Credit where credit is due, in other words. And today, I’d like to give a bit of attention to Microsoft and their recently unleashed Release Preview of Windows 8.
If you’ve heard things about Windows 8, they’ve likely been fairly polarized. As far as I’m concerned, that means that the engineers at Microsoft are doing something right, but in order to figure out what exactly it is that they’re doing right and what might have gone wrong along the way, I decided to pull out my old laptop and give it a chance — just like I did with the Consumer Preview not too long ago.
The Test Machine
My old laptop is both an ideal and disappointing way of testing Windows 8. The reason being that it’s an old Macbook Pro, pre unibody, that represents a baseline for the kind of performance and functionality that a huge portion of Microsoft’s audience will be working with. On the other hand, since it’s not a touch-screen device and doesn’t have the most sophisticated trackpad by today’s standards, I’m missing out on what we can call the ‘native’ Windows 8 experience. The intended one. Nevertheless, it makes for a solid platform to review from for the time being.
I’ve come to expect this from past experience with Microsoft installations, but getting Windows 8 up and running on this machine took a lot more effort than it should have.
After a blazingly fast download of the ISO image, I swiftly had it burned (via Disk Utility) to a DVD and ready to go. I quickly partitioned my hard-drive to accommodate the new operating system, and prepared to install. I would have used Boot Camp for the whole process, except that it kept giving me an error about the drivers being unavailable — seems that Apple has some bug fixing to do, as this error appears to have popped up for a lot of people recently.
Going the manual route was no problem though, and after partitioning via Disk Utility and slipping the DVD in, I re-started (with ‘C’ held down to boot from disk/external device) and got ready. This is how the cycle of failure began. Rather than bring up the installer, I was greeted by another error asking which of two perfectly blank options I wanted to use for my CD boot. Trusting in serendipity, I was happy to choose blindly and see what happened, except that the prompt would not accept keyboard input, either from the laptop’s built-in keyboard nor a USB keyboard I connected. So much for that idea.
Trying again, I rebooted and held down ‘Option’ instead during boot, to bring up the list of possible boot devices. This time I understood what the prompt from before meant: beside my Macintosh HD, I had two different disk options, both apparently from the DVD. One simply said ‘Windows’, and the other ‘EFI Boot’. Without digging into the technical details of what the distinction is, I chose ‘Windows’ this time around and was happy to see the familiar ‘Loading Files’ progress bar that Windows displays while it copies installer data off the disk to prepare for installation.
Then the screen went blank.
Acknowledging that it’s not the fastest laptop in the world, I was happy to give it a few minutes. After twenty, I realized it was a lost cause and had to hard-reset the device to emerge from the blank (but not black) screen hang. When the same thing happened upon retrying, I decided I needed a new approach.
To cut a long story short, the next option — a bootable USB key — did not work either, as the machine wouldn’t even recognize the key as bootable, despite having been created on a separate Windows machine using their own tool for the job.
Eventually, I managed to get Windows 8 installed on the laptop by first installing Windows 7 and then going from there. Then, because the Boot Camp drivers from before were missing, I had to dig up my old Snow Leopard DVD and slide that in to install some old version of the drivers, which then updated themselves to the new version.
Now, being a techy sort of person, this whole process was a hassle, but a fairly simple and predictable one to navigate. But if I had been a layperson with an interest in trying Windows 8, I don’t think I could be blamed for being frustrated and disappointed by the hoops one needs to jump through to make this all work. I would argue that making it dead simple for Mac users — the competition — should have been a priority for Microsoft, so that they could perhaps get a few converts or dual-boot users from the experience. As it is, they’re not there yet.
The polarizing element of Windows 8 has been the introduction of the Metro UI scheme to a desktop operating system. We’ve been seeing the roots of Metro since the early days of the Zune (which, by the way, I chose over the iPod way back when — and I still have it!), and now that Microsoft has refined it, they’ve unleashed it across their entire product line.
