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Windows 8 Review – Part Two: The Things I Love

Date: November 6, 2012
Author(s): Rob Williams

As difficult as it may be to tell sometimes, Windows 8 does in fact offer a lot to love. I’ve already had my say about what frustrates me with the OS, so now, I’m taking a look at the other side of the coin. What is it that makes Windows 8 pleasant to use? Select highlights include aesthetic improvements, the improved transfer dialog and the new syncing capabilities.

Introduction, Compatibility and Stability, Transfer Dialog & Improved Aesthetics

I’ve already had my say about what drives me bonkers with Windows 8, but now it’s time to look at the other side of the coin. Windows 8, before its launch, had been treated like Windows Vista after its launch, but is it well-deserved? Does Windows 8 bring enough to tablet table to warrant an upgrade – even if it only costs $40?

The answer to the first question is no… the hate towards Windows 8 is probably a little overdone. As for the second… that’s a question that’s very difficult to answer. After reading both my “Hate” article and then this one, you should have a far better idea of whether or not Windows 8 is for you.

Like the other article, this one is constructed as a list, and is in no particular order. Some of the choices might seem a bit silly, but if I have them here, it’s because I’ve truly found them to add to the pleasantness of the OS. So without further ado, let’s get to it.

Start Screen – Quick Search for Applications

In last week’s look at things I “hate” about Windows 8, I talked a bit about the search and how it didn’t bode too well with what I’m usually trying to do. However, there is one thing that helps me appreciate the design Microsoft chose here, and it has to do with launching applications through the Start screen.

Since Vista, the main method I’ve used for launching applications that don’t have a shortcut in my taskbar has been to search for them through the Start menu. While this may seem like a slow way of doing things, I can type fast enough where I can launch an application this way much faster than I could with the mouse. There was one issue, however. The results that came up weren’t only for applications, but documents and control panel options. Sometimes, I’d type in a partial word, hit enter, and have something else open up – obviously negating the speed I was looking for.

Windows 8 - Quick Search for Applications

With the search inside of Windows 8’s Start screen, the results are always filtered. If you want to search for a document on your PC called “Finance”, you’d need to type it in, and then click on “Files” to the right. By default, it’s applications that load first, which means the chance of you opening up something by mistake this way is a lot slimmer than it was with 7.

However, I do have a minor complaint. Perhaps it’s done for performance reasons, but it be nice to see results from all three categories at once, rather than having to click on the filters to the right. I know many who use their Start menus to search for documents, music, photos and what-have-you, so this implementation would actually become pretty clunky for them.

Application Compatibility & Stability

There’s no shortage of material out there used to make fun of Vista, but a good chunk of it is well-deserved. When Vista first came out, it was a bit of a chore to use. Learning the new OS was one thing, but making things worse were the number of bugs and roadblocks that would arise when trying to run “legacy” software. Thankfully, 7’s launch didn’t mimic Vista’s, so overall, the transition between those was pretty seamless. With 8, the transition is even better.

Windows 8 - Compatibility

In moving from 7 to 8, I didn’t lose access to a single one of my applications – everything just works. I do have the occasion when SmartScreen will nag me about a program I’m about to install, but none of those apps have given me any hassle once installed. And while I say “apps”, I’m referring to every piece of software I install, including games. So far, there’s not a simple issue I can speak of, and for a new OS launch, that’s impressive. That lengthy beta period sure seems to have paid off.

On a similar note, I haven’t experienced any instability to speak of, either. I do have the odd occasion when Notepad++ stalls on me, but I believe that to be related to a UAC issue I discussed in the other article.

Improved Aesthetics

The jump in OS aesthetics from XP to Vista was enormous, but as we discovered, that doesn’t matter when the rest of the OS is painful to use. For the most part, 7 looked quite similar to Vista, and at the same time, 8 doesn’t look too different than 7. The main difference is that the window borders are no longer rounded, nor have a true glass feel. Instead, they’re all very square. “Tiley”, even, to match the Start screen.

The previous theme, Aero, was dropped in order to reduce reliance on the GPU. This in turn increases battery-life, and overall, it’ll be a change that most mobile users will be all for, especially when Windows 8 window designs still retain a similar look and feel.

That all said, I didn’t care for the super-square look of the latest OS at first, but after using it full-time for a little while, it’s grown on me to the point where it no longer stands out. It’s clean, I’ll give it that.

Windows 8 - Task Manager

Window designs are just one aspect of the OS that Microsoft improved visually for 8, though. As seen in the above shot, the company even made something as simple as the Task Manager look a lot better. Its font choice is superb, as is the spacing and general layout. The color in the right-hand side serves a purpose, but it looks good at the same time. This is the sort of improvement that would have been great to see in 7, given that Vista already handled the bulk of the added visual appeal.

