It’s been almost four months since I took the plunge and blew away my Windows 7 system and replaced it with Windows 8. I can’t remember exactly why I did it, except that I figured it would be good to get some hands on experience. Having read about but not used any of the pre-release versions, I approached the new release with an open mind, especially since I’m a real fan of Windows 7 (compared to previous Windows releases and Ubuntu). Now I’ve been using the new OS for a while I thought I’d post some some thoughts on the experience of daily use over a sustained period, compared to say initial rantings after a just a few days.

For reference my PC is a one year old custom build with an Intel i7-2600k @3.4GHz, 16GB RAM, 120GB SSD system drive + 1TB SATAII main drive, nVidia GTX560Ti and initially two attached displays, now it has three.

Starting at the start, the first thing to note is the faster start-up time compared to Windows 7 booting from the same SSD. There is a noticeable difference between the two, and the improvement is not just skin deep. With older versions of Windows, even after the desktop was showing, there was often still stuff churning away in the background, hanging on to system resources and slowing things up if you actually wanted to start doing anything. My work laptop, running Windows 7 is awful for this – even after the desktop is showing I keep an eye on the hard drive light and wait for it to settle down before actually trying to use it. However, with Windows 8 it seems they have figured out a sensible balance and once the desktop is there, it’s usable.

This beings me on to the second major point, and it’s a big one. When I say ‘desktop’ I mean the old-style Windows desktop, not the new ’tiles’ based UI. I use Pokki to automatically start the old style desktop, and completely avoid the new UI. I rarely see it although it does pop up now and again. This is not some knee jerk reaction to the new UI because it’s all new and  unfamiliar, but a deliberate decision to keep my sanity and make my PC usable. I did persevere with the new UI for a couple of weeks before I gave up. Let me be specific about the issues.

Apps are not always best as full screen apps.

Take the Messenger client for example. Do I really need to use all 2550×1440 pixels on a 27″ display to display messenger for a single chat window? To display web pages? Skype? A music player?  The answer is no. Having to switch my full display every time I got an IM was ridiculous. It was a waste of my monitor. My monitor allows me to have two decent size web browser windows, or an editor and a web browser, open side by side, but not if I’m using the new UI, because each window has to be full screen. I know there is some weird way to get two apps sort of on one screen at once in the new UI, but it’s pointless since it’s not flexible enough to be of any use (and right now I can’t even remember how to do it). This brings me to another point on the new UI.

 It’s completely un-intuitive for mouse and keyboard users.

It’s clear it has been designed for a touch screen, handheld device and that mouse and keyboard interaction is an awkward compatibility measure. I had to look up how to ‘close’ an app. Seriously. I’ve been a Windows user since Windows 3.1, I’ve used OS/2, various flavours of X Windows based desktops and the Like, and more recently Android touch screen devices, and for me not to be able to figure out how to be able to close an app without Googling it was a huge shock. The answer is of course to ‘grab’ the screen at the top in the middle and ‘fling’ the window down (i.e. click and drag for mouse users). The new UI might work well on phones and tablets, by my desktop PC is neither, and has no touch screen, and is not likely to have one until they make fairly affordable 27″ high resolution touch screens at an affordable price

It doesn’t handle multiple displays sensibly.

There might have been one way that I could tolerate the new UI, and that was if it handled multiple screens in a sensible way. It doesn’t. If you have multiple displays, one display gets the new UI, the rest get ye olde style. If you switch to an app on an old style desktop, the new UI disappears, and  all your desktops are old style. I.e. you can’t (as far as I can work out) be working in an app on an old style desktop and have the new UI up on another Window. I literally just tried it – I brought up the new UI which materialised on my primary display, and clicked the window I’m writing this in and the new UI disappeared. So the new UI forces apps which don’t need to be full screen to be full screen, doesn’t allow you to expand the new UI to multiple displays in a sensible ways, and then forces horrible switching when you mix the old and new style.

This is turning into a bit of a rant about the new UI, but before I leave that subject there is just a little bit more. Two bits in fact. Firstly, a bit extra to the poor multi screen support. You can’t pin the new UI to a specific display, with the result that it pops up on random displays depending on where exactly you call it up from. I would have liked to pin it to a specific screen so I knew that it was always going to appear there, alas not. There is some logic to where it appears, but as a user I don’t want to be thinking about that every time I hit the windows key. It was immensely frustrating.  The final piece rounds my UI thoughts off nicely – it’s not finished. By this I mean that Windows forces you to go to the old interface for some tasks. For example, Explorer (the file manager) and anything more than basic settings, all force you to the old UI. It’s a curious mish-mash of old and new and frankly it’s an irritating, annoying mess.

Initial App Quality was poor.

The final nail in the coffin for the new UI as far as I was concerned was the quality and completeness of the apps, which I’m sure will improve over time. Suffice to say my initial experience was not good.  The Messenger app was an awful MSN Messenger client, and with the subsequent withdrawal from support of that in favour of Skype I can understand why they didn’t spend much time on it. That excuse aside, to provide a new app with less functionality and flexibility than the old was simply daft. In fairness the new Windows 8 Skype app was similarly rubbish when I tried it, so much so in that it couldn’t actually connect a video call. ‘Old Skype’ running from the ‘Old Desktop’ worked flawlessly.

The result…

I don’t use the new UI, and that makes a huge difference because the rest of the experience is actually pretty good. Now I have Pokki  installed the new UI doesn’t come up and none of the issues I’ve outlined have an impact in day to day work. Sure, the lack of Aero on the desktop means in my opinion it’s not quite as nice as Windows 7, but that’s no biggie.

Windows 8 feels snappy and quick. Apps do seem to start quickly and some of the minor tweaks are useful – like the option for extending the task bar to all desktops, and the ability to have task icons relating to apps on that desktop in that desktops task bar. I can’t get too excited over the new ribbon style controls in Explorer, I don’t dislike them, and have found some of the controls quite convenient. There are some nice tweaks to some of the stuff that’s useful to me – an improved task manager for example, and nothing that really jumps out as a must have feature, at least not that I visibly interact with.

I’d have to say that once you find a way to get shot of of the new UI, Windows 8 on the desktop is quite like Windows 7 but a little bit better. Not in any major this feature is the best thing ever way, but in the snappier performance, the faster start and the odd tweak. Would I recommend it for Windows 7 users? Probably not. For those coming from earlier versions of Windows – I’d say go with Windows 8. If you have the one display, then give the new UI a try, and if you find it’s not to your taste, use something like Pokki to banish and return to the good old days.