Windows 8 is the most significant operating system update Microsoft has launched since Windows 95, and the first one designed to run on such a wide range of devices. ExtremeTech has split its coverage of the operating system accordingly: I will be writing about Windows 8 on a non-touch desktop PC.
To begin with, just to address the elephant in the room, there are two very distinct parts to Windows 8: The Metro interface, and the Desktop interface. The overall experience of using Windows 8 on a non-touch device if you try to use Metro and Desktop together is so different than Desktop alone that we’re going to break it into two stories. This story here deals with Windows 8 on a standard, non-touch PC, applied to the same use cases as Windows XP, Vista, or 7. The Metro side of the equation will be addressed in an upcoming story.
To avoid Metro as much as possible, I followed these steps first (and I suggest you do the same, if you’re a professional Windows user): Press the Start button on your keyboard, or left-click in the lower left-hand corner; Type “Control Panel”; Click the Control Panel icon; and navigate to and select “Default Programs”.
From here, scroll to the bottom of the list, where the programs beginning with “Windows” are listed. Set Windows Media Player and Windows Photo Viewer to be the default handlers for all the types of content they support. I recommend doing this before you install other software; it’ll save you the headache of fighting with the Metro version of these applications. You’ll also wwant a different PDF reader.
Once you’ve changed those defaults and grabbed the browser, email program, and address book (if any) of your choice, congratulations. You’re ready to explore what Windows 8 has to offer. And as long as we’re talking about the Desktop, that’s a good thing.
The Start screen
The Start Screen is the one Metro function I’m going to discuss in this section, as it’s also the only Metro (also known as Windows 8-style) app you can’t get away from without installing a third-party application. There are programs that duplicate the functionality of the old Start menu, if you’re interested in them, and Microsoft included a right-click option in the bottom-left hot corner that gives easy access to some of the more common Start Menu tasks.
I expected to hate the new Start screen. I don’t — but that’s partly a function of having used PCs for a very long time and knowing the names of the programs that I want to run. Finding the particular program you’re looking for if you don’t know the name can be frustrating, especially if it’s an application that drops a number of links in what used to be a hierarchical Start Menu.
Evaluated strictly on the desktop, Windows 8 actually has a lot to offer. We’ve hit a lot of these points already, so I’m going to talk more about the overall experience with a few nods to nifty capabilities. Updated driver sets and native support for USB 3.0 are baked into the operating system, and the Task Manager is actually a lot more useful. Its basic view shows running programs, while the expanded version combines two tabs (Programs and Processes) into a single view.
It’s also much easier to identify which applications are chewing through system resources. Look at what happens when I fire up Prime 95.
The heatmap automatically attracts the eye, while the red outline around the CPU column shows where the problem lies. Note that I didn’t choose to sort by CPU %; that’s the operating system flagging me that there’s a potential problem on its own. Between the two, it’s impossible to enter Task Manager and not immediately see the warning.
The data formerly in the “Processes” tab is now tucked away into the “Details” tab. The various tabs along the top can display a graph of CPU, RAM, network, and disk utilization, break that same info down by user, and edit startup items.
Users now have the option to search the internet directly to determine what various startup programs actually do, and apps can be tested to see their impact on boot times. Both of these are welcome additions, particularly for anyone who is used to troubleshooting other people’s systems on a regular basis.
File Histories are another great feature. Think of this as a type of OS-level data backup; Windows can be configured to automatically save copies of your libraries and other important files over to a second drive. It won’t protect you from everything, but it’s a useful expansion to Windows 7′s protection scheme.
Windows 8 made significant changes to font rendering in both Metro and Desktop mode. I first noticed it in Notepad, which is where I write most of my stories before posting them online. The font has been changed to Consolas, from Lucida Console. ClearType’s implementation has also changed. Previously, ClearType used sub-pixel colors to hint to the eye about the color of the text. In Windows 8, ClearType is implemented strictly in gray scale.
Here’s an example, from this story.
Here’s the first few words of the first sentence, zoomed in at 600%.
The move to grayscale antialiasing has been criticized by some, and I have to agree, it does blur the text slightly. Chrome’s desktop browser looks the same in Windows 8 and Windows 7; Firefox makes a few tiny changes that are only visible on extreme close-up. The difference between font rendering in Metro vs. non-Metro apps is much larger; you may never notice the change in Desktop mode unless you look for it.
Last summer, Microsoft released a number of graphs and claims on how Windows 8 would feature a quicker, more responsive desktop compared to Windows 7. These sorts of 2D tests aren’t the kind of thing most desktop applications focus on these days, which leaves us dependent on subjective experience.
With that in mind, Windows 8′s 2D environments feel faster than Windows 7. Windows 7 was no slouch when it came to switching tasks or moving windows, but the new OS cuts latency even more. Switching to and from the Start screen is very nearly as fast as the old Start menu, programs launch quickly, and the OS — dare I say it — just works.
That’s part of what makes the Metro/Desktop situation so enraging. The Desktop is really well done.
There’s a lot to like in Windows 8′s Desktop. The features and capabilities Microsoft promised are all here and they work well. Boot and resume times are fast, window refresh times are snappier, and the new fonts are smooth and easy to read. If you copy a lot of data, the new File menu, with the ability to pause and resume copying, is a godsend.
But I won’t be buying it.
For me, buying it would imply that Microsoft didn’t string desktop users along for well over a year when they raised concerns about the level and degree of Metro/Desktop integration. It implies that there’s no need for a one-click method of setting Desktop software to default to Desktop programs for file handling. Most of all, it hands Microsoft money in exchange for wasting my time as I searched for ways to open URLs, search desktop folders from the Start screen, crop photos, scroll through directories, and find relevant apps to test.
Windows 8 was developed more publicly and with greater communication than any previous Windows version, but when you take that route, it’s important to listen to the feedback you receive. The problems with Metro are absolutely fixable and could be resolved within a matter of months. If they are, I’ll happily change my mind. Until that happens, I cringe at the thought of having to roll the OS out across a business.
Users who like the Desktop improvements, don’t mind changing program settings to avoid Metro, and are savvy enough to handle these tasks quickly will like what they get. Professional users, at the very least, will be able to carry on as they have in Windows 7. My stance here is informed more by frustration and the principle of not paying for an OS that’s effectively still in beta. Stick to Desktop, and you’ll have a different, far more pleasant, experience.