Friday, November 23, 2012

Living with Windows 8 - A Report from the Front Lines

Unlike most new OS releases I was a bit slow to adopt Windows 8 as part of my daily work routine.  First, I wanted to have a touch-enabled machine so I could really get a feel for both the tablet and desktop experiences.  Second, I wanted to convert a large number of existing virtual machines to Hyper-V and I knew that process would be time consuming.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was happy with Windows 7.  I knew how it worked, understood the limitations, and was generally comfortable with all the ins and outs.

I finally took the plunge when the RTM bits became available. Surprisingly, the install on a Lenovo W520 notebook went quite well.  At the time there were very few native drivers from the manufacturer but the Beta ones worked well enough to get me going.

Once I was up and running, I dove right in and started using Windows 8 for daily work tasks.  I should probably mention that I wasn't really flying without a net - prior to installing the OS on a new SSD drive I did a Physical-to-Virtual conversion of my existing Windows 7 desktop AND preserved the original disk.  Just in case things didn't work out so well.  On the other hand, I wasn't just playing around in a throw-away virtual machine - I needed to be productive from hour one with all my core applications - Office, Hyper-V (for SharePoint VM's), Lync, Visual Studio, and so on. 

In addition to running Windows 8 on the ThinkPad, which is a hulking brute meant to serve as a desktop replacement, I also picked up a Lenovo Ideapad Yoga convertible tablet to get a flavor for the consumer features of the new OS.  I decided early on that Windows RT is just not for me - I don't need another device that can't run full versions of Office and other desktop software.  So I wasn't really interested in the Surface but I've been a tablet user since the 90's (no, Apple fans, Steve Jobs did not invent the tablet, no matter how much you'd like to think so; in fact, Microsoft has done more for touch computing than just about all other software companies combined) and a touch-enabled device, even if it is a bit larger than the modern consumer tablet, held a lot of appeal for me.

So how has it all worked out so far?  Read on for the pros and cons from my perspective.  Bear in mind, I'm coming at this from the viewpoint of a business user, developer, and Microsoft adherent.  Your mileage my vary.

PROS

Overall, Windows 8 seems fast and responsive.  This really doesn't come as much of a surprise as I run my core machine on top-of-the-line hardware with tons of RAM but even on the Ideapad Yoga, which is a Core i5 model, things just zip right along.  Applications pop right up and dialogs snap in and out like they should.  I've noticed a few minor areas that seem to have improved greatly, like the acquisition of wireless networks, printers and bluetooth devices, but that may be a subjective analysis. 

Surprisingly, all of my Windows 7 software seems to work without a hitch.  As one would expect, all the latest Microsoft applications run well, but so to, it appears, do all the legacy applications I have scattered about my hard drive.  I was expecting things like the control panel application for my NAS device, Logitech mouse and keyboard utilities, WinImage, Zune and so on to behave erratically but they are all humming along nicely. 

A welcome addition that adds a bit of efficiency to my day is the file explorer ribbon.  I've never been a big fan of the ribbon concept overall but in this context it works quite well.  Having the most common commands available at all times is helpful.  On the Yoga, when I'm in tablet mode, the ribbon is a huge boon - it saves a ton of time that would otherwise be spend pressing and holding to get a right-click menu.  And the ability to (finally!) mount ISO's natively is something we've needed since the dark days of Windows 95.

Personally, I'm counting the disappearance of Aero as a positive thing.  I was never a big fan of glassy buttons and all that shining chrome.  I'm not advocating the flat dullness of X-Windows or Mac OS but a return to a more-or-less 2D paradigm is just fine by me.  I need to find the Close button quickly not gaze in admiration as it glints in the afternoon sunlight.

Perhaps the best feature in Windows 8 if you live within the Microsoft ecosystem is the direct integration of the OS with all of the Microsoft services - Live, Messenger, SkyDrive, etc.  Being able to use a single login across multiple machines with a cohesive experience is good, maybe even great in its own right, but having direct integration with the Cloud is simply fantastic.  Although some sites and services require additional logins for the most part my Live ID follows me wherever I go.  This can be a bit too much of a good thing when I'm logging in and out of various Office 365 sites using different ID's to test various code deployments but overall it's a welcome addition.

The touch experience in tablet mode is quite good; better, in fact, than I was expecting.  This may be due in part to the excellent hardware and drivers Lenovo provides but the core UI elements also work very well in a touch-only scenario.  Swipes and gestures are smooth, tiles are responsive, menus fly in and can be easily dismissed.  Alas, this only goes as deep as the rather superficial Metro skin; once in Desktop mode the picture isn't quite as rosy.  Although the ribbon can be a big help there are still a ton of menus and selection items that display small text better suited to a pointy mouse arrow than a stubby index finger.  Take, for example, one of the most critical Windows components: Control Panel.  By default, all the options are shown in Category view, and the links are almost impossible to hit accurately using a finger or rounded stylus.  Switching to Large Icons view helps but then all the organization disappears.  It's quite apparent that Microsoft focused their efforts on touch-optimizing the Metro UI and left the desktop to pretty much fend for itself.

