First Impressions working with Windows 8

Yesterday morning, first thing after getting up, I bought Windows 8 online. This is my account of the first 24 hours setting up and getting started with Microsoft’s latest operating system.

Preparation and installation

I had originally pre-ordered a Windows 8 upgrade DVD for 53.90 EUR from Amazon back when it became available in August. I canceled that order when I saw that Microsoft was offering a 29.99 EUR download version. Not only did I save a bunch, I also got it immediately and didn’t have to wait for the mail to arrive. I do miss out on the packaging, though, which looks really fancy this time.

The process of getting and installing Windows couldn’t have been easier. I went to the Microsoft Store website, picked the version I wanted and got the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant. It scanned the applications and devices installed on my computer and told me what was going to work with Windows 8. Of the 58 or so items on the list, only 8 were problematic: mostly older software I hadn’t used in a while and probably wouldn’t need, but also my anti virus. That entry included a link to their website informing me that there was a newer version that was compatible with Windows 8 and could be used with the license key I already had. Sweet.

After that, the upgrade assistant downloaded the Windows 8 installer and offered to either install right away (couldn’t do that though, because my hard drive didn’t have enough free space) or create an install USB key or DVD. I did the latter, because I wanted to take this as an opportunity to start fresh and get rid of a bunch of applications that had accumulated over time.

I originally wanted to create an image of my hard drive first, but for some reason the boot disk of the image software I used didn’t recognize my external hard drive, so I couldn’t store that image. I fiddled around with the software a bit, but eventually decided to be bold and just have the installer wipe out the operating system partition. Therefore, I saved the only things that I are unfortunately stored on that partition instead of my data partition: the bookmarks from Firefox and the certificate used by EFS to encrypt my files. Funny story: last time I had exported the certificate, I had saved it to a folder that was encrypted and hence unreadable re-installing the operating system.

During the install process, I was shown a couple of the ways to use Metro with a mouse and keyboard, e.g. hot corners. I think it’s a good opportunity to educate new users about things they might need to know but that aren’t immediately obvious. With all the changes in Windows 8, Microsoft certainly has some educating to do.

Getting started

Once the installer was through, I logged in with my Microsoft Account (formerly Windows Live ID, formerly Passport, formerly I-don’t-even-know-anymore-it’s-been-called-so-many-things). Just as on Windows Phone, this allows Windows to pull in all your stuff from the cloud to make your PC really your PC. So when I first laid eyes on the start screen, the live tiles were already lighting up with the pictures of my contacts in the People app, my pictures from SkyDrive in the Photo app, my avatar in the Games app, my calendar, emails et cetera.

Start Screen

Even though this probably should have helped feeling more “at home” in the new Metro environment, I was feeling kind of lost there, to be perfectly honest. I mean, I had followed the development of Windows 8, reading along on the Building Windows 8 blog, but still, this didn’t feel like the Windows I know and love. So I went to the desktop (I had initially forgotten, there was a tile for it) to put my mind at ease.

I also needed to install two more drivers: instead of my monitor’s native 1920×1080 resolution, Windows was using only 1024×768 pixels. For some reason, Windows Update didn’t find a driver other than some generic driver, so I had to get one manually from the Intel website. The sound card needed new drivers as well. I didn’t have any problems with my network card driver, though. The last time I had installed Windows from scratch (probably in the Vista time-frame), it wouldn’t recognize my network card, and without internet access, I obviously couldn’t download a newer driver. My computer has Wi-Fi, but that was turned off. The utility needed to turn it back on was unfortunately on a file share of my home server, which I couldn’t access without a network connection. It’s for situations like this that I keep around my old computers and don’t throw them out.

Hydra

As I am using Windows 8 right now (on a non-touch enabled laptop PC connected to mouse, keyboard and a 27” monitor), these two environments (Metro and desktop) do feel kind of strange. I think Windows 8 can really shine, if run on touch hardware. Unfortunately, the x86-based Surface won’t come out until next year from what I hear, so for now I will have to make the best of it; even though full screen immersive apps really don’t work as well on such a big screen as they do on a 10” tablet.

Also, many things have been duplicated. For instance, there is the good old Control Panel but also a Metro-style Settings thing. I suppose it wasn’t possible re-design every little thing in the Control Panel to be touch-friendly, so they created this separate area where most people find all the settings they’ll ever need. For power users, however, I think it’s best to check in Control Panel first.

Eventually, I think Microsoft is betting on the old environment going away or at least receding way into the back. Microsoft is clearly pushing the Metro environment just like everybody else is moving towards a more mobile, touch-first future. I am glad, though, that Microsoft has still managed to make Metro accessible by keyboard as well. In fact, there are tons of new shortcuts in Windows 8. And even some of my old favorites like Alt+F4 for closing a window or Alt+Left Arrow for going back work with Metro apps as well.

The centralized approach to search is also quite nice: while typing on the Start Screen will by default search your list of apps, one can also select another search target, e.g. Store or Mail. Search works the same within apps, too. E.g. typing in the People app, will bring up the same search UI as on the start screen, but pre-select People as the search target.

Media playback

This is one area, I want to highlight, because it is kind of a mess. As my computer is set up right now, there are four Microsoft applications to organize and/or playback media files:

  • Windows Media Player
  • Windows Media Center
  • Xbox Music and Xbox Video
  • Zune

I have always preferred Windows Media Player because it had the most complete organizational capabilities. I do need to use the Zune software though, because it’s the only one that syncs with my Windows 7.5 phone, so I actually use that most of the time now. Zune does not play WMA music steams though, nor does it play DVDs. Which is what I used to use Windows Media Player for. Unfortunately, DVD playback has been removed from Media Player in Windows 8. You can get the (currently free) Media Center Pack, but that only enables DVD playback in Media Center, not Media Player. Microsoft has a lengthy blog post explaining their reasoning where they make a few good points, I am still disappointed though, I can no longer use Media Player. I will probably start using VLC player for DVDs, even though I have had some bad experiences with it in the past (that’s an entirely different blog post I may put up some day), just because it is the only way to play DVDs bought from the US, so I might as well play all my DVDs with it.

Finally, there are the Xbox Music and Xbox Video Metro apps. I wish I could use those for everything, because apparently that is where Microsoft is going with their media strategy for the whole Windows + Xbox + Windows Phone ecosystem. But as of now, these apps are unusable for me. For one, they are way too focused on selling me new content rather than helping me organize the stuff I already own. While Media Player and Zune allow me to organize my music and (to a lesser extent videos) by genre, artist, year, folder and bunch of other criteria with the possibility (in Media Player) to use cross-references to jump from an album to other albums by the same artist, the Xbox media apps seem to limit themselves to display one giant list to me that can be sorted but not broken down in any way. It would be nice if at least they would pick up the folder structure I worked so hard to organize everything into. But no.

Outlook

The one thing that has probably cost me the most time, was getting Outlook working again. I must admit, it is partly my fault, because I didn’t prepare the move at all other than exporting my subscribed RSS feeds to an OPML file and storing my PST files on my computer’s data instead of the operating system partition. I figured adding these PST files to Outlook should bring back most of my stuff, but it didn’t. I have found dozens of ways people say you can trick Outlook into using the files, but none of them worked reliably.

I don’t want to bore you with the details, so let me just say that I spent a couple of hours trying to add my RSS feeds, a Windows Live, two IMAP and one POP3 account to Outlook and get it to use the existing PST files that already contained feed items dating back a couple of years and tens of thousands of emails messages from the past decade. In the end, it was too laborious to set up each RSS feed to use the folder I had created for it, so I just got rid of all the old items and started anew. I guess I won’t ever need them again anyway. I also scrapped the PST files containing email messages downloaded from the IMAP servers. In the end it was easier to just download them again. Had I known then what I know now, I could have probably set up Outlook in a good 15 minutes instead of wasting a couple of hours on it.

Games

I am a sucker for free Xbox Live games that allow me to earn achievements and increase my gamer score without paying any money. I was therefore very excited to find a couple of free Xbox Live games in the Store. Unfortunately, even rather simple games like Taptiles, require more CPU and/or GPU power than my 6 1/2 year old PC has to offer. I keep losing valuable time (and this is not an excuse) simply because it takes the game to long to recognize my clicks, if it recognizes them at all. I so need the Surface x86 tablet to come out to save me from this.

Random observations

  • While it is nice that window chrome has been de-emphasized a lot to create a simpler user interface, I do miss Aero. For instance, because of the absence of window shadows it is at times difficult to tell where one window ends and another one begins.
  • Seeing that certain YouTube videos worked without Flash Player, I was kind of hoping, I wouldn’t have to install that, but unfortunately, Firefox only supports two out of the three things  YouTube requires for its HTML5 version (video tag and WebM), and IE only supports video tag and h.264.
  • It’s also very nice that Windows 8 contains a simple Reader app to display PDFs. Unfortunately (at least on my hardware) it is just as slow as Adobe Reader.

Things I do not understand

  • Why is everything called an app in Windows 8, even good-old Win32, desktop applications? In common usage, apps are these simple things you get at the app store for a few bucks and full-fledged applications are more expensive, more complex and generally a different class of software. Why not make this distinction clear in the terminology used in the OS?
  • Why can’t a window’s title bar font color be changed to white when I change the task bar and windows color to black? Now I can no longer read a window’s caption. This seems like such a simple thing, since it had been possible in every other version of Windows I’ve ever used.
  • Why is the Metro version of IE disabled, now that I have Firefox installed on the desktop as my primary browser?

