SandyBridge-E Adventure – Supplemental 2: Windows 8 Impressions


I made an allusion, during the SB-E build entries, to Windows 8 and how the spoiler is that I am still running Windows 7 on the new beast.  Well that remains true, but I think any new release of Windows is of significant enough importance (and as an ex-blue badge I still retain enough nostalgic loyalty) that the topic warrants further exposition.   So it is obvious that I am not a big fan of the latest pre-release build of W8, and I suspect this opinion is very unlikely to change since the RTM has clearly been cut and we are days away from retail availability, but what exactly went wrong?

MetroUI

Lots has been written on this.  Really a lot.  Just Google it.  I don’t want to go over the same points and arguments that have been hashed out on the web ad nauseum, but suffice it to say that I find Metro awkward.  I get why Microsoft has gone this path; I honestly do.  Shortly before I left Microsoft (which was shortly before the iPad 1 release) I attended what turned out to be my last “TechReady” (internal TechEd) and grilled the Windows team on why we weren’t “mobilizing Windows” (a term I coined that seemed to sum it up).  At the time the answers I got were along the lines of “tablets don’t matter”.  Well a lot has changed in the past few years and I am quite sure no one at Redmond feels that way now.  Unfortunately, Microsoft is never in a good position when it needs to course correct.  Windows 8, and in particular the MetroUI on the desktop, feels like a course correction to me.  A tablet OS with a suitable UX is clearly something Microsoft badly needs, but it really did not need to go so far, and so deep, retrofitting the desktop.  I hate to do this, but consider the Apple approach with OSX.  OSX and IOS share a kernel and certain aspects of the core OS.  Over time, certain characteristics of the mobile OS have flowed back into the desktop OS (and a bit of vice versa).  The approach has been cautious and even still, at times has been jarring (full screen apps on the desktop).  Directionally, though, I think their movement has been correct.  Microsoft chose to basically leapfrong Apple.  They have gone from a unifying platform, kernel and tools, straight to a unifying UX, and that, in my opinion, is a mistake.

It would all be fine if the new UI paradigm actually brought something vital to traditional form factors, but it doesn’t.  The tiles are alltogether too non-intuitive and busy on a laptop or desktop screen navigating with a mouse and keyboard.  Compounding matters is that when you find that you either want to, or need to, simply push it all aside in order to get something accomplished, you are dropped jarringly back into the traditional look and feel reminding you in no uncertain terms that the entire thing is just a shell.  So why not just turn it off?  That’s a fair point, but here’s the thing; an OS puts it’s best foot forward (or should) with it’s default state.  Having to disable a core feature right off the bat is a failure for a new OS, and a dangerous one at that.  Consider how badly some of the jarring “just disable it” features of Vista set Microsoft back. Making matters worse is the fact that even within the “legacy look and feel” framework, some things have been tweaked, changed and moved slightly and the first impression becomes one of frustration.

Device Compat

A new OS a new driver model a new opportunity for hardware fragmentation.  Overall though, the story is actually good here.  I think the changes to WDDM are solid and that, at some point, we will see enhanced performance and capabilities from the same (modern) hardware as a result of the improved efficiency of the new WDDM.  Unfortunately, the benefits aren’t yet immediately apparent.  Perhaps the hardware I run is simply too high-end, or perhaps the devs still need more time with the DDK, but for all the talk of Windows 8 being “much faster” than Windows 7, I didn’t see it with the benchmarks at all.  Synthetic performance was a very near wash (we’re talking 1% differences at best across the board) and real world experience was absolutely a wash.  Again, this may change over time (especially with updated driver and game code), but whether it will change enough to overcome the UI issues is another story.

Features and Capabilities

Lots of stuff here, although in the end not really.  DirectX? Still 11.  Windows Media Player? Still 12.  Those are two big ones for traditional desktop and notebook users and gamers.  Yes there are cool new features in the security space, and interesting things like enhanced UEFI support, but some of these are either less than super compelling for the average home user, or actually somewhat daunting (personally I’m not sure I want, need or trust Secure Boot or the current state of PC UEFI maturity).  Of course the goodness of Windows 7 persists, but you don’t need Windows 8 for that, right?

App Compat

Microsoft carries a very heavy burden here and generally delivers.  Windows 8 is no exception although some compatibility issues did creep up in the gaming space.  I am sure they are only a patch away, but this is another argument in favor of the “stick with Windows 7” approach (at least for now).  Of course the core kernel, security and API updates introduced with Vista continue to evolve (rather than be revolutionary), which is a good thing, so compat is not a horror story by any means.

Overall

Overall the UI “enhancements” were simply too much to overlook and especially in the absence of compelling reasons to move.  It’s too bad because I really do get genuinely excited with a new OS and want to move.  I can say I am very happy to not be a blue badge ATS these days as I would not want to be in the position of having to convince IT decision makers to pause or skip Windows 7 and shift gears to Windows 8.  That will certainly be a repeat of the Vista debacle and I do not see IT moving to Windows 8 at all.  This will surely be a skip.

As for the mobile play, time will tell.  It remains to be seen if Windows 8 and MetroUI will prove “enough” to help Microsoft get back in the game against Google and Apple.  If not it will have been a very bad misstep in that there is risk of alienation of the core audience and loss of a full desktop/laptop upgrade cycle (still the cash cow).  Personally I think a more measured approach, unifying the fundamental platform, dev tools, APIs and ecosystem while leaving the UX distinct, would have been a far more prudent approach.

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