Windows 8 – A Pleasant Surprise

There has been a lot of fuss about Windows 8 over the year since its release, and I’ve heard a lot of harsh criticism regarding it. Normally I wouldn’t feel any need to defend Microsoft, but I’ve been running Windows 8 for a while on my home desktop and wanted to chime in with my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience. I honestly feel like it’s a good improvement over Windows 7. It feels cleaner and more responsive. Moreover, I feel like most of the UI criticism is based on ignorance or incompetence. Read on for my full thoughts and suggestions.

First of all, the largest myth about Windows 8 is that you HAVE to use the new tile-based Metro interface. This is simply not true. You don’t even have to create a Windows store account; when it asks you to connect an account, just choose the “local account” option and it bypasses that nonsense completely. Then, just remove the default tiles on the start menu and it’s all gone. You can bring up the desktop and use all your favorite applications. Occasionally you’ll need to tell the OS to use your programs instead of the built-in “apps” (e.g., use FoxIt instead of the built-in PDF viewer) but in my experience that process has always been quick and easy. In any case, the new interface (even minus Metro) is clean and responsive. Not quite as gorgeous as Mac OS X, in my opinion, but it works and it’s not an eyesore like some previous versions of Windows.

Second, I don’t understand the fuss about the new Start screen. It’s just a start menu with larger icons, and it’s a whole lot easier to organize. If something you want is missing, just right-click and choose “All Apps”, then go find what you want, right-click it, and pin it to the start screen. You can even pin files to the screen. You can also just search for what you want. Honestly, pressing the Windows key and typing the first few letters of the program I want to launch feels very reminiscent of Quicksilver on a Mac, and Windows-F is like the Apple-Space combo for Spotlight. It feels very comfortable and responsive.

Third, the task manager is so much better now. You can sort by disk and network usage now, and it does a better job of aggregating by program. The graphs are prettier and the stats are better. Also, there’s now a Services tab so you don’t have to go slogging through the admin interface to track your system services.

Fourth, game performance seems unaffected or improved. I heard complaints about game performance on Windows 8, but my own experience is that games worked just as fine as they did under Windows 7. I also noticed a speedup in at least one instance; in fact, I was able to increase my screen resolution in Terraria because performance improved so much.

It’s not perfect, obviously. Every time Microsoft re-organizes the interface it takes a while to find things again. I have found the Windows-X combo to be very useful for getting to admin options quickly, although Windows-W works pretty well too.

Another strange omission is the Windows XP virtual machine from Windows 7. I’m not entirely sure why this is not supported under Windows 8. I honestly don’t have anything I need to emulate XP for so it doesn’t matter to me, but I can see it being an issue for corporate users. I assume that third party solutions like VMWare or VirtualBox still work. I was able to get Ubuntu 12.04 running in VirtualBox with no problems.

There also seem to be some issues with the search indexer. This seems to be a widely-observed phenomenon, and I remember it being an issue all the way back with Vista as well. For a while, I had trouble with it slowing down my system, and the task manager seemed to indicate that the bottleneck was my hard drive. My interim solution was to disable the indexer, and the more long-term solution was to buy a newer, faster hard drive (which I needed anyway since my old one was over 7 years old). I don’t understand why it’s so hard to get hard drive indexing right; I’ve also experienced slowdowns on Mac OS X that I’ve been able to pin on Spotlight. I guess I figured that desktop search was a solved problem, but maybe it’s not.

Anyway, this is not intended to be a full review of Windows 8, but merely my own attempt to stem the tide of Windows 8 hate. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Obviously, if you value having an open or Unix-based platform, you should still avoid Windows. Otherwise, or if you want a gaming machine and aren’t satisfied with the options on Linux yet, Windows 8 seems like a solid choice. I certainly have few complaints.

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