It always feels like Christmas Eve when a new operating system glimmers over the horizon.
When the day finally dawns and we can all give the shiny new Windows a test drive round the park,we know the big day has finally arrived.
It felt much like that in 2001 when Windows XP was launched and I remember grabbing an XP trial CD at a computer fair and rushing home to see what all the fuss was about. Like many others, I was impressed. It had a touch of a Toys Я Us feel about it, with those chunky, cuddly icons and start button, but somehow we knew it was a big step up. XP was also very intuitive, logical and easy to find your way around. It made sense and it was the success it deserved to be.
Six years later, Windows Vista was released into the wild and many of us were able to download a preview and boy was it radically different to anything we’d seen before, except maybe if you already had a Mac. Although Vista has been widely slammed by many, it still retained the easy navigation of its predecessors, not to mention many fancy new features which were carried over to Windows 7 in 2009.
A New Dawn?
Many of us felt that Windows 7 had climbed the mountain, stuck its flag in the summit and conquered all before it.
But we were wrong; a new pretender was waiting to be crowned as the bastard Son of Seven, and prisoners, it would not take. Naturally, preview copies of Eight were available to all and it wasn’t long before questions were being asked in the house and the mud slinging began with a vengeance.
Back in August 2012 I installed Windows 8 Preview, played with it for a day or two and promptly dropped it like a nasty infection, hoping I’d never see it again.
First impressions count and, as many a salesman will tell you, people buy with their eyes and in the case of operating systems, also expect them to work out of the box with a few clicks of the mouse.
My first impression was one of annoyance. How dare they insist that I log on using a Microsoft account when I’ve only ever used a silly name and probably never even a password?
But what the heck, since I already had a Microsoft account, best to pop that in and see where it takes me.
Which wasn’t very far actually and on first sight, the new Start screen was a pretty place to be. Colourful and alive with plenty of shiny little boxes ready to press just like my smartphone, except moving my fingers around the screen wasn’t an option even though it begged me to.
So, being a hopeless fiddler and tweaker, my first port of call with a new operating system is usually to check out device manager and other system settings so we can see the lie of the land.
That was my first mistake, thinking that from here, I could go anywhere I liked with a couple of clicks.
Now, where’s the Start Menu? Oh, hang on, I think I’m already in it. Ah, there’s a tile that says DESKTOP, let’s click that and see if we can find MY COMPUTER….. and so it went on, until I irrevocably find my way back to the tiles and purely by accident, the bizarrely named CHARMS slidey menu pops out .
But enough of this whinging and bitching about how Windows 8 has forced us to do things differently. We’ve all experienced it and read the rants and raves all over the net, ad nauseum.
Let’s be friends
We computer users are nothing if not flexible, but we have our pet preferences and why not?
Look at the Mac brigade, many of whom wouldn’t touch a Windows PC if their lives depended on it. One could almost say the same of the Linux camp, but you could never say the same about the brethren of Windows followers, no sir!
You see, here in the Windows camp, we’re a cosmopolitan bunch. Many of us probably use an iPhone or Android device; we may have a MacBook Air decorating our living room and if we want to make the ultimate statement, we probably sport a Mac Pro in the entrance hall.
Most of us have probably tinkered with Linux, maybe Mac OS and certainly Android and Chrome. We like to tweak you see and if a chance presents itself to turn something on its head, we’re the first in the queue.
At heart of course, we believe that the ramparts of our Windows fortress cannot and should not be breached. Sure, we’re happy enough to hack away at the Leopard so it looses its spots, but if it looks like a Lion, has a Lion’s head and Lions’ paws, it certainly is a Lion.
But certain forces of nature should not be tampered with, which is the conclusion many customers have come to over the last two years, when they’ve asked if Windows 8 is a Lion or Leopard and decided that in fact, it is both.
Having recently installed Eight Point One on two systems in the last couple of months, it’s pretty clear that this Leopard has indeed changed its spots and not before time.
In its previous state, as a touch orientated OS with slidey menus and a tile orientated START screen, it was about as user friendly as a camel’s hump, which is why many of us dipped our toes in the water and never came back.
The fundamental shift for many was the difficulty in finding one’s way around the new OS. It seemed as if the most basic and let’s face it, sacred elements of our beloved Windows had been stripped away and replaced by children’s toys. More than a dozen times, I found myself muttering through clenched teeth ‘Where the heck is everything?’, only to happen upon the so called CHARMS pop-out purely by accident and thence through deft guesswork, figure out how to shut the machine down once and for all.
