2012-02-29: Windows 8 Initial Impressions.

Like with Windows 7 and Vista before it, I spared no hesitation loading up my computer with Microsoft's latest creation, and over the last few hours I've been evaluating (playing with) it extensively. There are many things here to like, and some very notable improvments, but overall I find myself wondering: Should I have stuck with 7?

If you've read or seen anything about Win 8, you'll know what I'm talking about - this OS is all about metro. Unlike some, including myself, had initially hoped, there's just no escaping it. The start menu that's been around since Windows 95 is no more, replaced with a full screen metro tile layout, similar to that of the Xbox 360 or a Windows Phone 7 device. It's purpose has changed as well, no longer being a place primarily to quickly access programs and functions, but instead acting as a home for Windows 8's new "metro apps". These apps are, for all intents and purposes, identical to mobile "apps" we've all come accustomed to. They're tiny, one click install programs that hide behind an icon and reside in a market (or "store"). The new menu, although well designed enough to operate fully by mouse, ends up seeming a little clunky - on a touchscreen device I'm sure it'd be perfect, but mouse navigation is overall cumbersome and relatively unintuitive. For the first hour I found myself struggling to open menus, close apps, or run programs. I'd continuously open the start menu expecting a search box to type "msconfig" in, or a link to the control panel, but neither exist. The days of Windows+R have returned for me.

The metro start menu's also home to several new ui features, including a drag-and-drop task managing system (to it's left) and a row of icons for system functions (to it's right). The task managing system is great - if you're using a tablet. Simply slide your finger (or mouse) over to the left corners of the screen to reveal running apps, and drag them off the stack to close them - easy. However it just doesn't feel natural with a mouse, very much like the entire metro UI in general. On the right, icons including search, settings, devices, and share reside. Search is pretty self explanatory, encompassing specific apps or system wide targets. Settings reveals a menu much like that of a mobile device, listing what essentially amounts to shortcuts to options otherwise hidden within Windows' standard, desktop menu system packed into a pretty, touch friendly UI. Devices is interesting, providing a list of "things" connected to your computer you might want to perform actions with. For example, my menu lists my secondary monitor, and when clicked asks how I'd like to extend my desktop it. Handy, I suppose. The share icon isn't one I've fully figured out yet. It appears to provide an app-specific menu for sharing whatever content happens to be handled by that app. At the moment, most apps don't seem to support this.

While the start menu may be among the largest of the OS' substantial changes, it isn't the only one. The regular desktop UI we've all come to know and love has changed a bit as well. The Start Button's been kicked to the curb, replaced with a a corner hotspot that bring the metro task switching pane up, and a large button to open the metro start menu. Apps (metro apps) can now be pinned to either side of the screen, persistent through out both interfaces and taking up about 1/4th of the available real-estate. All Windows apps, including Explorer, now include Microsoft's famed ribbon toolbar, allowing quick (and touch friendly) access to the multitude of menu options previously hidden in drop-down lists. Personally, I don't dislike this addition - the uniformity it brings is welcome.

Another large change, and a personal favorite of mine, is the new task manager. For the first time since Windows 2000 they've modified it significantly, and it now provides detailed information about each process running including network usage, disk usage, and resource usage in a large, easy to see and understand manner. Processes are also grouped by type as well now, including Apps (all), Background Processes, and Windows Processes. Very nice. New tabs to the manager include App History, showing a list of your recently used programs and what resources they've been using over time, Startup, a list of all startup applications with a simple "enable/disable" selector next to them (this has been move here from MSConfig), and lastly Details, which is essentially the same as the previous task manager's "Processes" tab. It's functionality is essentially redundant with the new Processes tab, minus the extra information Processes provides.

In terms of performance, Windows 8 is no slouch. Despite it's seemingly heavier GUI, it's every bit as efficient and quick as Windows 7, if not more so. Applications load fast, idle memory usage barely tops 1gb, and boot times are excellent. Overall, no complaints here.

For a short synopsis my experience, I'd have to say my satisfaction is mixed. I like the speed of Windows 8, and some of it's new features, but I'd feel much more comfortable if metro would simply...go away. It's existence provides very little to a non-touch, desktop user like myself, and if anything it makes doing thing's we've come accustomed to more difficult. Don't get me wrong, I can see where Microsoft's going with this, and it's logical. In five years I'm sure nearly every new computing device will be equipped with a touch screen, making this new experience infinitely more enjoyable, and practical. For now, though, it feels forced and foreign.

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