Windows 8 Initial Impressions

Disclaimer: this post is about the Release Preview, which is not a final version.

The Windows 8 Release Preview just went public earlier today and I decided to give it a go.

Initial Impressions - The Bad
  • The Metro Start screen and old at first. It's very high-contrast and very minimalistic. Everything is a bright colored rectangle, with sharp edges and zero chrome. It gives the appearance of a cheap mock-up interface.
  • Getting to the desktop, the first thing that stands out is the missing Start button. Having been there in the bottom-left of the screen constantly for the last 15 years, it feels like a missing appendage. The pinned task-bar item that takes  its place feels like an intruder. This icon happens to be Internet Explorer by default, which I quickly replaced with Chrome (and hence the impulse to click the missing start button now drives me towards Google services, how's that for irony MS?) 
  • Moving the mouse pointer all the way to the bottom-left triggers an invisible tile to appear that represents the new Metro menu. This also looks odd and cheap. It has no boarders or chrome or anything. Just looks like someone cut out a picture and pasted it over your desktop in MS Paint. You can click the mouse at this point to be taken to the Metro menu, but only if you don't move the cursor, i.e. the tile only appears when your cursor is off-screen, if you try to actually move the cursor over the tile to click it like an icon, it disappears and you'll instead launch whatever icon is underneath. 
  • Figuring out how to Power Off the machine was an interesting exercise. Couldn't find anything in the default Metro menu. Did a search in Metro and that didn't turn up with anything either. Went back to the desktop and started scratching my head. Than someone told me that if you move the mouse to the top-right corner of your screen, then move it downwards, this will show a new hidden menu. Then if you click on Settings in this Menu, you'll then get an option for Power Off... like duh, isn't it obvious?
  • Searching in the Metro start menu is a chore. It works similarly to Windows 7, so you can just tap the WinKey on the keyboard and start typing. But it now splits results into 3 categories: Apps, Settings and Files. By default it only shows apps that match your search term. You you're looking for a setting, you have to move the mouse and click on the Setting group. This is stupid. They should show results from all 3 categories, especially if there are no hits for Apps. Moving the mouse to click on something is a big step back. 
    • You can however hit WinKey+W as a keyboard shortcut to start searching directly for Settings, or WinKey+F to search for files, so I suppose this is a reasonable workaround. However, it adds to cognitive load. Now instead of just hitting WinKey and searching for what I'm looking for, I need to use brain-power to categorize it as an App or Setting, then recall the shortcut for that. It's easy, but it interrupts flow.
  • Getting out of the Metro search results is also a chore, you need to hit the Esc key 3 times.
  • Double-clicking on a PDF or Image will now launch a full-screen Metro viewer, with no buttons or controls whatsoever. This is bad on multiple levels:
    • To close this Metro viewer you have to hit Alt+F4, which takes you to Metro menu, then you hit Esc to go back to wherever you were in the desktop (You can also do a mouse drag gesture to close Metro apps, but that's even less appealing).
    • The PDF viewer has no cursor, you cannot select any text or do anything, you just look at the pretty picture.
    • The full-screen app takes you away from the desktop, which makes you loose sight of where you were. It's like being in a supermarket, blinking, and then realizing you're in a cinema. It causes slight confusion. The desktop metaphor works because you always know where you are, it's always the same workspace, you just move things around the workspace. This Metro metaphor breaks that. You're in your comfortable workspace, you double-click something, and who knows what'll happen, and what you have to do to get back.
    • Sure, you can re-configure all the default launchers to use different apps that are not Metro, but this is not average-user friendly.
  • There are bits of Metro that even invade the desktop. Try clicking on the Wireless networks icon in the system-tray. This pops up a quarter-screen Metro bar with the detected Networks on it. This overlay of Metro design on top of desktop just doesn't flow. It's two different design paradigms, and having them side-by-side looks odd. There are a number of instances of this in different parts of the system.
  • The Aero theme has been scaled down and simplified, likewise for many of the standard Window controls. Buttons, progressbars, etc are all flat now, with mostly sharp square edges and minimal to no boarder chrome. Most gradients are gone too. At first this seems like a big step back - it looks ugly. I understand why it's done though, to reduce the difference between Metro and the Desktop. Metro is the ultimate in flatness and dullness, so they had to dull down the Desktop a bit too. The new Windows skin basically looks like an amateurish Gnome third-party theme in Linux.
Initial Impressions - The Good
  • So far the system seems very snappy
  • The new Task Manager is AWESOME! Very easy to read interface, with more key stats. Namely CPU and Memory usage is now joined by Disk and Network usage on the main Processes tab, making it easier than ever to identify disk-thrashing processes. The color-coding also makes heavy processes pop-out. The Performance tab now provides a nice collection of stats and charts grouped by cpu, mempry, disks, wifi and other networks. I love this new task manger!

  • Likewise the new Explorer file copy dialog is niceness. Provides a cool graph that shows the copy speed over time, and also gives you the option to pause. Maybe I'm just a sucker for performance stats and nice charts, but awesome!
  • The minimalistic; desktop interface (flat textures, no gradients, etc) kinda grows on you. After a while it just sort of disappears and you stop noticing it, instead you only see the data or information that you're after. When you go to a web-pageor other app that's heavy on gradients and curves, it kinda really sticks out now (and not really in a good way). So I guess the new interface is boring and lack-luster, but perhaps more effective.

In Summary 
Windows 8 is a mixed bag. The Metro integration I think is poor and causes confusion. The system feels less user friendly and less discover-able. To make the most of it, you need to learn about hidden mouse cursor hot spots, hidden gestures and keyboard shortcuts. You also need to learn how the heck to get out of Metro apps, and need to keep a more active mental model of the whole thing as things often disappear and get hidden, and you need to know how to get back to them. This is why the desktop metaphor has worked so well, because things get minimized and moved around, but you always know how to get back to an application. With Metro however, things disappear into the void, or take up your whole screen, or continue running somewhere in the background...I don't really know.

I can understand why Microsoft is doing this. They want to expose people to Metro, by forcing it upon them. This way people become familiar with it, so when they see a Metro phone, or Metro tablet, or Metro x-Box etc, it will feel familiar. Familiarity then translates into sales. It's how all marketing works. In the long term, this is a good vision - a common design language across all platforms, perfect unification of devices, and so on...

In the short term however, I think Windows 8 will be severely hurt by Metro. There will be a lot of resistance, and a lot of unwillingness to change. I also think a lot of people, and probably most enterprises, will stick to Windows 7, which works great as a desktop OS. Why change if it isn't broken?

Windows 8 is an experiment, and a tool for transition. As such it will not be received well. Most change never is. It will be interesting to see if the gamble pays off in the long term though, i.e. Windows tablet and mobile sales in say 2015.


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