Monday, December 24, 2012

Windows - Now Cheaper Than Ever

NOW how much would you pay?

For months I've been watching the approach of Windows 8 with dread. Ever since I tried running one of the preview versions in a virtual machine it's been giving me the heebie jeebies every time I see an ad for that screen full of multicolored tiles.

Anticipating an "intuitive" experience I had attempted to blunder around in it like a normal user might and found myself completely stymied. No start menu. No apparent way to find my programs. No way to quit an "app" or switch between the ones that were open. No apparent way to even turn it off -- I had to force my virtual machine to shut down, the equivalent of pulling the plug, before I discovered that you have to 1) open the "charms" menu, 2) select Settings, 3) select Power, and 4) select Shut down. Or, alternatively,  1) figure out how to log out (click on your user name in the corner of the screen), 2) click in the lock screen to get back to the login page, then 3) click the power button in the corner. Sheesh! Who designed this thing?

But love it or hate it I knew I would have to deal with it someday. I might never run it myself, but sooner or later either my company or one of my family or friends would expect me to be able to help them with it, so I'd better get some familiarity with it. On the other hand, I was reluctant to actually pay for something I didn't want. But Microsoft had an answer for me. For a limited time I could upgrade for only 40 bucks -- and if I had purchased a computer running Windows 7 recently I could get it for even less: $14.99. Wow -- the only deal better than that would come with free steak knives! (Or a free Linux download, but don't get me started on that.)

I hesitated to sacrifice my Windows 7 dual boot installation on my desktop. Even though I seldom use it I have to be able to get real work done when I need it, and the last thing I wanted was those bloody tiles in my face. Anyway, I bought it too long ago to qualify for the $14.99 deal. But wait -- I bought another Windows 7 machine more recently, namely the Acer netbook that I wrote about, and which I wouldn't mind sacrificing to the cause. Especially since I still had the version of Windows 7 that it came with tucked away on the hard drive that I replaced with an SSD, so I could always downgrade.

Best of all, the Acer was purchased within the magic time period that qualified me for the lowest possible price, so it seemed to be a no-brainer. I proceeded with my online purchase, jumping through a couple of hoops to enter a promo code that I had to register for, and then downloaded the approximately 2 gig package for installation.

Right away I detected differences that told me Microsoft is really making an effort to get more hip. Download instead of CD or DVD. Offering ISO files that can be burned to disk, and even packages for USB flash drives. A software assistant that pre-certified my hardware and existing programs for compatibility -- it even cleared LibreOffice! This is not your father's Microsoft, even though Balmer is still at the helm.

First I tried out the ISO file, but learned it was not a "hybrid" image that would boot from a flash drive. So they are still one step behind the convenience of some contemporary Linux distros. But they didn't at all complain when I went back to download the flash drive version. There is also  no option to boot directly into a working version of the OS to try it out before installation -- the "live" disk is still the province of Linux. But this was the first time I ever made it through a fresh Windows installation without any complaints about missing drivers for the built in devices on my motherboard -- and this was on a netbook with wifi card, camera, and touchpad.

The only complaint I have is the amount of disk space it demanded. I had pared down the Windows 7 partition to 40 gigabytes, which gave me about 10 gigs for file storage. There was 8 gigs remaining, but the installation program insisted on having a bit more -- about 8.9. So I uninstalled LibreOffice, deleted files, and ran disk cleanup to increase it to almost 9 gigs free. But now the installer warned me that I "should" have at least 1.2 gigs more than what it told me in the first place. Ah, now this is more like the Windows I'm familiar with.

This disk space issue was just because I had asked it to do an upgrade instead of a fresh install, so it needed enough working room to do its business before overwriting my existing installation. I decided to do a clean install instead. Accordingly I used the partition manager to delete all my partitions -- even the Linux ones -- so I could start from scratch. (Integrating a nice graphical partition editor with the installer is another way they have caught up to Linux installers. Though naturally it only handles FAT and NTFS filesystems.) This time I gave 50 gigs to Windows just to be sure it had plenty of room. The joke is that once the installation was done it only took up 20 gigs, so my original partition would have been ample.