But here’s the thing about the improved aesthetics in Windows 8: a ton of them are the result of the OS’ obvious tablet focus. But… the result looks keen on a desktop or notebook as well. In the screenshot below, you can see the clean design of the “Charms” bar on the right and the time that comes up on the screen when you mouse over the top-right or bottom-right corners. The volume slider, when using media keys, also looks good in the top-left corner, and as it shows up over the top of all media / games, it’s offers a nice visual cue regardless of what you’re in the middle of doing.

Windows 8 - Aesthetics

While many of the other added aesthetic qualities of Windows 8 have to do with the Start screen, the OS as a whole features little enhancements that are noticeable if you’ve been using Windows a long time. Transitions and fades, for example, look great, and do add to the experience.

Refreshing Your PC

Due to the hassle it involves, no one likes to reformat their PC. But on the other hand, everyone generally loves the feeling of fastness that a reformat can bring. Well, Microsoft has heard our cries, and with Windows 8, giving your PC a “refresh” or format is easier than ever. You won’t even need to insert install media! Yes, another feature pulled straight from the books of the smartphone, although this idea isn’t new. Apple’s Mac OS X has had the quick-reformat capability in its past two versions.

Windows 8 - Refreshing Your PC

“Refresh” is for those who don’t want the hassle of backing up or moving their personal data. The OS is essentially brought back to its innate state. Once the process is finished, you’ll be in a clean Windows 8 install but still have immediate access to all of your personal files (those kept in your Libraries).

For a truly fresh start, the second option will purge everything on the drive, sans Windows itself, and then reinstall itself. What you’ll be left with is the same result as reformatting your PC and installing Windows from the disc.

This isn’t a feature I’ve actually taken advantage of yet, but it’s one I love just the same. If I had to reformat my Windows install for whatever reason, this is definitely the route I’d take.

Improved Copy Dialog

This may seem like a minor feature to some, but for those who copy data back and forth often, this is quite an upgrade. The big addition here is a live graph that shows the speed at any given time throughout the entire transfer. This allows you to see if there was some data where the speed plummeted, and allows you to guess how long the entire transfer will take without relying solely on Windows’ guess.

Windows 8 - Copy Dialog

There have been times where I’ve found myself juggling up to four transfer dialogs at once, and Windows 8 goes on to simplify that. Instead of having a separate dialog box for each transfer, everything gets combined to one, while still retaining their own respective data and pause buttons. Microsoft has also simplified conflicts. Images, for example, will show a source and target version, so you can see if one is newer than the other and proceed from there.

Office 2013, Uptime, Removable Devices & Final Thoughts

This is an odd inclusion, I admit, but as it’s a rare day when I’m prompted to talk about Office at all, it’s best to do it now. But note – all of what I’m talking about here applies to Office 2003 under Windows 7 as well.

When I first opened Office 2013, I felt a little overwhelmed. It’s of course optimized for a touch device, but it wasn’t those enhancements that struck me. It just felt quite a bit different. After some use, however, I ended up enjoying the latest version a lot, and it boils down mostly to aesthetics once again.

Windows 8 - Office 2013

As “big” an upgrade as Office 2007 was to 2003, Office 2013 makes that seem like no upgrade at all. The entire interface has been revised, and now the program can tie in with your Microsoft account, much like Windows itself. On the surface, Office 2013 simply looks good. When you open a program like Excel or Word, you are quickly greeted to a list of your recent documents and an online template collection to peruse and search.

Then there’s the fact that Microsoft has finally done away with the draconian dialog option boxes that allow you to tweak settings for an object in your document. Now, as you can see below, the same options now expand from the right, improving the look and feel significantly, and also the usability.

Windows 8 - Office 2013

The most noticeable difference between 2013 and all previous versions of Office, though, is the amount of effort Microsoft put in to making the experience as pleasant as possible. Movements in documents are made fluid, transitions are added where they fit well, and even the moving marquee of a selection is now smooth as silk. All-in-all, no single thing here makes Office 2013 a “must-have”, but as a long-time user of Office, the enhancements here actually would cause me to upgrade.

If you’re a heavy Office user, I highly recommend checking out this Wikipedia page that does a great job of summing up all that’s new.

Your Uptime is Easy to Find

In an article of things I “love” about Windows 8, this choice is no doubt going to come off as ridiculous – and it is. Well, ridiculous in the regard that this “feature” should have been made available long ago. In Linux, finding your PC’s uptime is simple. You load up a command prompt and type in “uptime”. In Windows, it’s required some deep digging, or a program that takes the hassle out of it for you, such as AIDA64.

