Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Windows 8 - My First Pass: General Overview

I got my hands on Windows 8 two weeks ago and started playing around with it. Several folks have asked if I like it so here are my initial thoughts having used it for a week now.

My overall impression right now is that I don’t like it. I expect that to change as the OS matures but right now, it is driving me nuts. I’m only using it on a test machine that isn’t mission critical and for the time being can’t imagine putting it on any production machines. The only reason I may put it on my personal laptop would be to force myself to have to get used to it. Right now when it baffles me, I just go back to my Windows 7 machine and the world is right again.

One of the challenges to getting a new OS when the manufacturers do is that nothing is really ready for it. I’m running it on older Lenovo Thinkpads like a T60 and T400. Since Lenovo got the final OS at the same time I did there are no drivers or other specifics ready for my machines. Such drivers and custom programming won’t be readily available until much closer to the public release on October 26.

That also leaves the new Metro interface struggling for usefulness, as there are less than 500 apps for it. I’m sure the app number will grow but up until this point, only registered Microsoft developers were able to get their hands on trial versions of the unfinished software. Now that it’s done, more and more folks will start writing Metro style apps.

I decided my first install would be an in-place upgrade of a laptop running Windows 7 Enterprise to Window 8 Enterprise. This allowed me to keep all my programs, data, and settings.

I installed Windows 8 from a DVD I created from the ISO I downloaded from TechNet. The install took over an hour. This could either be due to the age of the laptop or the fact that it had a lot of stuff already on it. Either way it ran for over an hour before it finished. The install of Windows 8 was quick; it was the configuring that took a while.

During the upgrade process, it warned me of a few things that I should do. First, it stated that my ATI Catalyst graphics card was not compatible and it required that I uninstall the device driver and ATI software before it could continue. Therefore, I did. It also warned me that iTunes may not work and that I should deauthorize my computer in iTunes before continuing the install. I also did that, after the upgrade I ran iTunes, and it came up fine. I then authorized my computer again and all has been well with iTunes.

Next, in order to use the account personalization features of Window 8, including adding your Windows Live account and using any of the sync features, you must activate Windows 8. This proved to be difficult since I upgraded an existing copy of Windows 7, which already had a product key installed. When I went to check activation Windows 8 told me it was not activated and that the key could not be validated. It took me a while to figure out how to enter a new key. I expected a “Change your Key” here button but none was to be found. I ended up using the command line tool 'slmgr' to manually change my key. Once changed Windows 8 instantly activated and all the personalization features were immediately available.

My biggest complaint right now is navigating around without a Start Button. The functionality of the Start Button has been replaced by the Metro interface. It is difficult to explain the Metro interface and how it relates to your desktop. Metro is basically the primary shell for the OS and your desktop is now an app that runs from the Metro interface. From Metro you can launch any of your programs, any of the Metro designed apps (think touch apps) and your desktop. This gets confusing, as right now, there are so few apps written for the Metro UI so when you launch something like Word 2010 for example, it automatically opens your desktop up and you can toggle between Word and any other apps like normal. The one key difference is in the bottom left corner of your screen there is no Start Button.

In order to get used to finding things without a Start Button I’ve began to use more Windows key shortcuts to get around. For example, you used to be able to click the Start Button and then start typing to find anything. Now to do that you hit the Windows key, the Metro interface opens and then you can start typing. Your search results are then displayed in the Metro interface with Metro shortcuts, which for now seems a bit odd.

Apps that are native Metro apps, such as anything from the new App Store (Weather, MetroTwit, Messenger, etc.) can only be run from the Metro interface whereas you can add a shortcut to the Metro interface for any of your other apps. This makes running apps interesting as sometimes you have to go to Metro and sometimes you don’t. If have a shortcut on your desktop for a program then you can run it from your desktop. Otherwise, since there is no Start Button, you have to go back to the Metro interface and click the shortcut or search for it. I have added more shortcuts to my desktop (which remember is basically an app that runs inside Metro) so that I don’t have to leave it and go back to Metro so much.

Another little trick I learned was to put the Desktop app in the top left corner of the Metro interface as a large tile. When Windows 8 boots the Metro interface comes up by default. To get to my desktop all I have to do is hit enter since that opens the top left corner tile.

