Christmas gift for someone you hate: Windows 8

Suppose that you are an expert user of Windows NT/XP/Vista/7, an expert user of an iPad, and an expert user of an Android phone…. you will have no idea how to use Windows 8.

What are the best features of Android? A permanently on-screen Back button. A permanently on-screen Home button. Neither of these are present on the Windows 8 “tablet screen”. Every app developer implements the “Back” feature in a manner and location of his or her own choosing (Microsoft apps seem to put a big arrow on the top left of the screen; other developers used the bottom left; many screens do not have a Back option at all).

What is the best feature of iOS on the iPad? A permanent hardware Home button. It isn’t as convenient as going “Back” on Android but at least it facilitates re-navigating to wherever you were. The closest thing to a full-time Home button in Windows 8 is the “windows” key on the keyboard (but the whole idea is that the keyboard is not always available/required).

What is the best feature of Windows XP/Vista/7? Click right on an object to get a context-dependent menu of useful functions. Android copied this feature: touch and hold an item in order to get a context-dependent menu of options. The Windows 8 tablet interface lacks this interface standard.

Microsoft has had since October 2008 to study Android. It has had since June 2007 to study iPhone. It seems as though they did not figure out what is good about the standard tablet operating systems.

One thing that Android and iOS do not address is how to handle the requirement of offering a legacy Xerox Alto-style mouse-and-windows environment. Microsoft here integrates the tablet and the standard Windows desktop in the most inconvenient and inconsistent possible way. Due to the desperation of the average consumer to watch television at all times on all devices, the typical computer screen is fairly wide. One would think therefore that it would be possible to use traditional applications in the left-hand two-thirds of the screen while running a tablet environment on the right-hand one-third of the screen. Windows 8 does not allow this. It is either the old Windows XP desktop or the new Android-like tablet environment. As far as I can tell they cannot be mixed except that a tablet app can be set to appear in a vertical ribbon on the left or right edge of the screen.

A reasonable user might respond to this dog’s breakfast of a user interface by trying to stick with either the familiar desktop or the new tablet. However, this is not possible. Some functions, such as “start an application” or “restart the computer” are available only from the tablet interface. Conversely, when one is comfortably ensconced in a touch/tablet application, an additional click will fire up a Web browser, thereby causing the tablet to disappear in favor of the desktop. Many of the “apps” that show up on the “all apps” menu at the bottom of the screen (accessible only if you swipe down from the top of the screen) dump you right into the desktop on the first click.

Confused about how the tablet apps work and want to Google for the answer? You go to a Web browser in the desktop interface and can’t see the tablet interface that you’re getting advice on how to use. Keep your old Windows 7 machine adjacent so that you can Google for “How to use Windows 8” on the old computer and have the pages continuously visible.

The only device that I can remember being as confused by is the BlackBerry PlayBook. I would find this machine a lot more useful if it simply ran Android as a sub-environment and did so in the right-hand third of the screen. Comments from those who love Windows 8 would be especially appreciated.

To end on a high note, some of the supplied apps are wonderful, e.g., the Bing Finance app. Swiping back and forth on a 27-inch screen is a great way to get a comprehensive picture of a lot of information quickly. (Of course, this would be equally true if one had a similar app on a 27-inch Android tablet… it is just that there aren’t any high-res 27-inch Android devices of which I am aware.)

[This article is based on using Windows 8 on what may be the best current hardware: Dell XPS One 27 computer with a quad-core i7 CPU, 16 GB of RAM and a solid state hard drive accelerator ($2600). I will try to write a bit about the Dell hardware in a subsequent posting. The screen is beautiful. The supplied keyboard is tiny, as if made for a clown. The display tilts down easily, making it easy to get up from one’s chair to read a web page while standing.]

[Separate issue: Given how misguided the whole design of Windows 8 seems to be, why have tech journalists given it basically positive reviews? My theory is that journalists love anything new, different, and complicated. Windows 8 is all of those things.]

[December 6, 2012 update: A reader asked a question about DxOMark’s camera phone testing procedures. I went to the DxO site downloaded a PDF. Given the wide aspect ratio of the 27″ monitor, I expected to read the PDF in one window while typing my thoughts about it in the browser. From Google Chrome, I opened the PDF document and was immediately zapped into the Metro interface’s “Reader” app. My browser was gone. Although the screen is easily wide enough to display two pages simultaneously, the software elected to show just one page at a time, surrounded by massive black bars (see screen capture below). Instead of looking at a text entry box and the PDF simultaneously I would have to go back and forth between screens, trying to remember what was on each. I tried the same series of steps in Microsoft Internet Explorer and the result was the same.

Now I understand why Jakob Nielsen calls this “Microsoft Window”. (I would bet that this behavior can be fixed by installing the traditional Adobe Reader software, but that leaves open the question of why Microsoft shipped the operating system with this behavior as the default. Wouldn’t this typical use case of downloading a PDF and then wanting to view it while, say, typing an email have come up?]