It is certainly a paradigm shift from the traditional desktop-oriented design of previous versions, but it’s one that I don’t fault them for. What they have created, or at least endeavoured to create, is a unified aesthetic and user experience between their entire suite of products. Whether I’m using a Windows Phone (anyone want to get me a Lumia 900?), my Xbox 360, or this laptop with Windows 8, the interface remains familiar and consistent — something that Windows has handily one-upped Apple at. Granted, OSX Mountain Lion seems to be pushing toward a unification of the iOS and OSX worlds, but the pace is slower.
So in a broad sense, I think Metro is a good thing. Not only that, but I truly love the aesthetic. It’s clean, typographically oriented, and unique. The notion of Live Tiles over basic icons is solid; it offers developers a chance to give users information faster and at a glance, without requiring them to open the app. This is speedy and securely demonstrates Microsoft’s priority for minimizing the number of steps it takes to accomplish the things you want to do. Apple’s iOS icons may be beautiful, but since their only feedback method is a small counter, they’re inherently limited in how much at-a-glance value they can offer. Unless iOS 6 addresses this, it will remain a strong point in Microsoft’s favour.
In a touch-enabled world, the larger tiles also make it easier to tap the app you’re after, even if it means less room for many apps on one screen. To some extent, Metro is also very customizable. Beyond the basics of colour, you can pin and unpin Metro applications to keep them arranged in whatever way makes the most sense for your workflow. This is great, but the more important kinds of customization — the invisible ones we take for granted in the old desktop paradigm — have suffered. Having multiple apps open on the screen, for instance, becomes a challenge. Resizing windows freely isn’t what it used to be. For the vast majority of users, that really isn’t a problem, and Microsoft is quick to cite statistics regarding how the majority of their users didn’t actually use the Start menu or have more than two concurrent windows open very often. Meanwhile, the world’s Windows-based web designers and others who are constantly looking at 4 or 5 different apps will find themselves frustrated.
And unfortunately, though for different reasons, they won’t be the only ones…
The tone of praise falters after spending some time navigating the environment, because a number of poor UX choices have resulted in an awkward and unintuitive interaction scheme. For one thing, at least on my Macbook Pro, the scrolling is jerky and unpleasant. If it wasn’t for the fact that everything runs very quickly and smoothly, I might have attributed it to the computer being underpowered to run Windows 8, but that’s not the case. Scrolling just sucks. Especially horizontal scrolling through Metro’s wide apps, which always seemed to result in me either not moving at all or accidentally catapulting myself from one end to the other with no precision.
But let’s blame poor Boot Camp driver support for that and move onto the more fundamental issues with the way Windows 8 presents itself.
The first problem, which manifests in a few different areas, is the utter lack of indicators for the operating system’s functionality. It fundamentally fails to teach you anything about how to use its features. Did you know, for instance, that there’s now an instant, system-wide Spotlight-like search? I didn’t, initially. There is no search field, no small icon like in OSX, and no instructions whatsoever to clue you in to the fact that simply typing while looking at the Start screen will automatically search for the term you type. Is it sleek and quick? Absolutely. Is it intuitive or at least immediately comprehensible? Not at all. At this point, I suspect most people will be discovering it because someone mentioned it in an article or forum post, or they’ve found it accidentally. That’s not the way it should work.
Then there are the hot corners. Essentially active areas of the screen that perform functions when you mouse over to them, these corners are useful but are, again, not explained or obvious to a newcomer. All it would take is a brief glow to the corners when you first boot up to at least indicate that there’s something there worth poking at. The bottom left corner, where the Start Menu used to live, will now allow you to access the Metro Start panel. Since this is basically just a Start Menu replacement, that’s intuitive enough and I have no issues with it, especially since hitting the Windows key on your keyboard (or actually the Apple key in my case) will do the same thing.
Well…sometimes. I’m actually not certain what exactly that key is meant to do; initially I thought it always brought you between the Metro Start panel and the Desktop environment, but it actually seems to just flip you back and forth between the last two places you’ve been, though that didn’t consistently work for me. Either way, it’s unclear and odd that they’d opt to eschew the key’s obvious functionality in favour of making it an Alt-Tab style app switcher instead.
