(Not Really What) Raph Recommends: Windows 8

Raph al Guul

Let me be clear right off the bat: Windows 8 does not surprise. If you have seen any of the demonstrations and countless advertisements, possibly even if you only saw a couple of pictures, chances are you already know what to expect from the new operating system Microsoft has spewed out recently. If you’re still wondering if you, as a student, might want to switch to Windows 8, let me fill you in on my impressions.

First of all, in case you did not know, all students at the University of Zurich are eligible for a free, professional license of the software (go here). This means, of course, that you can switch to Windows 8 for free. Sounds fairly affordable, doesn’t it? Obviously, that is what I did for testing purposes (for some reason, I got the German version of Windows 8 x64, so the screenshots below will be in German; sorry about that). Though, when I tried to upgrade my old Windows 7 to the new iteration, I was prompted with an interesting alert; due to compatibility issues, I first needed to remove some Bluetooth drivers to proceed. That was odd, considering that the particular machine I was running this setup on did not come with any sort of Bluetooth hardware. But I played along and went to uninstall the driver. Except that the driver did not exist, was not installed, and could thus not be removed. Admittedly, there would have been a bunch of options to deal with this problem, but let’s be honest, when you’re installing an operating system on a testing rig, arduous troubleshooting before the installation even started isn’t what you want to occupy yourself with. Thus, I involuntarily decided to go with a new installation. To be fair, this problem might have been as much that of Windows 7 as it was that of 8, but it still comes across as a bit of a bad start, doesn’t it?

Other than that, however, the installation went smoothly. It wasn’t quick, but it wasn’t excessively long, either. And most importantly, after I entered my license key, it did not prompt me for any sort of input again until the installation was done (remember some of the older versions of Windows that would start asking for your input half-way through the installation process?). Once it was, and the usual security and network configurations had been dealt with, I could finally get my hands on the actual system.

The new start menu

Disappointingly enough, Windows 8 insists on booting into its “new-and-improved” start menu instead of the familiar desktop setup. Now, if you have seen any of the pictures, you will know that this menu looks ugly as the place where people burn for all eternity. The large, excessively coloured squares remind me of a child’s playground and they make it blindingly obvious that this interface was designed for toys, namely tablets and touchscreens. Now, don’t get me wrong, as little as I am interested in using any of that, I think the new UI is actually well suited for a touchscreen device. But to base an entire operating system around that idea, that’s just an arrogant sales-pitch. And yes: Windows 8 is based around touchscreens (admittedly, this was clearly communicated by Microsoft).

The “Store”. It sells “Apps”. Remind you of anything?

Even if the app you get is free, you still need to have a Microsoft Account.

The good old desktop has now turned into an “app”. More specifically, Windows 8 has returned to the old days of Windows 3.1 and the original “file manager” (yes, remember that?). Unless you are on an actual touchscreen device, you will most likely find yourself switching to the desktop “app” every time you start your pc, which begs the question why the new, ugly, and impractical start menu is part of your new operating system, and, more to the point, why you cannot disable it. New designs are a tricky thing to pull off (I find that Apple’s OS X still uses the same UI as it did when I used to work a lot with its predecessors more than five years ago) and unless you can make it obvious that there is practical value to your changes, you’re likely to annoy a whole lot of customers. On a desktop pc, I can’t see said use in this gimmicky feature, unless I was using a touchscreen monitor, which isn’t something I am going to buy (also bear in mind that I don’t necessarily think that touching one’s screen on a regular basis is such a great idea; it’s the same reason why I don’t get the current iPad-mania). I thought I knew how much I liked the start menu in Windows 7, but boy did I learn to appreciate it once it was taken from me.

The new app-based Desktop can still be used in the old-fashioned way

A closer look at the new desktop, however, will provide some relief; functionality has been preserved for the most part. You can still use the explorer in the usual fashion, and install and use applications like you previously could (this has only been tested for selected software, of course). Admittedly, Windows 8 looks considerably worse than Windows 7; this might be due to the fact that the old Windows Aero was chucked in favour of improved performance. The new system may look awful, but at least it runs almost as smoothly as its predecessor (this could not be tested thoroughly, though, as I only used Windows 8 on an older machine for testing purposes; I wouldn’t dream of installing this on my main rig).

The new settings menu

Luckily, the old Control Panel can still be found in Windows 8

As a user who likes to tinker around with a system until it fits my needs, I am glad to report that most of the old options from the control panel can still be accessed and changed according to the power-user’s needs. Too bad you first have to figure out how to get there, though. And speaking of settings, here’s a concern that is rather common for new operating systems: unless you buy a newly assembled machine or you use the most generic hardware in the world, you will run into driver issues. I use an Intel GMA on-board graphics adapter, connected to a monitor via HDMI. While I admit that the monitor is a rather unusual model, there is absolutely no explanation why neither the monitor nor the graphics card are properly supported. Obviously, it’s particularly concerning if your visual output does not work properly, but there are actually more examples of such issues. I am sure that most of them will be fixed in a batch of updates or at least the first service pack, but until then, Windows 8 simply is of very limited use to me.

The praised cross-platform functionality that seemed to be a major selling point in the marketing campaign of Windows 8 turns out to be a simple attempt at getting people onto Microsoft’s Marketplace (and not unexpectedly so; pretty much all of the features that were advertised are already available in Windows 7, except that most people wouldn’t know how to find, let alone use them). As a slightly more experienced user, I could easily get all the cross-platform features I needed to watch the same film on several machines or continue work on a document that I started on a laptop earlier without the need to download any files. I did so the same way I would on Windows 7 and it would not require an account at Microsoft’s money-grubbing outlet. And best of all, this also works with machines that are not actually running Windows 8. Finally, the native integration of SkyDrive which, of course, also requires you to set up a Microsoft account does not impress me, either, as I wouldn’t even use that service if it offered unlimited storage space. However, if doing it the slightly more complicated way is not convenient enough for you, these new features might be exactly what you’d want.

In summary: Windows 8 is not horrible. It has some redundant and annoying features, but so did all of its predecessors; believe it or not, the customer doesn’t actually like change, even if it’s admirable innovation. The question is how long it takes you to get used to them, and, more importantly, if there is any reason to even try. Windows 8 offers nothing new to desktop pc users. The new UI caters to users of touchscreens, tablets, and phones; the cross-platform functionality will simply save you 2 minutes worth of time and knowledge but does not introduce any relevant new features. Windows 8 runs as smoothly as its predecessor, can do pretty much anything Windows 7 could do, and offers some convenience to the excessively lazy. It really depends on what you want to do with this OS; if you’re simply using it to work on your generic office software, to watch or edit films, and of course browse the internet, you will never have to switch to Windows 8 and I wouldn’t know why you’d want to. However, there are two groups of people who will eventually be forced to do so: programmers and gamers. If experience has taught us anything, new software and games will inevitably be released for Windows 8 only. If you are involved in developing software or if you are into video games, you might want to get your hands on a copy of the new operating system just so you can get used to it before you are forced to. Anybody else can just get Windows 7 for free, instead (go here).


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