Windows 8 - Uptime

In Windows 8 though, the information is found right in the task manager, where it should be. Microsoft didn’t stop there, either. Also listed here are the number of running processes and their threads/handles, along with other neat information like your CPU cache levels. The only thing that could make this particular screen any better is the addition of system temperatures. Maybe in Windows 9?

Removable Devices

Yet another feature inspired by touchscreens that I actually happen to like on the desktop is the prompt that comes up when you either insert media, or try to play a file after a new application has been installed. This design is similar to Android, where after you install a new media player, for example, opening a video will prompt you to choose a default. Except here, if you don’t want to open it with a program, you can simply have it open up as a folder instead.

Windows 8 - Removable Media

The reason I like this simple feature so much is that I’ve had seriously stubborn programs in the past insist on being a default for something. Adobe Lightroom, for example, insisted on loading up every time I plugged in a memory card, which is not the action I would have otherwise taken. Because of Adobe’s corner-cutting, the fix wasn’t in the program itself, but rather in the control panel under program associations. This implementation in Windows 8 makes fixing a problem like this much easier.

Everything and the Kitchen Sync

With that nonsensical title out of the way, syncing is another feature that’s quite nice in Windows 8, and great if you happen to live in the Microsoft ecosystem. For actual data, there’s SkyDrive. Anything copied to your SkyDrive folder will automatically sync to the cloud and become available on any device that has a Web browser or SkyDrive app. Use Outlook? The Windows Calendar? Contacts? This will all be synced to the cloud as well.

Windows 8 - Removable Media

This level of convenience isn’t something new, but it’s still incredible at its heart. You could install Windows 8 to a second computer, and just by using the same login, you’d immediately gain access to every piece of data that streams through Microsoft’s cloud services. As someone personally tied into Google’s many services, Microsoft’s integration here doesn’t affect me too much, but it’s the feature that counts.

A Realistic Windows Experience on a Tablet

For an OS as blatantly inspired by tablets as Windows 8 is, it’s good to know that it does behave quite well on them. This is important, because many people have required the use of Windows tablets since well before the original iPad existed, but sexy solutions like what we have today just didn’t exist. But today, we can walk around with 10-inch or less tablets and have a full Windows install at our disposal. While we might not all need that, for those who do, this is awesome.

Windows 8 - Microsoft Surface

The biggest difference between a product like Microsoft Surface (pictured above) and other tablets, Android or iOS, is that Windows is a full-blown OS. The OS is the same on the desktop as it is on the tablet, so your limitations are no longer the OS, but the hardware – which, up to this point, is pretty decent (ARM limitations aside).

A counter-argument to all of this is that some people don’t need a full-blown OS on their tablet. Then there’s the fact that Microsoft’s store at the moment really isn’t too stellar, especially in comparison to Play Store or App Store. Still, this is a great solution to have available, and we can only hope that Microsoft’s mobile marketplace will grow and become better over time. The road ahead is long, especially with Android and iOS having been established in the market for so long.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. You now know not only what I hate about the OS, but also what I love about it. So at the end of the day, do I recommend Windows 8? And if so, who for?

That’s a tough question to answer. While I’m pleased with Windows 8 overall, and have no intention to drop it, there’s nothing here that I’d consider a “must-have”. With Windows Vista, the allure boiled down to the fact that Windows XP was an aging OS, and I wanted something more modern. There was also the promise of cool DX10 games. Well, we all know that Vista was a true chore to use for the first couple of years, which became the allure for the next OS, 7. At the time of 7’s launch, I am not even sure I cared about what it offered. I just hoped it was more stable than Vista. Thankfully, it certainly was.

In fact, Windows 7 is so good, that it becomes the reason most people don’t need to upgrade to 8. Unlike Vista and 7 which brought exclusive DirectX versions, 8 does not. That may change in the future, but with the install-base 7 has, I have doubts Microsoft will pull that trick for this generation.

For me, what makes me prefer Windows 8 over 7 are the aesthetic improvements, niceties such as the program associator, improved transfer dialog and improved Task Manager and its slight performance boost. While there is some bad to deal with, it hasn’t overshadowed my experience. I’ve now been using the OS for well over two weeks, and so far I haven’t run into a roadblock or anything so inconvenient that it’s truly stuck out.

If you’re on a version of Windows older than 7, upgrading is really going to be worth it. If you’re on 7, I’d say stick with it, unless you like all of what you’ve seen here. You certainly don’t “need” it, but it’s a nice upgrade nonetheless.

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