General Software and Sytem Fixes

Thoughts On Windows 8 and Desktop Usability

Submitted by Derwent Ready on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

What's Going On Here?

Today I thought I'd discuss some of the pros and cons of Windows 8 over Windows 7. I recently bought a new laptop and with that I was given a cheap upgrade to Windows 8. Windows 8 was released on Friday (26th Oct) and I downloaded it straight away. I used a "hack" to allow me to install Windows 8 without activating, purely for testing purposes as I didn't want to risk it screwing up my PC with no easy way back which I used for paid, professional work.

Start Screen - Good or Bad?

Windows 8 is quite controversial with a massive design change including an all new Start Screen. I don't know how I feel about the changes. Yes Windows 8 is significantly faster than 7 when a program is doing it's thing but from a desktop user interface point of view it's MUCH slower with many actions taking at least 1 extra click and/or movement of the mouse. Yes you can use keyboard shortcuts but often a mouse is just the thing you want/need to use.

One big problem is that Microsoft are stripping out legacy code to make Windows 8 as fast and light as possible which is a truly noble cause. However, one of the "legacy" features is the traditional Start orb and menu. This has set many users wondering how to get it back because they don't like the new start screen. Many people argue that they're just stuck in their ways and one commentor, JohnnyUtah on an article at The Verge about a possible Windows 7-like start menu said:
"I don’t see what the big deal is. The new start screen is basically just the start menu on a full screen rather than just on the left hand side. Its definitely not slower, and in a lot of ways it is faster to use and more customizable."
My view on this is that things should be as customisable as possible but it should not HAVE to be customised in order to be used. Now I agree for grandma and the 5 year old who just want to browse the web, update their facebook status and take webcam pics the default start screen layout is great! Even on demand video and music can be accessed from the start screen in a Xbox Live kind of way which, again is probably fine for the 5 year olds who haven't known any other way of doing things. All this being said, anyone who uses a lot of self-installed professional applications/suites the start screen is going to take a LOT of customisation to get working. This might ultimately lead to greater productivity with your most-used programs being right at hand but the initial productivity cost will be quite high as you try to prioritise your most used programs and remove all the non-professional features forced on you with massive icons. Furthermore every time you install a new program you'll have to fiddle even more.

Charms - What The Heck Were They Thinking?

One of the big things about Windows 8 is that Microsoft have tried to design a unified interface for desktops, phones and tablets. This necessitated the need for big bold icons that can be jabbed at quickly with a finger. This brings about a couple of side issues. The first is that to be finger friendly things need to be big, as I've already said and/or spread out, leaving less room overall for the same screen size. This means that what a lot of modern touch enabled OSes do is they have to have "clever" ways of "quickly" exposing extra functionality. Usually this is done with an "all apps" button for getting more apps than you can fit on the desktop, a settings pull down menu with an optional physical button to reveal it and lots and lots of nested menus for the actual settings when they get there. This setup works well on Android where soft and hard buttons exist for accessing system and program-specific settings. Windows 8 however has introduced Charms. This is a feature where you have to move you mouse/finger to a corner of your screen to perform optional extra features. Bottom left is your start screen link, top left is a list of running programs. Bottom right is a menu which contains entries such as a secondary start screen link, this seems a bit redudant to me, a settings button, customisations etc. It's also where you now find the power options such as shut down, restart or sleep. To be honest I don't see the point of the Charms bar at all on a desktop OS. All of its functionality should be elsewhere like on the start menu where they used to be but at least it works fairly well and does seem to offer some sort of context aware functionality. By this I mean you have different options if you open the charms bar on the start screen or the desktop. I'm in two minds about this as I often find myself trying to get to the control panel from the start screen charms bar which just doesn't work but at the same time it's nice to think that as Windows 8 evolves they might find more uses for it being context aware.

What I find odd about their choices for the UI though is some of the file manager buttons are even smaller than they used to be on desktop-only versions of Windows. I must admit I've only used Windows 8 Pro and I know that Windows 8 RT is more tablet and mobile-only friendly so the file manager might have slight tweaks (if it's even the same file manager at all) but that still seems a little odd to me.


Overall I actually quite like Windows 8, it's fast, looks futuristic in a retro 60s sci-fi view of the future kind of way and it has some nice features that Windows 7 had missing, like different backgrounds for multiple monitors*, but I do think they should seriously reconsider only having the full-screen start screen given that it has to be customised to be usable to anyone using Windows 8 professionally. If i were to rate this Windows release I would rate it a good 7-8/10 vs Windows 7s solid 8. Whereas Windows 7 was a solid leap over previous versions, XP and Vista but was let down by a couple of missing obvious extra new features (like multiple desktop backgrounds) Windows 8 is a radical redesign which boasts an impressive speed increase over what was already a mostly speedy Windows 7 and it does include many of the new missing features but it's let down in my opinion by its seemngly forced requirement to customise and its intentional loss of a now industry standard feature that's been in Windows for 15 years and has even made its way into other operating systems such as flavours of Linux such as Linux Mint.

*A feature you could have in Windows 7 by using Display Fusion but that's not really the point.

If you liked this blog post, why not buy me a beverage?

Blog Appreciation: Usefulness
blog comments powered by Disqus