Saturday, October 27, 2012

First Impressions: Windows 8 Pro

I'm not normally an early adopter, preferring to upgrade things after people have already eaten the beta. But Microsoft made all Windows 7 users a great offer by offering upgrades for $40.00 online, so I couldn't resist and upgraded my personal desktop to Windows 8, confident that I could deal with whatever usability snafus Microsoft could throw at me. After all, I consider EMACS a good user interface.

The purchase UI was terrible, not because it was difficult to fill out, but because Microsoft's servers were overloaded and rejected my attempts to buy the upgrade 4 times before I finally succeeded. Where's a decent monopoly when you need one?

The upgrade process was fairly straightforward. Burn the downloaded .ISO to DVD, and then run the setup file directly from inside Windows 7 (if you want a fresh start, reboot and boot from DVD). The upgrade assistant does a good job of telling you what will or will not work on your upgrade, and which tools you'd have to reinstall. It even reminded me to deauthorize my iTunes account and reauthorize it when the machine refreshed.

People with SSDs will tell you that the upgrade takes all of 18 minutes. I have a hybrid SSD, which is of no help whatsoever when it comes to OS upgrade, so I started it off and had lunch and came back to find the setup screen waiting for me.

There are several nice features waiting for you in Metro. Unfortunately, I could not use most of them because I discovered that if I linked my Windows account to my Windows Live account (which is the way Microsoft intended to use it), then my mapped network drive to Windows Home Server stopped working. Doh! Fortunately, I don't really care about sharing from the new suite of Metro Apps, so I cheerfully reverted back to my local Windows setup and my mapped network drive all worked.

The strongest point of Windows has always been backwards compatibility. Even so, a few things didn't work. I ended up uninstalling ATI's Catalyst software for managing the screens. This is not a problem, because Windows actually manages all that without issues. I had a few horrifying moments when I thought that SleepyHead stopped working. I would have happily uninstalled Windows 8 Pro and reverted to Windows 7 if this was permanent. But after swapping around some display settings and turning on the Windows 7 compatibility checkbox, SleepyHead was working, perhaps even better than usual because it stopped trying to foist those annoying updates at me.

In fact, one thing that I've noticed is that my monitors now enter sleep mode and resume from sleep mode with a stability that Windows 7 never had. It could simply be that I should have uninstalled ATI's Catalyst a long time ago, rather than using it.

The coolest thing about Windows 8 Pro? The new performance monitor. Not only does it tell me what it used to tell me, it also gives me what GHz rating I'm running at, whether TurboBoost was working, and it just looked cleaner. Nice.

Windows Home Server recognized Windows 8 (despite predating it by almost a decade), and proceeded to backup my machine just fine. That's pretty nice. I do miss the old start menu, but learning to hit the Windows Key to bring up the Metro UI didn't take much. I played around with some apps on the new UI, and to be honest, I'm not sure why I'd want a tablet-style interface on my desktop. It's just too annoying to only have one thing on screen at a time. Nevertheless, if you have 2 monitors, you can designate one for the new UI, and have the other for real work. So that doesn't suck at all. Windows-PageUp and Windows-PageDown also lets you flip the Metro UI from one window to another dynamically, and it's pretty snappy. The new Mail/Calendar app are pretty worthless, since as far as I can tell, it's not faster than Thunderbird or any other mail client, and seems more limited. The news reader apps are beautiful, but again, do I really want to use my beautiful 27" screen to host one story at a time, or would I rather have my tabbed interface on Chrome and flip between multiple stories? No contest, the traditional UI won. It is nice, however, to have games running in full screen, and some of those Metro-style games are pretty fun even with a mouse. Also, it's nice to have Google Search with voice recognition, the way it works on my tablet. Google should have integrated that into Chrome ages ago, rather than waiting for Microsoft to force them into it. The Metro Kindle App is also a thnig of beauty. But again, I didn't buy a 27" monitor to use it as a book reader.

Windows 8 was touted as having high performance boot.I tested several reboots with a stop watch, and discovered to my horror and disappointment that boot speed was abysmal, 1:45s for a machine that used to take 1:00. I re-read the linked blog post and discovered that I was doing it wrong: hitting the restart button would cause a cold shutdown and cold boot. However, a standard shutdown forward by a boot would yield much faster results, 0:45s to a usable desktop, or about half the time, which is quite a bit of a performance gain. Do this a few time so the hybrid SSD would learn the OS usage pattern, and I'd expect the boot performance to be even better.

Do I recommend Windows 8? It depends. To me, it feels like the new OS is just a bit snappier on certain tasks --- flipping between applications seem just faster. IWhat I like is the new increased stability of sleep mode for me. Sleep didn't use to be so fast and reliable. I like the faster boot speed as well. I do miss the old start button UI, but I haven't found adapting to the new UI to be onerous or horribly confusing. It's a bit jarring though: you do feel like you're flipping modes.

All in all, for $40, I feel like it's a decent deal. I wouldn't pay full price for the upgrade, especially if you don't have touch on your desktop. I wouldn't go out of my way to do an upgrade (I did, but I was also curious about the new UI), but it's nothing to run away from either. I certainly don't see it as the disaster some pundits have been saying. Mildly recommended.
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