Juha Saarinen: The great Windows 8 adventure

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What's Windows 8 actually like? Photo / AP
What's Windows 8 actually like? Photo / AP

Microsoft's latest and greatest operating system for personal computers - and tablets - is out. It's pretty with the coloured tiles and a whole new Apple-inspired app store, and plenty of other things.

What's Windows 8 actually like though? Is it that different from Windows 7? Is it worth upgrading?

There's only one way to find out, and that's yours truly jumping in with both feet trying out Microsoft's latest and greatest operating system.

This should work...
First, I needed to set up Windows 8 on a computer. I tried out a preview version in March this year on a Samsung Slate touch-enabled tablet, and thought it was promising albeit unfinished.

Now, the ready-baked version is available for everyone to buy and I was curious how it would behave on a laptop that doesn't have a touch screen.

My guinea pig: a Dell Inspiron 15R. This is a newish desktop replacement-style laptop with a powerful processor, plenty of memory (8GB) and fast, hybrid storage. The screen is high-resolution at 1,920 by 1,200 pixels.

Windows 7 runs really well on it and even though the Inspiron is a little too big and heavy to be portable, should you do so, the battery lasts up to five hours.
What ultimately made me decide on using the Inspiron for Windows 8 was it has been tested by Dell and is listed as being upgradeable with no issues. It should be too as it's a typical PC design.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be not true. Upgrading from Windows 7 started well enough, with the Windows 8 adviser recommending that I remove some of the bundled software installed - Microsoft fondly calls them "craplets" - because they're not compatible.

Next the Windows 8 installer warned that some the drivers for some of the laptop devices weren't compatible with the new operating system. That's the code that operates them, and there were rather crucial devices listed like one of the graphics adapters.
This is where a sensible person stops but I wanted to see what would happen. After half an hour's worth of installation and restarts, the laptop got stuck in a loop and kept restarting.

After the upgrade failure, I did a clean installation of Windows 8 by wiping the disk and starting a fresh. After hunting around on the web for device drivers Windows 8 started up and most things worked.

It wasn't plan sailing though. Battery life was down to two hours, one of the graphics adapters didn't work and the touch pad kept locking up. I've never seen a touch pad crash, in fact. Removing the manufacturer's drivers for the touch pad fixed the lock-ups, but at the expense of functionality as Win8 doesn't enable all its features.
The good news is that over the next few weeks after installation, updates arrived for Windows 8 that have sorted out most of the problems. The touch pad is still not fully functional but the graphics adapter is and battery life has improved to three and a half hours. I'm hoping the rest of the issues will be taken care of after Windows 8's general release.

I have heard from many people who have installed Windows 8 without problems but based on my experience caution is advised; it can be finicky.

Lacking the touch
I've used Windows 8 on a daily basis now for about three weeks. It's stable, quick, looks great but it is true what you've heard: Windows 8 is very different to earlier Windows and will take a while to get used to.

The weirdest thing to get used is having two different interfaces - there's the Windows 8 one for tablets, with its live tiles that display information from the app they're connected to and the Desktop for traditional Windows style apps.

Moving between the two is as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen puts it, puzzling.

You could be working in a Desktop app but when you want to go to web page the Windows 8 full-screen Internet Explorer browser starts up. That's right, a number of applications in Windows 8 have two versions, one for tablet use and one Desktop version and they're behave differently.

Allen says that being able to stay in one mode instead of unexpectedly switching between the two is the way to go. I agree, and it's a shame Microsoft didn't provide better control of this behaviour.

You are also pushed to use the tiled Windows 8 interface as there is no longer a Start button in the Desktop. This is one of the hardest things to get used to.
The so-called hidden Charms that contain the controls for changing applications settings can also be tricky. They are invoked by poking either a mouse pointer or your finger at the edges and corners of the screen.

My laptop doesn't have a touch screen and moving the mouse from one end of the screen to the other for simple tasks grew tiresome quickly.

Luckily, there's a way around this: keyboard shortcuts. Windows guru Paul Thurrott has a long list here and a shorter one for the main shortcuts here.

Until I learnt those, I felt lost in Windows 8 and frankly, wanted to throw the laptop out of the window a few times.

With Windows 7, I use a few keyboard shortcuts mainly for editing stuff and task switching. In Windows 8, your thumb is dancing on the Windows key all the time.
With the very plain interface in Desktop mode it feels at times like a throwback to the 90s. For the oldies in the audience, think Wordstar keyboard commands with a fancy interface.

Microsoft has some solutions available for the touch-screen challenged among us: I tried out a Touch Mouse which as the name implies is touch sensitive. You can glide your fingers across it for various Windows 8 functions like zooming in and out, invoking the right-hand side Charms and flicking between application windows.

The Touch Mouse is not as easy and intuitive as a touch screen however and for normal pointing around tasks, it's not as good and precise as standard mouse.

Is Windows 8 for you?
None of the above is insurmountable. I'm finding my way around Windows 8 much easier as I'm getting used to it and also appreciate the go-faster features.

What's really helped the transition from Windows 7 is a fix for the missing Start button. I tried the ClassicShell and ViStart8 add-ons, neither of which worked. Luckily, the oddly-named Pokki one's perfect, and comes with its own App Store too. The drawback to Pokki is that you don't visit the Windows 8 tile interface a great deal, meaning you lose some of the point of upgrading to the new operating system.

Security in Windows 8 has also received an overhaul and it should be much harder to break into than previous versions of Windows.

There is also the integration with Windows Phone 8, entertainment applications like Xbox SmartGlass and the whole Microsoft Marketplace for apps which is growing by the day.

Skype for Internet calls and SkyDrive for storage are also nice features.
Furthermore, unlike past versions of Windows, Microsoft has come to its senses and is charging for less for numero 8; $19.99 to $89.99 depending on the variant and conditions.

That's all good but for the time-poor hordes of worker drones who want things to just work, and the way they've come to expect them to work. It's just not worth it.

For that crowd Windows 8 is a productivity killer as it stands and Windows 7 is a better choice.

Which is I suspect how Microsoft planned it to kill the ailing Windows XP once and for all.

- NZ Herald

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