But here I am back again, some six months after the release of 8.1 and the experience is already night and day in comparison. I’m no longer fumbling around in the dark; a start button has magically reappeared; an app title bar now appears at the top of the screen when moused-over, allowing you to close the application, among other things, and you can now boot to the desktop.
Are we all happy bunnies now?
No we’re not; the various camps are still at loggerheads and the traditionalist, dyed-in-the-wool Windows pioneers, still feel betrayed and marginalised. An opinion shared by many is that Microsoft, in its steadfast march towards OS unification, has dumbed down Windows to the levels of Playskool buttons, whilst pandering to those who care little or nothing about what happens just below the surface and that’s just a taste of what’s written in numerous blogs and tech sites.
Without a shadow of doubt, the hottest topic on the block is the Start Menu or lack of it. Many have resorted to installing third party software such as Classic Shell and Start 8, which restore much of the traditional looks of our Start Menu of yesteryear. Many feel that Microsoft has let the side down and by installing third party software to restore the most widely used area of Windows and in many cases actually having to pay for it, is simply a step too far.
The counter argument is that the new Start Screen is the Start Menu, so if you simply can’t live without the old tree configuration, you’ll have to go third party OR wait for the rumoured return of Start Menu in further updates of Windows 8. This retort doesn’t satisfy many disgruntled users and to pour cold water over them, is neither helpful nor sympathetic and simply fuels the argument even further.
Some early deployers of Windows 8 have pulled up the drawbridge and decided that they simply can’t brook the wailing teeth-gnashers from the ramparts below and if they can’t get with the program, it’s time for them to consider that the march of progress will leave them in its wake. A rather high handed and smug attitude at the very least, I’m sure you will agree.
Stripped down, laid bare, dumbed down
The fact is, Microsoft stripped out many tasty features of Windows in order to speed it up and in that, they have succeeded; there’s no doubt that Windows 8 is fast, sleek and very responsive.
A prime example would be the Aero Glass feature, now completely removed from the code and a feature regarded by many as a trinket and resource hog.
But some other features, such as Sound Schemes, Windows Experience Index, desktop Games, desktop Gadgets, DVD playback for Media Player and the command bar in Windows Explorer to name a few features that many of us loved, only to find that Windows Fax and Scan and Paint have remained. When was the last time you sent a fax?
I’ve only touched the surface of all the features that have been removed from Windows 8, so if you’d like a more comprehensive list, take a look at a discussion at Microsoft’s Tech Net, but bear in mind that it contains many older entries.
So, in saying ‘Let them eat cake!‘, has Microsoft thrown the baby out with the bathwater?
No, Microsoft decided that you would bend to their will and accept their new world vision of OS unification and general dumbing down of all things Windows because their previous policy of spreading the butter on the toast in thick, luscious dollops, wasn’t looking good for shareholders, so better to dumb down and jump on the app band wagon, before it’s too late.
Where are we now?
There’s no doubt that Microsoft has listened to feedback from all quarters and is conscious of disgruntled users venting their wrath on the issues mentioned here, in particular the much discussed and pawed over, Start Menu.
I suppose we could argue the toss over what’s in, what’s out and what’s maybe coming back until the wee small hours, but the fact remains that, what’s important to you, the user, shouldn’t be ignored.
Moving from one operating system to another is no small task. It’s something you’re going to be living with day to day until the next upheaval and if the difference is too great between a desktop and a tablet, maybe now is an excellent time to enjoy the best of both worlds, sort of.
I have two machines running Windows 8.1 Update 1 (8.2 anybody?), one of which I’ve tweaked the hell out of, including the addition of Classic Shell, just so that I can use it in a similar way to Windows 7.
The other I’ve left completely vanilla, with no third party add-ons at all. Both have a dual boot set up to either 7 or 8 and I can flick between the two whenever I like.
So, you can have your cake and eat it too, in much the same way as you can snap between Desktop and Start in Windows 8 with just one click and if Apps aren’t your cup of tea, you’ll never have to use them.
Will I dump Windows 7 for Windows 8?
I’ll let you know in Part 2 of this mini-series, where I’ll make every effort NOT to mention the Start Menu.