Windows 8 Review

Windows 8 came out this month for MSDN subscribers. I had been looking forward to it for quite some time now — primarily for the quite mundane reason of wanting to finally rebuild my Asus K70AB laptop and not have to dual-boot between Windows 7 and Windows 8. (There are a few reasons for my dual-booting, but they're not worth going into here.)

I blogged about my thoughts on Windows 8 a few months ago when they released their "Consumer Preview". And the major concern I bring up there still applies: there is a disconcerting lack of visual cues for possible actions. Even when you know what you want to do and you know it's possible, it's not easy to discover how to do it. The other issue that is still disconcerting is the bipolar behavior of launching an app. Look at all the fancy tiles on the start screen. Click one. What's going to happen? Will it launch a full-screen Metro Modern-style app? Will it switch to the desktop and launch a windowed app? No telling until you see it happen.

Other issues I've had are a little more mundane. The default camera driver for the built-in camera generates an upside-down image. I did install the Windows 7 driver for my camera in the Release Preview, and while it did correct the image and programs like Skype saw it correctly, Windows 8's default camera app and the bit in the user profile where it offers to take your picture suddenly couldn't detect that I had a camera at all. So I've been hesitant to install that driver on my "official" install.

Windows 8 supports multi-touch trackpads to be able to use gestures that you usually can only do with a touch screen, like swiping in from the right side to bring up charms. Unfortunately, I am unable to find Windows 8 drivers for my notebook's Elantech touchpad (a beta Win8 driver for a different notebook model was unable to find my touchpad in the Release Preview), so I'm still unable to do gestures. (I guess I should consider myself lucky that the touchpad hardware itself understands some gestures and can send the right signals to Windows 8, even if Windows doesn't see it as anything but a "PS/2 Mouse".)

Modern apps are still a disruptive experience for the mouse and keyboard. For a desktop app, to interact with a windowed application, you only have to move your mouse as far as the bounds of the window. For a Modern app, you are forced to move your mouse across the whole screen. Want to close it? It's no longer as simple as moving the mouse to the upper right and clicking; you have to go to the top of the screen, click, and drag to the bottom of the screen — or move your hands to the keyboard to hit Alt-F4.

The graphics are much improved than I noted back in March, at least from a cursory glance. I installed the Game Room app, and the avatar on screen finally rendered without long triangular pieces of skin stretching grotesquely to the floor, and the virtual arcade environment was no longer obscured by large random fields of color. Good thing, too — the only possible workaround I could find was to install Windows 7 drivers, and that only caused more issues when I tried that in the Release Preview, like the screen randomly going blank when switching modes.

Your local user account is also your Windows Live account, if you so choose — but there are some nice bonuses to doing so. Your desktop settings and profile can be stored and migrated from PC to PC, along with other system preferences and your collection of apps purchased from the Marketplace. The one downside I found, though, is that it only lets you log in to your PC with that password. I have a relatively long and complex password for my Live account, but I tend to stick with simpler, easier-to-type passwords for my PCs. The only workaround is to use a "picture password" (mouse clicks on select places on the lock screen, very easy to snoop over the shoulder) or a PIN (a much less secure four-digit numeric password). Being able to set a custom local password would've been nice.

Given all of this, is there any reason to stick with Windows 8? Well, sure, there are lots of things to like.

The startup time is drastically improved. While I don't have empirical data to prove this, there are plenty of tech sites out there that have the evidence. Even time to resume from sleep or hibernate is so much faster. Time will prove out if the time I spent waiting on Win7 is due to the OS or all the applications I had installed and forgotten about over the years. It's likely that Win8 will slow down once I've done the same there, but if the tech analyses are true, it will still be relatively faster than Win7 was with the same load.

The Xbox Live integration is exciting. Available from the Marketplace already are Live-enabled versions of the standard Windows games Solitaire and Minesweeper, as well as Mahjong, Wordament, and Pinball FX, all for free (although Pinball FX tables are available for a price). And all of these games have achievements! Although they could still use a little work — the achievement notice does tell you that you've earned something, but it doesn't tell you how much Gamerscore you've earned; and a lot of the features, like online leaderboards, are blocked with a message asking you to download an update to the game that is not yet available. But still, older predictions that Microsoft would use the free Windows games, by adding achievements, to lure more people into the gaming world are starting to come true.

It's disappointing that, after a full year of generally available preview versions, that functional, compatible drivers for the camera and touchpad are still missing, but I'm relatively confident that they will come, especially once Windows 8 reaches general availability.

No comments: