Windows 8 After a Month of Usage

It has been exactly one month now since I got Windows 8 (at least it had been when I started writing this post). Pretty much everything I said in that article about my first impressions holds true after a month of using Windows 8 as my primary operating system. There are a couple of things, though, I would like to review here.

Start Screen After A Month

Metro apps

The Metro apps that came with Windows or are available in the app store have been a mixed bag for me personally. There are a couple that I really like and that work really well even on my 27” monitor. For instance the New York Times app (see also this review by Engadget). It’s a much better experience than their RSS feed or website, because its layout is much closer to a real newspaper.

Then there is MetroTwit which is from what I can tell the only Twitter app in the store. Interestingly enough, it is not among the 23 search results for the term “Twitter” in the German app store as of this writing. If, however, you manage to get the app, you are greeted by a beautiful looking user interface. Unfortunately, its very basic features are full of bugs. Even if there isn’t an official Twitter app, I would have expected Microsoft to at least make sure the one they have is decent. T´his is disappointing. I guess they want you to post form the People app, which I haven’t tried yet.

I have also downloaded a couple of other apps like Easy Alarm, which is straight forward, easy to use and does what it promises. Perfect. I also have the Skype app which looks great as well. Since it is missing a number of features compared to the desktop version (most importantly the distinction between available, away, do not disturb, invisible and offline states), I stick with the latter for now.

I have also played all of Microsoft’s free Xbox LIVE games for Windows 8. Most of them are great, a giant improvement over the kind of games that shipped with previous versions of Windows (most notably, because they offer free achievements; which is how I got lured into Xbox LIVE by Flowerz on Windows Phone 7 two years ago). Unfortunately, I couldn’t play Pinball FX2, because it wouldn’t render correctly. Taptiles was also too slow to play on my big screen, although it worked quite well when I switched to my laptop’s integrated 15” display.

Start Screen Madness

Initially, I was very frustrated when I tried to arrange the tiles on the Start Screen the same way I had arranged icons on my desktop for years. But the Start Screen doesn’t really work like that. You just determine the order in which tiles should be displayed and then they flow automatically. I found this strange and confusing at first, because I really wanted to have one tile at top and one tile at the bottom of a column but none in-between. This doesn’t work, though. However, when I switched from the 27” monitor to my 15” display, I noticed why it had to be that way: because the tile weren’t arranged in a static grid, they would flow to fill the available space while retaining their grouping. Makes sense.

Start Screen After A Month (15 inch)

Desktop

This is were I still spent most of my time. Here I have Outlook and thus all my personal information in one place as opposed to spread out over different apps. For mouse and keyboard users, it also offers the best way to use multiple apps either switching between or side-by-side. The side-by-side feature of the Metro environment just doesn’t cut it for me. It is more work to dock an app to one side (a mouse movement over half the screen versus WinKey+LeftArrow) and you are also limited to one narrow app and one main app. I realize this is a vast improvement for wide-screen tablet devices compared to the one-app-always-full-screen model of the iPad, but for a windowed environment, this is a major step back.

While I am generally a fan of the ribbon interface and I think more applications should be using it, I feel that Windows Explorer (or File Explorer as it seems to be called now), is a bit overwhelming with it’s ribbon. It’s nice that things such as “New folder” are more prominently available than in previous versions of Windows, but most of the other stuff is just clutter, in my opinion. Because of this clutter, important options (e.g. changing the view style) have been moved to other tabs in the ribbon, making them harder to use.

Worth the upgrade?

For someone like myself, who always want’s to have the latest stuff to see how it is, the upgrade was certainly worth it. Because it would it easier for me to manage their setup, I have also contemplated getting Windows 8 for my parents. I haven’t done it, though, because I think there are just too many details that are just a bit too inconsistent or confusing for the average user. The Metro environment and its integration with the rest of Windows is still very much a version 1.0 product in certain areas. It’s certainly not something an average user needs to run on their desktop.

Even though I don’t agree with everything he says, Jakob Nielsen’s analysis of Windows 8 usability is mostly correct with respect to novice or average users. I do think, though, that power users will be able to grasp the couple of new concepts that Windows 8 introduced (such as charms and gestures). What Jakob Nielsen calls “low information density” is something Microsoft definitely needs to refine. Sure, you want to have large, easy to hit controls for a perfect touch interface, but there should be a way to shrink that user interface – thus fitting more things on screen – so it makes more sense for use with a mouse as well. Maybe in Windows 9.

Conclusion

I think using Windows 8 on a traditional laptop doesn’t do it justice. Particularly on a machine as old as mine, that doesn’t have the graphics power to render many Metro apps smoothly. I really should be getting one of those touch laptops that Jeff Atwood is so excited about. Unfortunately, the Surface Pro won’t be available for another two months or so. Until then, however, I am content with using “Windows 7.5” a.k.a. the traditional desktop with the occasional Metro app.

The Desktop is just a lot more productive when you juggle a lot of things at the same time and/or want to see a lot of information at the same time on a large screen. And I think this is the major reason the desktop is going to be with us for some time. Also, there aren’t (yet?) any exciting Metro apps in the store. Sure, there are apparently 20 000 apps now in the store, but beyond those I have now (see above) I haven’t really seen interesting, high quality apps that were truly “killer apps”.

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