The installation itself was effortless and completed much more quickly than I expected, though I forgot to time it. OK, so installation done -- but how would Windows 8 feel about dual booting with Linux? I was encouraged that the Advisor told me my computer did not support UEFI Secure Boot, so that "feature" would not be available. Yay! And I was further encouraged that the installer told me I should use the Advanced option in case I wanted to dual boot with "other operating systems." But I still had to try it to be sure. So I reinstalled LinuxMint, and voila, I was back to where I started except with Windows 8 in my boot menu instead of 7.

There I was at last, face to face with the dreaded tiles of the Start screen. The touchpad on a netbook is not the best way to do the fancy swiping that the Start screen is designed for. But I knew that touching the Windows key would always whisk me back to the beginning, and that Windows+D would jump to the traditional desktop. And trial and error showed that scrolling up and down on the edge of the trackpad was equivalent to scrolling side to side on the Start screen. A little confusing, but better than click and drag. So I started playing around.

Gee, those tiles are pretty. I think the colors have been designed to appeal to something childlike in us which is attracted to bright geometric objects. They perform a function also, which is to add color coding to the white icons on them, making them easier to recognize. Google could take a lesson from this, since they seem to be seriously challenged when it comes to icon design -- they really prefer words. Apple is at the other end of the spectrum, creating eye candy that resembles 3D objects. The new Windows look is flat, clean, and simple, and there is certainly a design argument to be made for it.

People praise this new interface as "fluid." It does scroll fluidly, and when you click a tile (or touch it) it fluidly flips and expands to fill the screen. Even when you don't touch them they fluidly scroll information updates, such as emails or news feeds. Fluid fluid fluid. The problem comes when you actually try to, well, do something. It soon becomes clear that the apps have been designed for the child in us as well -- the toddler who can only bang on big buttons or Whack the Mole with a hammer.

Gone is the richness and subtlety that have won praise -- however grudging -- for past versions of Windows even from those of us who might prefer to use something else. Windows 7, for example, is about as nice a user experience as I've ever had. I certainly prefer it to OSX, and it offers conveniences that I actually miss when using KDE under Linux. For example, the ability to rename a file while selecting it as an attachment. It doesn't seem like a big thing until you find that without it you have to cancel out of the attach dialog, open a file manager window, find the file and rename it, then go back and select it again.

Then of course there is the schizoid nature of the two separate and competing interfaces that seem to be fighting for your attention. Just when you think you might be able to live in the new world of tiles, something as basic as the Control Panel flips you back into the old world, And you can't really stay in the old world either, because to start a different program you must go back to the tiled Start screen. The fact that third party "start buttons" are selling like hotcakes should be a big red flag to the MS developers.

Another frustration turned out to be trying to watch Netflix. I had just got the movie service to run under Linux using the Wine kludge that made it think it was really running under Windows, but on the netbook playback was so jerky it was unusable. Surely this was something Windows 8, with its fluid fluid fluid interface would excel at, right? Well, I grabbed the free Netflix app from the Store, and it started up smoothly enough. But when I tried to play a movie it failed to load and gave me an error message stating that my video card was not adequate and I should see if there was a new driver for it that was compatible with Windows 8.

Aha, the dreaded driver issue. Unfortunately, the support site for the Radeon graphics reported that I was already using the latest driver. So out of curiosity I fired up my Chrome browser instead of the Netflix app, went to their website, and tried to run a movie that way. Result? NO PROBLEM. So what's the big deal with the app and special drivers? The difference is something to do with that new world of tiles, giving me one more reason to ignore and avoid it.

I fear that for all their bold efforts to strike out in a new direction Microsoft is going to experience the exact opposite of the "halo effect." With Windows phone barely making a dent in the smart phone market they have tried to force us to pay attention to their tiled interface by shoving it under our noses on the desktop. But after learning to hate it there, it is unlikely we'll learn to love it on phones and tablets.

Which is kind of a shame, since it is actually a fresh and interesting attempt at a tactile interface that could be useful on handheld devices, at least after it matures. Unfortunately it was rushed out the door half baked, and it really really REALLY doesn't belong on the desktop.