  • You can't switch search engines in Internet Explorer. Using Bing makes me feel dirty, and the results always feel a little bit off. Please, give me the option to use DuckDuckGo and Google, please.
  • Solitaire displays an ESRB rating message now. That is by far the most awesome thing in the entire operating system.
  • Battery life seems to have improved compared to Windows 7, but I have no hard data on this - just my gut feeling.
  • System-wide spellcheck. We've had to wait an eternity, but it's here. Too bad it's set to Dutch and I haven't the faintest idea how to set it to a sane language (i.e., English).


I'm intrigued. I never expected me to say this, but Microsoft is on to something. There's potential here. They can mess it all up - but if they do this right, and cater a little more to people who want to get actual work done in Metro, then this could definitely be a hit.

In a way, Windows 8 Consumer Preview reminds me of the first Assassin's Creed game. Ubisoft knew they had something special, they knew that if they played their cards right, the franchise could be huge. AC1 was a barren wasteland with far too little content - but after players of the first game made it clear what they wanted, AC2 was an absolute gem of a game (I don't acknowledge the other two obvious cash-in releases that followed - I'm waiting for AC3).

Time will tell if Microsoft manages to extract the potential the way Ubisoft managed to with AC2.

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