Conclusion

As I spend most of my time with desktop applications, Windows 8 doesn’t feel that different from Windows 7. There are a couple of welcome changes (e.g. the enhanced copy dialog; see this list of more info), but those alone might not justify the upgrade for many people.

If all you do is desktop computing, you probably don’t need to buy Windows 8. What you should buy though, is  tablet computer (maybe one of those x86-based devices coming soon) that can take full advantage of the touch-first interface in Windows 8.

This is exactly what I have decided to do: get an x86-based Surface with Windows 8, so when at my desk I can use Outlook, Excel and everything else I use today on my 27” monitor with a keyboard and mouse. When I decide to undock the computer and take someplace else, I will have this beautiful Metro environment for on-the-go, touch-based computing with the desktop environment there, just in case. And because it is one machine, I will also have all my data all the time.

Book Report

While compiling the statistics for my look back at year three, I noticed I hadn’t posted anything in the Books category during the previous year. That’s strange, because I don’t think I have ever been reading as much as I do now. I even started reading fiction, imagine that. Anyway, so here is a rundown of the most interesting books I have been reading as of late.

The book I am currently reading is Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger. It’s a fantastic book that provides valuable insights into U.S. foreign policy. While you hear about those policies everyday on the news, the book provides you with information from the inside explaining how those policies came about and why certain things were done the way they were and not differently. One great line from the book describes each foreign policy decision as a “balancing act between Americas values and its interests”. Often times, this means there isn’t an option that is the right thing to do, but only the lesser of two evils.

Also kind of on the topic of foreign policy is Trojan Horse by Mark Russinovich. It paints a very bleak picture of the current situation concerning Iran getting a nuclear weapon and the Chinese involvement in that. While it is inspired by current events, this book is of course a work of fiction and I surely hope that those parts were written with some artistic freedom.

Another related title is Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P. W. Singer. It discusses the technical capabilities the U.S. military has developed with its drone programs. A capability that has increased dramatically over the past ten years. For all the technical advanced and the resulting ability to use force more accurately and limit civilian casualties, the book also leaves a lot of room to discuss the implications of this new technology. What it means in legal terms that the soldiers operating these weapons are on U.S. soil with little thread to their lives while civilian contractors are deployed in the war zones to maintain the drones where they are at much greater risk; let alone in a legal gray-area as to whether they are actually civilians or combatants.

The final technology title on my list is Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. I have been following McAfee’s blog for many years now love his work non Enterprise 2.0. In this book, he and hos co-author take a look how advances in technology are changing the economy and labor market forever. For instance, with computers as advanced as Watson, many knowledge worker jobs may be done by computers in the not too distant future. One interesting line from the book: a knowledge worker’s job is more likely to be taken by a computer than a hair dresser’s job, because people will not tolerate robots operating with blades near their heads. So true. The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care is supposedly a similar story specifically about health care. I haven’t read it yet, but is already only my wish list.

Then there is Spies Among Us: How to Stop the Spies, Terrorists, Hackers, and Criminals You Don’t Even Know You Encounter Every Day by Ira Winkler. When you are done reading this book, you cannot help but wonder why there aren’t more high-profile cases of espionage or terrorism every day. The techniques described just seem too easy. It has certainly made me be more careful when I get into work or how a respond to requests to information over the phone from people I don’t know.

I am kind of surprised how much I have been reading about technology and current affairs, but the final non-fiction book I wanted to mention has nothing to do with either of those things. It’s The Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon. It’s one of the books for the Smart Growth approach to urban planning. It describes recipes for designing an ideal urban environment that is pleasant for people to live in and is environmentally friendly at the same time. What I found most interesting about it, is that even though it describes ideal scenarios, the city that I am living in Düsseldorf, Germany, does come very close to what is described there. Because I have spent the majority of my life here, it often don’t realize it, but life here is actually pretty good :)

The first real fiction-book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have always been upset that I haven’t read more of the American classics that are traditionally read in High School. Because whenever these are referenced in American media (because they are assumed to be common knowledge) I don’t really get what they are talking about. So when I saw the trailer to that new movie based on the book, I decided to read the original. And I am glad I did, because it was a wonderful weekend I had reading it.

The next one is a bit strange: The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe. I had first encountered this book as a radio drama in 2000 or so when my father was working in Berlin and we were visiting him there. We were there for a couple of days and the play was broadcast in several parts that were on the radio during breakfast. I am not sure why, but I didn’t remember the title, but only fragments of the story: Paris, a murder, a gorilla, leaping out of the window. With the help of Google I was able to find the book and get it on Kindle. I must say, though, it was much better in my imagination.

