The Windows 8 Report: A Bag of Irritants

November 2nd, 2012

So it was time. After using the public preview of Windows 8 for a number of months, I decided recently that it was time to install the RTM version, the one released to manufacturing by Microsoft. This should have been a trivial matter, but it wasn’t.

The story about how I got a reviewer’s copy is a prime example of where Microsoft’s PR agency conveys an impression of cluelessness. Over the years, I’ve never had a problem, until now, in receiving reviewer access. This time, I kept getting excuses that they didn’t have a copy to send me. When I would explain I just need a user license to download a copy, they again claimed they didn’t have anything to offer, despite the fact that many reviewers had already installed their copies and published Windows 8 reviews.

Well, I suppose I can understand their behavior in a way. It’s not as if I’ve been terribly kind to Microsoft over the years, and I definitely was not impressed with the beta versions of Windows 8. However, it’s also true that Microsoft has made some changes from preview to release, and I wanted to be fair in my coverage.

Yes, I could have purchased a copy, but there’s a matter of principle here. In any case, after making a complaint to higher-ups at Microsoft, I got access, and installed the update Wednesday.

While the original installation was fairly quick, perhaps as fast or faster than Mountain Lion, this wasn’t the case with the release version. Part of the problem is that I opted to upgrade an existing copy of Windows 7. In both cases, though, I used the latest Parallels Desktop to run a virtual machine on my 2009 iMac; yes, it’s compatible with Windows 8.

While elements of the interface formerly known as Metro infuse the somewhat simplified installation screens, you are still warned of the possible need for several restarts before the installation completes itself. Actually, there was one, when I was asked to delete the anti-malware app installed by Parallels. From there, the installation process continued fairly smoothly, with a procession of silly messages.

So for example, there was a dumb message that, “We’re getting your PC ready,” which repeated itself with different color backgrounds, as if to demonstrate something was really going on behind the scenes. After following up with messages about installing apps, I got a notice that Windows 8 was “Taking care of a few things.” Other than boring you to death, again I witnessed those ever-changing background colors. Microsoft has also devised a peculiar scheme to show progress. Instead of a progress bar or the traditional spinning  hour-glass effect, you get little circular stars, randomly spinning in a circle, which somehow resemble pixie dust. I wonder what the Windows 8 interface team was drinking (or smoking) when they came up with that silly idea.

Finally I was assured the OS was “Almost ready,” but the process still took a few more minutes to complete, restart and deliver the famous (or infamous) procession of Windows 8 tiles.

In the end, from start to end, the process of updating Windows 7 to Windows 8 consumed nearly two hours. I realize that the fact that I was using a virtual machine may be a suitable excuse, but I’m more inclined to blame the slow installation on the fact that this was an upgrade install, and not done fresh.

Regardless, at first brush I didn’t see any significant differences between the public preview and the release version. Again, there’s that schizophrenic environment that takes you from the “Modern UI” to the desktop and back again.

Among the obvious changes, it was good to see that Windows 8 Mail has been enhanced (or fixed) to include support for IMAP email accounts, something missing from the preview version. But the interface is thoroughly dumbed down to resemble the simplified version of what you’d find on a smartphone. But even Mail for iOS is far, far better.

Worse, when setting up the various email accounts I use for this site and others, the Mail app choked. I ended up having to enter some of the geeky details myself to complete the process. Even then, I had to go into the Charms control panel to make a few changes to correctly map local email boxes to the ones on the server. This problem, unfortunately, is typical of pretty much all email clients. But if you don’t map the local folders to the right ones on the server, your Sent messages, for example, won’t be in sync from device to device.

I would have thought that a PC OS designed for simplicity would perform such configuration steps behind the scenes, so you didn’t have to get your hands dirty. Instead, the settings still require manual labor or aren’t even present. This is typical of the failures in Windows 8.

Indeed, experienced Windows users are bound to be frustrated over the lack of customizations to which they’ve grown accustomed. Unfortunately, the traditional keyboard and mouse play second fiddle to touch. That might make sense on a tablet, but not on a regular ole PC.

In any case, Windows 8 is, as reviewers state, clean, relatively smooth, snappy and stable. But usability with real world apps remains a serious concern. I’ll keep at it and do an update soon.

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