  1. BartC

    December 17, 2012 @ 8:14 pm



    I agree with the general and specific criticisms you raise on Win8. And, I would raise even more (I hardly know where to start…so to speak), (in no particular order):

    * Overall the huge miss-step is the one size fits all paradigm. It is not a robe, it is an OS that should auto customize to the environment that it is installed on. And, on first start up it should ask the user a series of questions to further refine the UI (vis-a-vis touch, mouse, screen size, etc.)

    * I have two large and expensive hi-res monitors that I use for graphics and editing work. First they are just beyond arms reach, and second, never in a million years do I want to run my greasy fingers on the screen surface. Remember, that old movie trick of smearing Vaseline on the camera lens for a romantic / blur effect. I’m not into it.

    * (to Mark cmt#35) Could not agree more. And, I’ll add this: When Win7 was in development and they saw users going full screen so often, remember that screens were on average smaller than they are now. One could not comfortably fit two documents side by side, as we can today with larger desk top screens. Again this addresses their failure to optimize for different environments. On my phone I want it full screen, on my desktop I most assuredly do not.

    * In certain circumstance Win8 will not multitask. It task switches. Thus it has been called… Window. The rationale here is to preserve battery power. A play to phone/tablet use where one is mobile. Again a failure to auto customize. And, yes, I can go in and change that as a power user, but why should I have to.

    * I really miss the fly out ‘All Programs’ WinXT menu. Even in Win7, MS managed to damage that, by constraining it to a small box. I have around 350 or more programs installed, many (of the smaller one use utility type) of which I can never remember their names. So typing in the search field is of no use. However I fully know what they do, and I have arraigned the programs in folders according to function. As I sweep my cursor over the flyout, folders auto open to reveal their contents. In the formerly known as ‘Metro,’ the tiles, where folders are not allowed, program management is a nightmare.

    * And this brings me to the intended market/user for Win8. It seems that in the rush to embrace the phone/tablet paradigm they have thrown out folks who create original works. The target is the user who consumes media and data. This user is always connected, on the go, and uses portable devices. I am that user on occasion. But, on other occasions, I need to concentrate on a task at hand and produce a product. In this case I want my task made easier not harder. I do not want to be forced into a methodology that MS thinks is better. This one size fits all is a colossal fail.

    * Here is a link to a post that came out just before the RTM of Win8. It reveals much of the thinking behind the Win8 changes. It all sounds very convincing, until one steps back and realizes that some of the arguments and analogies used to support the changes are false. Historical examples are hand picked and distorted to imply parallelism. Eg the claimed resistance to the mouse (on introduction), as being similar to the resistance to touch on the desk top.

    One other: There is a deprecation between programs that are running, and programs that are resident, but not running. I quote:

    [In reference to Win7] “The Start menu was changed to focus on launching only the programs you use less frequently, as no program can be pinned to both the taskbar and the Start menu. This marked the start of a transition where we were looking to remove the archaic distinction between starting a program for the first time and returning to a program that was already running. It is interesting to consider how odd it is that we trained ourselves to look one place for a program the first time it is running, and a different place once it is already running.”

    This concept might work on a tablet with few apps. But, it won’t work for me. I want to know what is running and what is not running. This is so wrong headed I have trouble addressing it.

    * Another symptom of the schizoid nature of the UI, is the locations for various OS control points. Some reside in the formerly known as ‘Metro’ while others are on the desktop. Scattered! And, for some, maybe I can learn a key shortcut, or magic swipe, but why do I have too. Why aren’t they in one place.

    * If you use IE the bookmarks aren’t shared between the two UI versions. WTF??

    * MS has intentionally hidden and deprecated the chrome of the UI. They claim it is more fluid, and modern. BS… What it does is hide control, and make these features harder to use for production. It favors the consumption and grazing model. It is now harder to separate the chrome (or UI elements) from the content. This is an improvement… Really?

    * I could go on and on. But I have to get some work done. It won’t be on a Win8 machine. I’ll summarize it this way: I see this as an attempt to chase Apple. (Even Apple backed up on Final CutPro by listening to users! Not MS) Win8 is a more closed system. Their way or the highway. Metro apps (notice they are no longer called programs) have to vetted by MS. One has to create a profile. One is encouraged to live on the cloud. A walled garden.

    Now if MS came out and said “Hey guys, this is a consumer OS, For those doing real work, stay with Win7, and we’ll have Win9 for ya.” Well, that would be refreshing, but an’t gonna happen.

    Happy computing in the future.

  2. BartC

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:02 pm


    So I just did a look at the MS App store. Aside from the headliners on the page:

    there are 10 categories of apps. Not one is a creation category, unless one was to consider email and Skype creative programs. Ya, I know they will be adding more. But the point is: Win8 is aimed at mobile consumption of media.

    MS it appears wants to be all things to all people. And they have chosen to do this by limiting features, and dumbing down the UI.

    In doing so they have thrown folks who produce on their desktops under the bus. We shall see what the corporate uptake is for Win*

    Even though the underlying OS is better (faster, more stable, more secure) it is the UI that folks will love or hate. The fact that Win8 boots faster then Win7 is NOT the tipping factor.

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