System settings have also been harder to find. Windows 8 has a charms menu that opens on the right side of the screen when you place your mouse in the upper right or lower rights corners. You can also get this to open by pressing Windows-C. From the charms menu you can access certain system settings, like power, shutdown, restart, personalization, etc. Other system settings like the Device Manager, Control Panel, etc. can be accessed by pressing Windows-X which opens a menu on the bottom left of your screen that contains the majority of system features. Alternatively, you can search for these by going back to Metro. Windows-X is like the old Start Menu but with only system functions and no graphics.

Putting the mouse in the upper left hand corner of the screen brings up all the tiles open from the Metro interface, moving your mouse down the menu shows a graphic of each one. These are only your open tiles. To see all running apps, including those on Metro and in your desktop you can still use ALT-TAB. Putting the mouse in the bottom left corner reveals a Metro start button, a cruel irony as it just takes you back to the Metro interface.

The Metro interface also creates confusion between apps that are normal desktop apps and apps that are Metro designed apps. The biggest problem here is Internet Explorer 10. By default, the IE tile (shortcut) that appears on the Metro opens the Metro version of IE 10, which is designed for a touchscreen device, making it very hard to use with a keyboard and mouse. The URL bar appears at the bottom and only when you right click. The tabs appear as images of the pages across the top when you right click and there are very few settings and configuration, again, this is made for touchscreen devices.

In order to run the traditional desktop version of IE 10 you have to open the desktop app from Metro and then run the IE shortcut from there. I find this to be very confusing and a horrible implementation of both tablet and desktop hardware into a single OS. There is a reason Apple has OS and iOS but I digress. So what if you want to the desktop version of IE10 from the Metro tile so you don’t have to go to the desktop each time you want to run IE10? Glad you asked. After a bit of research I found a small checkbox in IE settings that allows you to change the function of the tile from running the Metro version of IE to the desktop version. I checked that box and now when I run IE from the tile my desktop opens and runs the traditional IE 10.

If by now you are confused between the Metro interface and the desktop then my point has been made. Explaining this clearly isn’t easy so if it doesn’t make sense then you may just have to wait until you get to play with it. I’m also a bit concerned as to how the average user I support at work will be able to handle this paradigm shift from the Start Button to Metro interface. Maybe by the time you get it most of these issues will be fixed. Doubtful, but we can always hope.

Ok, changing gears. I mentioned the lack of driver support earlier. Windows 8 is supposed to have drivers for just about everything. I found that it had drivers for all of my T400 hardware except for my switchable graphics. It found a driver for the Intel part of my graphics cards but it was unable to find a driver for the ATI Radeon HD card. It correctly identified the card but was unable to start the driver. As with most manufacturers who got Windows 8 when I did AMD (owns ATI) does not yet have a driver update. I also noticed that without the driver running properly my processor temps were rather high. I also had various artifacts all over the screen that made working difficult. I could clear them with a refresh but they came back often enough to be a hindrance to productivity.

To fix the heating problem I disabled switchable graphics in the BIOS and am only using integrated graphics. This removed the device from Device Manager and solved my overheating problems. It also resolved about 50% of my artifact issues. That has made using the computer much better however the screen is still a bit goofy and I’m using the latest Intel driver for Windows 8. To resolve these issues I’m probably going to have to wait for a dedicated driver either from Lenovo or from AMD for my Radeon HD card.

Another odd driver issue has to deal with the wireless network card. All ThinkPads have a wireless network indicator that flashes with activity. In Windows 8 the indicator does not flash, it is either on when the wireless radio is on or off if the wireless radio is off. It no longer blinks to indicate wireless activity. Incidentally though all of the other Lenovo ThinkPad features and drivers work, including all the FN keys.

I know this is a rather long post but you asked for my thoughts.

Let’s circle back to IE 10 for a bit. I don’t run it in Metro mode since I am not running Windows 8 on a touchscreen device. I’m waiting for this fall to see if any Windows 8 worthy hardware is released. A small part of me wonders if we should skip Windows 8 and wait for Windows 9 but I think that will be determined by the hardware that comes out and either makes or breaks the need and purpose of Metro.