Which brings me to the app switcher itself. If you hover in that bottom left corner and then kind of wiggle upwards, most of the time you’ll manage to activate the app switcher. Ok, I can live with it. But why does it not actually reflect all the apps that are open? The only things that show up are Metro apps. Anything you’re running from the desktop environment is invisible. I understand the desire to encourage Metro usage, but until there’s an app for everything, it’s going to be a mighty pain in the ass to have to switch between, say, Metro Mail and a desktop writing app and the desktop IE. So much for the shortest possible distance between you and your tasks. The way that they’ve segregated the two environments is painfully lacking in unification and is unnecessary — their expertise could easily have created a more balanced interaction between the two.
Last in my list of highlights (there are many other small complaints) for unintuitive design choices is the right-click functionality in Metro apps. We’re pretty used to the right-click being a gesture that opens up a contextual menu that gives us access to certain common tasks that we’d like to perform. In Metro apps, you might be confused by the utter lack of on-screen buttons to actually do something until you realize that it’s the right-click that will slide out a top and bottom panel that contains all the features you’re probably looking for (creating a new event in the Calendar, etc.).
Um…why? If hot corners are okay, why not make the bottom panel slide out when you hover your mouse there? The answer, of course, is because Microsoft is trying to keep things touch-friendly. The problem is that they’re doing it at the expense of desktop functionality. Again, I’m a big fan of unification, but while it is admittedly tricky, it’s not so tricky that it can justifiably end up so imbalanced. On a more recent trackpad, certain drivers will activate gestures like sliding in from different sides which will bring up the Start Menu and the Charms menu (on the other side) — that’s great, but for those of us working on machines that don’t allow for it, the experience is seriously awkward. I’m not saying they should pander to the lowest common denominator, but they’re asking a gigantically diverse ecosystem of devices to adopt this new paradigm…and then designing it to be optimal only for only a tiny subset of that ecosystem. How does that encourage anything but frustration? Did they give a thought to everyone who can’t or is unwilling to blindly rush in and upgrade just for Windows 8? Would it not have made more sense to design a more system-agnostic operating system to build some trust first before forcing people’s hand and expecting them to follow? Where is the obvious upgrade incentive for Windows 7 users?
With all that said, I stand by my initial praise of the Metro UI and I am happy to embrace it, once it embraces its own potential and matures. For now, the accelerated push to adopt Metro has resulted in a Windows 8 that is splintered, unfriendly to many devices, and awkward for anyone outside its narrow Goldilocks Zone. The worst part being that it’s unnecessarily so — they could have avoided these problems with simple design decisions that kept the desktop and Metro feeling like they’re working together instead of against each other; decisions that would encourage us to see the best in both rather than sow the seeds of an internal battle between two sides of the same coin.
There are a lot of things I didn’t cover, like the Microsoft account sync functionality, the surprising variety of Metro apps that are available, etc. but until the bigger issues are solved, it will be difficult for anyone to truly appreciate the value of those features.
Windows 8 is shaping up to be a strange beast, and it will certainly be polarizing, but there is still time for Microsoft to correct some of the inconsistencies I mentioned above. If they do so, then it will be easier for people to adopt and love their new paradigm. It would only take a bit of time spent exploring to realize that, at its core, Windows 8 is great. It’s very very fast, rock solid, and is displaying glimmers of genius in the design of apps like Travel, which lets you research, plan, and book a trip all from within a single app. A unified experience done right.
Ironically, it seems that Apple is the one taking the patient approach to the inevitable unification of the desktop and mobile experience. Mountain Lion is introducing more iOS-like features, but it’s doing so in a way that doesn’t compromise the core identity of OSX. It’s a slow merge rather than a head-on collision. It is only over the course of the next few months — as we meet iOS 6, as Windows 8 and OSX Mountain Lion hit the market — that we’ll be able to appreciate which approach works better.
I can’t wait.