On a related note, the on-screen keyboard in Windows 8 is on par with the best Android keyboards and, in my opinion, far superior to the IOS offering.  The keys are big and well-positioned, especially in split-mode, and the number/symbol pad seems much more logical than the SHIFT+KEY combination on other keyboards.  For those like myself who still believe in pen-enabled input, the one-touch access to script and remarkable character recognition capabilities of the inking utility set Windows far above the competition.  This is one area where the long legacy of tablet support from Microsoft shines through and it makes a big difference for professionals who rely upon accurate script-to-text conversion in the field.

The biggest win for me with Windows 8 is native Hyper-V support.  For years those of us who need to run virtual machines on portable computers have been forced to either buy a competing product or install a server OS on hardware that it was never meant for.  It was always a bit embarrassing to be on stage at a Microsoft event running demonstrations of Microsoft products on a competitor's virtualization platform.  Finally, they got the message and gave us a proper client virtualization environment.  I realize this doesn't mean much to the vast majority of Windows users but it's a huge win for a small but very visible portion of the technical community.  It's not perfect, mind you - we still don't have folder sharing or direct USB support - but definitely a big step in the right direction.

CONS

Microsoft had a hard task in front of them - create a new OS to serve the exploding consumer tablet market without sacrificing features or functionality for their core enterprise customers.  It's too soon to draw any definite conclusions on the consumer front but based on my own experience using the Ideapad Yoga in tablet mode they seem to have finally figured this one out, successfully transferring the lessons learned from Windows Phone to a larger device format.  Unfortunately, they may have done so at the expense of their core user base who rely upon Windows to accomplish their day to day tasks. 

Nowhere is this more evident than when you first switch from the Start page to the desktop.  Getting rid of the Start menu was, in my opinion, the wrong move.  Same for the inability to natively boot right to the desktop.  I get what they are trying to do here and from a consumer perspective it makes sense.  Consumers have all the time in the world to play around with cutesy "charms" and full-screen apps but in the workplace time is money; the lack of a Start button, and all the associated functions we've come to expect over the last 15 years, makes it feel like there are a few extra steps involved for every task.

Pressing the Windows key and typing to find the application I'm looking for is just not an effective replacement for Start > All Programs.  It sounds more efficient, and in some cases it actually is, but that's not how millions of users work.  We like our program folders, our shortcuts to most used programs, and quick access to our libraries.  Not to mention the power and search options all being together in one place.  Turns out, the Start menu was actually a good thing - and the quickest way to stifle adoption is to get rid of what was working just fine and replace it with something that requires users to learn a new way of doing things.

Speaking of impediments to user adoption, the lack of proper menus now forces all of us to memorize a whole raft of new keyboard shortcuts.  Not one or two, mind you, but at least a dozen or more.  I already have enough to do - I can't be asked to make extra room in my mental hard drive for Win + D, Win + I or, at the extreme end of ridiculous, Win + . (period).  And no, Win + X absolutely does NOT serve as an effective replacement for Start menu shortcuts.  I don't want to leave my desktop to search in some full-screen app.  The old way of just typing into the search box and getting in-place results was more efficient, especially as I didn't have to Alt + F4 or Win + D to get back to where I was.

As mentioned above I really like the native integration between local and cloud accounts but there are some rough edges.  For instance, when I changed the password of my Live account it refused to sync with the login account on either of my computers, forcing me to use the old password to login and the new password for SkyDrive, Messenger, etc.  In the end I had to switch back to a local account, logout, login with the new account, then switch to my Microsoft account, then repeat the process again on my second machine.  It really shouldn't be that difficult.

There are lots of other small areas that also need some improvement.  The side-scrolling when using a mouse seems to be quite random.  On the Start page it works just fine - move the mouse all the over to the right and the page scrolls accordingly.  But try the same thing in the People or Music apps and nothing happens.  That's downright frustrating.  Mouse scrolling seems to work in this case but the using the scroll gesture on a trackpad takes more effort than just moving the pointer to the edge of the screen.  

On the browser front, IE 10 is fast and looks good - no question about that.  But, like so many versions before it, things just don't seem to work quite right.  As soon as I fired it up I noticed that the CSS on my home page wasn't displayed correctly.  It looked fine in all other browsers and in previous versions of IE all the way down to 7 but page elements were all out of whack in 10.  I'm not alone here - after using it for a while I've noticed many web pages that don't render the way they should.  And then I discovered, as many others have, that dialog buttons in all my SharePoint 2010 pages failed to fire.  I had to switch out to Firefox or hit F12 and switch to IE 9 mode just to save or cancel an operation.  Yet another annoyance that I really don't need in my day.   