Finally, there is The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, a set of three stories in a book I had bought as reading material for my Norway trip after M recommended it. She had also gotten it at the same time, so as we were reading at roughly the same speed, we could talk about the book and its many weird turns and connections between the three stories. It was a fun way to approach a book. Also based on her recommendation, I have bought Sunset Park by the same author, but haven’t yet had a chance to read it.

Semi-interesting Side Story

While I was looking up the books mentioned above on Amazon, I noticed that for several of them there were multiple Kindle editions available. I understand that for regular books there are always different versions (hardcover, paperback, maybe one with different cover art or an additional intro). But how different can two eBooks possibly be? In most cases one doesn’t even see the cover art and at least I just read the main part of the book front to back with little regard for any other material. From what I can see, the various Kindle versions have no discernable differences, except, and this is funny, their prices. For instance, when I bought Trojan Horse, there were two versions: one for around 10 EUR, and one for 2 EUR. I have no idea why anyone would buy the former.

Obereggenen Revisited

I just came back from a short trip to Obereggenen (again). As always, we stayed at the Rebstock, the hotel that my grandparents first stayed at in 1968, that my parents first came to with us kids in 1987 and have been coming back to for almost every year since.

Obereggenen

Up black and whiteYou might think that it would be getting old coming here, but the consistency that comes with returning to a place you know inside-out is kind of nice. And then there are these little changes you notice from one year to the next, like that the town’s main street had just been redone or the phone booth in front of the old town hall that we used to make calls home in the pre-cellphone era, is now gone.

Out of the ordinary

On this vacation, I did a lot of things, I don’t normally do, starting with a big breakfast of rolls, tea, grape juice and an egg. At home, I am too lazy to prepare any of these things, so normally I just slap a slice of cheese or some cold cuts onto a piece of bread and have a glass of apple juice with it (total breakfast-time < 10 minutes). Dinner as well, was a lot bigger than usual. They serve great, five-course gourmet meals that are very thought out with a lot of neat ideas to make them more interesting, including table decorations and the way the food is arranged.

However, I am quite a picky eater: There is the list of things I like and then the much longer list of things I don’t like. Unfortunately, much of what we had tended to be in the latter category. Not that it was bad (quite on the contrary), it’s just not my cup of tea. I am generally pretty happy with extremely simple meals (pizza, pasta, that kind of thing), probably because I hate the inevitable waiting that comes with anything that’s more complex to prepare.

Johannesbreite

Vitra Design Museum: Awesome

On Tuesday, we went to the Vitra Design Museum. Like many good museums, the museum’s building is quite interesting in its own right (I’ll add some pictures once I get them from my dad’s camera). As for the designs the have on display, I am not sure. There are some classics, like iconic from Charles and Ray Eames, but many of those I don’t find that interesting. For one, because I am not willing to spend several thousand Euros on a single chair, and even if I did., I don’t have the kind of apartment to do these pieces justice. I think you need to have some space to properly present them (as they do at Vitra), while I am the proud owner of a mere one-bedroom apartment. And I get the feeling such pieces would clash with my other IKEA furniture.

Consequently, I didn’t buy any of their more affordable things at the museum’s shop either. Except for a book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Great book, even if you don’t plan on going to architecture school. And by the way, even though there is a Kindle version, you must get it in hardcover. I just don’t think you get the full experience in eBook form.

Living on the EDGE

I also took this as an opportunity to kind of take a hiatus from the internet, albeit an involuntary one. While the hotel does have Wi-Fi throughout the building, my room at the far end was about just out of reach. And, as is common in the countryside, there was of course no 3G. So I was left with EDGE. Felt like being thrown back to the days of dial-up.

Furthermore, I traveled with a really light load, gadget-wise. Of all my gadgets, I only brought my phone and my Kindle. And I have no regrets. In the past I probably would have brought my laptop, but there was really anything, I couldn’t do on my phone (well, except preparing this post and touching up the pictures you see here). Nonetheless, I have no regrets. Even if I would have had my Windows 8 tablet/convertible already, I don’t think I would have brought it. Traveling with just those two devices, is more than enough.

Going home

For the trip back home, I took the train, but instead of taking the fastest route, I took the more scenic one along the river Rhine. The area around the Loreley is just so lovely. It’s probably the most beautiful train route I know. As the river cuts through rock and tiny villages squeeze onto the space between the banks of the river and the rock walls. Below is one of those villages in a part where the valley widens a little (please excuse the poor quality, it was taken from a fast moving train with little time to focus let alone adjust any other settings).

When I came home, I noticed that my kitchen was closed (something I couldn’t recall doing before leaving), and one of my running shoes had been pulled out of the shoe rack. Seemed like a very strange thing for a burglar to do. Turns out it wasn’t a burglar: When I opened the kitchen door, my Roomba was sitting right behind it. It must have gotten hold of one of the shoe laces and then pulled the shoe down, afterwards closing the door behind it. Funny little fella.