Windows 8: Mostly old news

from Branko's Thought Dump

Jan 20, 2013, 8:00:00 PM

How many of you have tried Windows 8 at all? How many have thought "So... what's new here anyway?" If you have thought that, welcome to the club. You'll find this review as boring as Windows 8 itself. If not, you have a chance to see an illustrated tour of old new features in Windows 8 and why I think it's mostly old news.

Obtaining the ISO image

The Windows 8 Enterprise Evaluation ISO can be obtained through the MSDN Evaluation Center. It's meant as a 90-day free trial for developers considering developing apps for the new operating system. Activation is mandatory, but upgrade to full working version is not possible.

I've been using Linux for a long time, and I've seen more than a hundred different ISO files. The ISO file I downloaded from MSDN has the longest name ever: 9200.16384.WIN8_RTM.120725-1247_X86FRE_ENTERPRISE_EVAL_EN-US-HRM_CENA_X86FREE_EN-US_DV5.iso. Tell me it's not a long name.

First boot

Boot screen isn't as nice as Windows 7 boot screen was. There aren't any visual effects to keep you entertained during what's expected to be a long boot. Like most of Windows 8, it looks too flat, and too web 3.0. I don't mind that style on the web, but on desktop, I'm used to slightly more juicy graphics. The boring boot screen isn't important, though, because boot times are just short. I bet Windows 8 would boot faster than Mint on bare metal.

Unfortunately, there is still no live CD to speak of (and please, people, don't mention Windows PE, and don't mention Windows to Go, because that's not what I mean when I say live CD), so I couldn't really put Windows 8 evaluation edition on bare metal, and let it kill my Linux.

Install took approximately 15 minutes since the first boot, so it's on par with most modern Linux distributions.

Just an aside for those trying Windows 8 in VirtualBox. Make sure hardware virtualization is enabled in the BIOS (try the Security section if you cannot find the settings).

Installation and account creation

So anyway, the install was so-so. Parition manager still not able to resize the partition, and that type of thing. We've all come to expect that and boot Gparted Live first anyway, so that's ok. The part after installation is a whole new story, though.

After rebooting, I was presented with customization options for the new start menu, but I couldn't really tell what I was customizing at that point. You can see from the screenshot the exact verbiage used to describe the settings. It's not exactly helpful. A long name I tried to give the computer was rejected, too.

Next, account creation has been replaced by a choice between logging in using your online Microsoft account, which is the default, and creating a regular local account. If you aren't paying attention here, you end up with a Microsoft account. Choosing the latter option allows you to specify the username and password as usual.

It's also worth noting that you will no longer have the option of choosing whether to activate windows update or not, and Windows defender will be automatically enabled.

Start menu (Metro UI)

Before starting for the first time, Windows 8 will present you with a short series of slides that are mostly useless save for one slide where it describes how to activate the hidden menu by dragging the mouse cursor to the top-right corner. Here it is in the screenshot so you can fast-next through the slideshow when installing Windows 8:

Your first ever contact with the actual OS comes in form of the Start menu, which is what used to be known as the Metro interface.

Before I start dissecting it, let me just summarize what it is, so you can view it in correct context. The new start menu is sort of like a mobile device slapped on top of normal Windows. You may get the impression that it's a new operating system, but it's not really. With a few tweaks, and without the new Start menu, Windows 8 is your regular Windows. Not more not less. It looks a bit uglier, but that's about it.

The start menu only shows one regular app by default, and that's Internet Explorer (more bout IE later).

The apps that you see in the Start menu were mostly useless to me. Even the Store app, which is supposed to show you the new cool apps for the Metro interface, is basically a glorified app review site, which merely links to 3rd party websites. Full-screen weather? Who needs that?

Windows 8 desktop - the real Windows

The only truly useful item in the Start menu is the Desktop item, which takes you to a regular Windows desktop that we all know from all previous releases of this operating system.

Now this thing works exactly the same as all previous versions of windows. The bar at the bottom is, indeed, the superbar introduced in Windows 7, sans the start menu.

Most people complain about the start menu. There are a few things you can do about it. First of all, you can enable it because it's basically just disabled. Alternatively, you can install the Classic Start8 application, which adds a nice-looking icon and restores the good ol' start menu. Either way, the familiar start menu becomes usable again:

The new default way to access your apps and settings is to use the search functionality. Personally, I see nothing wrong with that. The search is accessed either by dragging your cursor to top-right corner, or pressing Win+F (this used to be "find files" functionality before). The search in Windows 8 can search all your files, settings, installed apps, or contents in individual metro apps.

When you find an app, you can right-click it while still in search view, and pin it to the Windows 8 start menu (not the classic one).

Configuring the system

Windows 8 configuration is now split between the the so-called PC settings and other, more familiar items like control panel and preferences. Those are all accessed through the settings icon that is present in the hidden right-hand-side menu.

The PC settings can be displayed by choosing the "Change PC settings" item at the bottom of the settings menu, and it contains a seemingly random choise of different settings related to anything from personal preferences, to system notifications, to devices, to wireless. It is generally more pleasant to look at than the classic control panel, but it doesn't contain everything (e.g., it doesn't have tools for configuring keyboard and system languages.)

Internet Explorer 10

Most web developers will welcome the fact that Windows 8 comes with IE10 and that automatic update of this major player has now been enabled by default. This means that, once Windows 8 has a large enough share of the market, we can safely assume that when we say "support IE", we mean "support the currently released version of IE". For the sake of my profession, I hope that people quickly make a jump to Windows 8.

Installing and running applications

Installing and running applications on Windows 8 is exactly like on any previous Windows. I'm pretty sure that's good news for most Windows users, but a bit of a disappointment for me. I am used to a much better experience using packages managers which are dedicated to downloading, installing, updating, and removing all my third-party apps on Linux. I was hoping to see this at least applied to apps featured in the Windows 8 store, but no such luck.

The only notable difference is that Windows 8 will now prompt you for the default app you want to use for certain things like URLs. This is undoubtedly a feature ported over from mobile devices. The only problem with this is that I'd already told Firefox that I want it to be the default web browser, so having to confirm this with Windows 8 itself is somewhat redundant.

Conclusion

I've heard about many improvements that Windows 8 introduces over Windows 7, but since this was a review done inside a virtualized PC, I couldn't really see many of them.

The most notable novelty in this release is the new Metro interface, which, frankly, isn't even integrated that well into the system. It really looks more like it was slapped on top of Windows 7 than anything else.

Change in appearance is also somewhat of a step backwards rather than forward. Applying poorly conceived web 3.0 aesthetics to a desktop operating system is not something I could call an improvement.

As for things that haven't changed, those are mostly good things that Windows 7 introduced. The classic start menu can be restored fairly easily, and that pretty much restores Windows 8 to the level of utility that Windows 7 users already had.

Windows 8 does boot quickly, so that removes one complaint from the long list of complaints I had about Windows 7.

All in all, if you are happy with Windows 7 (or Linux), I see absolutely no reason for installing Windows 8.