I’ve found IE10 to not be very compatible with most of the sites I use. There seem to be a lot of basic functionality that is lacking that IE9 had. Everything from airline sites and seat maps to many social media sharing options on sites just don’t work. For a lot of sites I would click links and nothing would happen, no error message, no network activity, nothing. While all of my settings, shortcuts, and layouts came forward from IE9 to IE10, the lack of compatibility is a bit frustrating. Developers only have until Oct. 26 to fix their sites to work with IE10 or hope that Microsoft adjusts IE10 a bit to make it work better with sites that run fine in IE9.

For now, I find myself running Chrome a lot on my Windows 8 machines as everything works in Chrome while on my Windows 7 machines IE9 is still my preferred browser. I now there are a lot of issues with IE in general trying to adapt to standards but I can’t figure out why IE10 messes so much stuff up? It’s almost as though Microsoft wants Chrome to be the preferred browser of Windows 8. Of course, Chrome doesn’t run as a Metro app with a tile but for now, who cares.

Office 2010 works fine in Windows 8 but all the Office 2010 apps run in the desktop as none of them are tile compatible for the Metro interface. While the Metro interfaced does have a tile for Mail and Calendar, (both are compatible with all major email providers including Exchange) all of Office including Outlook run on the desktop from simple shortcuts on the Metro. Why you would want your Exchange mailbox and Hotmail in both Outlook and the Metro Mail app is beyond me but for now if you want to use the live tiles that’s the only way to do it. Rumor is Office 2013, which doesn’t even have a release date yet, will use the live tiles on Metro, and run in the Metro interface but who knows when we will get that? It also begs the question will Office turn into IE where you have a Metro version and a desktop version making it all the more fun?

The Task Manager in Windows 8 is much improved and shows a lot of useful information however another oddity of not having a Start Menu is there is no Start folder on the Start Menu. While the new Task Manager shows you what starts automatically via the registry it does not show you what starts from the Startup folder on the start menu. To find any programs starting this way you have to browse to the two Startup folders located in the user profile. To make this easier I pinned those locations to the File Explorer on the taskbar in my desktop. Clear as mud? By the way, File Explorer is the new name for the Windows Explorer in Windows 7.

One of the few companies that had an updated version of their software that works with Windows 8 is the VPN client we use at work. When I tried using the VPN client after the update I discovered that it didn’t work and had failures at both the hardware and software levels. Much to my surprise there was an update available that fixed the problem but I had to completely remove the old version of the client, reboot, and then install the new version. Regardless of the process, I’m glad it worked and am glad their latest update is Windows 8 compatible well ahead of the public release date. The downside is that in order to support Windows 8 on our corporate network we will have to make a firmware update to our VPN appliance to make the latest version available for our users to update.

Last, but not least, docking. I have a docking station for my laptop and it works fine. It even transfers the little artifacts on my laptop screen to my monitor connected to the docking station. Windows 8 found all the drivers for the docking station hardware, including the integrated storage device in the dock. The only issue was the undocking process. Windows 7 automatically provided an undock option on the Power menu. Windows 8 only provides Shutdown, Sleep, and Restart. This could be due to the lack of driver support from Lenovo but there is a workaround. First, I can push the undock button the docking station itself. This works fine and Windows 8 popped up a notice saying it was safe to undock my laptop. Second, using the Device Connections icon down by the clock I was able to Right Click and select Eject Docking Station with the same results.

So, after 2 weeks there’s my review. I’m glad I’m not running Windows 8 at work yet and only in a non-production environment at home. My next step will be to put Windows 8 on my laptop to force myself to get used to the navigation. In the meantime, I plan to make my old T400 laptop last through the fall to see what hardware is released. It would be ideal if an iPad style device would come out that runs Windows 8, is a touchscreen, and provides all the features of a laptop and iPad combined into a single device that I can dock at home and at work to my existing peripherals. It sounds like a dream but my understanding is that’s the goal of Windows 8 and only time will tell if that goal is made real.

As I have more experiences or learn new things, I’ll be sure to post them.

Thoughts? Comments? Ridicule?