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Monday, 04 June 2012 01:40

Opinion: Using Windows 8 Release Preview in desktop mode – not a nice story

Windows 8 Release Preview, in desktop mode Windows 8 Release Preview, in desktop mode Tony Austin

Using Windows 8 on non-touchscreen devices such as legacy PCs in desktop mode will impose an excessive burden on many consumers and enterprise users, because the new "metro" touchscreen mode has been given all the focus.

Over the weekend I began checking out the just-released Windows 8 Release Preview and find it extremely awkward to use in desktop mode, something that Microsoft must seriously address before final release. I welcome calls from Microsoft staff to debate this with me!

I'm very much looking forward to getting Windows 8 Pro, not for its oft-discussed "re-imagined" graphical user interface but to reap the advantages of the many new functional, stability and security advances that have been widely explained by Microsoft in their Building Windows 8 blog, the Windows 8 app developer blog, and elsewhere.

As with the earlier Consumer Preview version, I installed this pre-release not on a dedicated PC but on a virtual one (running under Oracle VM VirtualBox Manager, which you may know came to Oracle as part of the Sun Microsystems acquisition, but originally was developed by a small German group, some more about Germans at the very end).

Here are my first impressions starting with a snapshot of my copy of Windows 8 Release Preview, running in desktop mode. I've been diving in deep to test some of the finer details of Windows 8, but want to restrict this particular discussion to the "re-imagined" Windows 8 user interface at the broadest level.

It looks fairly similar to the Windows 7 desktop, but I reckon that the application windows have lost their glitter appear rather drab, now that in a change-for-change's- sake exercise Microsoft has made them less glossy compared with the Windows 7 transparent aero style:

Windows 8 Release Preview, in desktop mode
All in all, so far I’ve found it extremely awkward to use via mouse and keyboard, compared with Windows 7 (and all previous Windows releases that I’ve used, back to Windows 3.0 in 1992).

Keep in mind that I’ve been testing, evaluating and reporting on all sorts of computer systems and software, from mainframes down, since before joining IBM in 1970, before Microsoft was born, and more recently in my post-IBM years as an independent operator -- so hopefully can claim a fair degree of credence in the field.

I certainly do understand that Microsoft's position, trying its very darnedest to maintain its revenue stream by moving its huge Windows user base along into the touchscreen world. This makes a lot of sense for a sizable proportion of the emerging market. However I have a strong feeling that conventional Windows desktop users (consumers and enterprise) are going to suffer far too much pain and lose far too much time (with the concomitant expense) as a result.

When I eventually get a Windows tablet PC, I'll doubtless appreciate the “metro” mode that Windows 8 embraces. But frankly, as a Windows desktop “power user” (intense technical user) so far I've find the Windows 8 metro mode to be extremely frustrating and time wasting.

At this late stage in the development cycle, I'm very concerned that Microsoft won't be doing anything to assuage the concerns of users like me (numbered in the millions).

I don't at all like the metro look and fell when used in desktop mode. The icons occupy far too much screen real estate, and the large rectangular icons can at best be halved in size to squares that are still too large,

The constant swiping -- trivial on a touchscreen device -- is highly frustrating when you're restricted to using mouse and keyboard to mimic finger movement.

The "start" button is hidden and can only be made temporarily to appear by a very careful placement of the mouse pointer in the bottom left corner of the desktop panel. This I find considerably slower to achieve than the way you can easily click the Windows 7 orb (or its counterparts in earlier Windows releases). Similarly I find equally finickety the placing of the mouse pointer in the top or bottom right corners of the desktop tin order to cause the floating right-side panel to slide out into view.

Further, what was a single mouse click under Windows 7 (and its predecessors) now under Windows 8 usually  takes several clumsy swipes and clicks. Multiply all those extra swipes and clicks by the hundreds and hundreds of times per day that I carry them out, and it results in a major loss in productivity for me – also for a big slab of potential Windows 8 users, I'd reckon.

I happen to use and four 1600x1200 monitors arranged in an inverted T fashion (enabling me to open windows as wide as 4800 pixels or as tall as 2400 pixels), with numerous application windows open across the various monitors:

Now, I understand that (compared with the earlier Consumer Preview version) the Windows 8 Release Preview apparently supports multiple monitors, but since VirtualBox only emulates a single monitor [as far as I know] couldn’t test this.

The Windows support for multiple monitors has been outstanding since at least Windows XP, so I wouldn't expect any less for Windows 8. I wonder whether the experience would work for multiple touch screens running in “metro” mode (has anyone tried it?). Supposedly yes. Plus, one other improvement in the Release Preview (versus the Consumer Preview) is that the Task Bar can appear across the multiple monitors.

What crucially needed, near the very start of Windows 8 installation, is a radio button or check box option to cause installation of Windows 8 directly into a pure desktop mode. Identical (or as closely as possible) to the way that Windows 7 and earlier version get installed, with all the old Windows 7 style features supported and invoked in the same way. No default metro mode, which you have to battle your way out of.

The way I remember things, the re-learning effort was not too burdensome in moving from Windows NT 3.5 to Windows 2000, later on to Windows XP, then a bit more of a familiarization jump to Windows Vista, followed by a smaller jump to Windows 7.

Compared with these, the move to Windows 8 is far from trivial, and will be a considerable time/expense burden on both consumer and enterprise users.

So my basic complaint is, why is Microsoft foisting the “metro” way of doing things upon all Windows 8 users even if they’re still only going to be using non-touchscreen PCs for some considerable time? Leave off letting us enjoy the metro mode when we get to a touchscreen device.

So far, I’ve spent 3 or 4 hours fiddling with Windows 8 options that have only gotten me a small way along the path of making Windows 8 desktop look, feel and act similar to Windows 7 desktop. It’s been an extremely frustrating experience, and I suspect that it’s bound to fail not much further along the path. This is NOT good news for all of those confirmed Windows desktop mode users out there!

Microsoft made the move from Windows 2000 to Windows XP not too difficult, with only a few things rearranged and/or hidden away in different spots. The move to Windows Vista was a bit more dramatic, but not unmanageable, Windows 7 was IMHO easier than Vista.

Based on my limited trials, but with a good “gut feel” of things after more than four decades in the industry, I reckon that moving to Windows 8 is going to be a real nightmare for desktop-only users upgrading from earlier Windows versions.

However I surmise that the Windows 8 experience will be quite pleasant and rewarding for all those users – possibly a very large proportion – who get Windows 8 preinstalled on a tablet device. This is where Microsoft is making a big gamble, I suppose. Time will tell how they fare.

What would a reactionary old codger like me know, anyway? … Then again, perhaps I'm not so technologically unaware as this other old-timer (it starts with a few sentences in German, no need for a translation, you will guess the meaning):

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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.

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