Having a dual-monitor setup also reveals some quirky behavior.  Extending the desktop across monitors is easy enough and a lower left corner click will bring up the Start page on one monitor while leaving the desktop showing on the other.  That's nice - until you click on the desktop.  Then the Start page disappears.  So my plan to run run Start and full-screen apps on one screen while working happily away in Visual Studio on the other had to be scrapped.  This is strange behavior and speaks to the version 1.0 flavor of the whole experiment.

And that leads me to my final and most important observation.  This is the umpteenth release of the core operating system that runs most of the world's computers used for business.  This is not a toy - it's a critical piece of technology that companies rely upon to be stable and reliable.  Which it was (for the most part) in the last release.  But now it's a weird crossover experiment that tries to cram two competing visions together without really succeeding at either.  It does not give corporate IT managers confidence in a new platform nor does it provide any assurances that their needs are an important part of the feature-planning process; in fact, it would appear that quite the opposite is true.   What IT wants is security, compatibility and reliability not a bunch of eye-candy designed to (hopefully) lure twentysomethings away from their iWhatevers.  My suspicion is that many corporate IT departments will take a pass on this release.  While Windows XP is starting to slowly die off in the enterprise it's still holding on because Vista failed to deliver the goods.  In the near future I suspect that XP will likely be replaced by Windows 7 instead of Windows 8 - and that's not good news for Microsoft no matter how you spin it.

CONCLUSION

My experience thus far is that Windows 8 is a mixed bag.  On the one hand, it shows a lot of promise for consumers in the portable device segment.  On the other hand, it has very litte to offer Microsoft's primary customer base inside the enterprise.  I believe they could have avoided all this by taking the Media Center approach (another good product sadly put out to pasture) - deliver incremental improvements to business users while providing consumers with the ability to enable the portable features (or, alternatively, make the portable UI the default but allow corporate IT to disable it via policy).  Then both camps would be happy - business users get their familiar desktop and consumers get live tiles (assuming, of course, that you consider live tiles a feature worth having).  Instead, we have a clunky amalgamation of competing feature sets in which no user truly gets what they want. 

I applaud the effort to break new ground but a one-size-fits-all strategy probably isn't going to cut it.  While Windows Phone and XBox were two areas of great success (you can argue about Windows Phone adoption and its relative immaturity but the UI makes every other platform look like a bunch of old Palm Pilots) it doesn't mean that same design philosophy can carry over into other areas.  Trying to force business users to buy into consumer features is just not smart - they won't pay for functionality they don't want, especially if it ends up making their jobs harder instead of easier.

The bottom line for me is that I'll happily keep Windows 8 on my convertible tablet where I can actually take advantage of the new UI elements.  But if it wasn't for the native Hyper-V support I would switch my primary desktop back to Windows 7 in a heartbeat.  I've got enough to do without the OS getting in my way and, quite frankly, I was happy with Windows 7.  It did what I wanted it to do and I didn't have to think about how to use it.  For better or worse it felt natural whereas Windows 8 is uncomfortable in all the wrong ways.  I can only hope that Microsoft gets the message and does something in a service pack or R2 release to fulfill the needs of business users.  But that may be a long time coming, if ever, so until then I'll just Win + Curse my way though it and hope for the best.
             

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5 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting. How do you like the Yoga as compared to other Windows tablets / laptops / ultrabooks?

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  2. Sounds like allot of lost productivity just for Hyper-V. Why not run VMWare Workstation on a Windows 7 machine? What is Hyper-V on Win 8 giving you here which is worth the productivity loss?

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  3. Todd,

    I work with a lot of VHD images provided by our friends in the Great Northwest. I lose an hour every time I have to convert one to VMDK and another hour converting it back to VHD should I have to share my changes. It's a real time waster, which is why native Hyper-V integration is such a big deal for me. Having said that, I sure do miss all the extras that VMware provides - device sharing, folder sharing, simple networking, etc.

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  4. Eugene,

    I really like the Yoga. It's light and fast with a great screen. My only real complaint is the lack of a backlit keyboard. I just assumed when I bought it that backlit keys would be standard as they are in just about everything these days but I was wrong. Another thing worth pointing out that I didn't cover in my review since I hadn't used it long enough is the gigantic trackpad - just like a MacBook, you've have to position your hands a bit differently so you don't accidently move the mouse while you're typing. The trackpad is pretty sensitive even to light touches so with the new gestures in Windows 8 it really makes it interesting to have charms and start pages flying everywhere when responding to an email.

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  5. Eric

    Thanks for the note on my blog. While this is slightly off-topic for ExcelVBAWizard.com, many of our readers also use Sharepoint. The expert articles you have written, the webcasts, videos, and podcasts are great. I’m a fan.

    You articles would be great links on my Microsoft Showcase on InfoAboutAnything.com/microsoft-showcase. I don't have much experience with Sharepoint -- only as a user. Your insights are great.

    Rich Moyer
    Spaho Consulting

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