Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

A little look at Windows 8

6th November 2011

It has been a little while but I have managed to set up a VirtualBox virtual machine in order to take a look at the Developer Preview of the next version of Windows, something that I and others continue to call Windows 8 though Microsoft has yet to confirm the name. When I tried the installation before, it failed on me but that may have been due to having an earlier release of VirtualBox on my machine at that time. 4.1.14 has a preset for Windows 8 and I also happened to notice that it can create virtual hard disks that can be used with competitors like VMWare, Parallels and Virtual PC too. It’s an interesting development but I am left wondering why you’d need to do that when VirtualBox runs on most platforms anyway.

To get back to Windows 8, the installation ran near enough without any intervention apart form stating the language you wanted to use, U.K. English in my case. Starting up the operating system gains you a lock screen that you need to get out of the way so you can log in. It can be dragged out of your way or you can double-click on it or use the carriage return key to get rid of it. Quite why someone thinks it’s a good extra is a little beyond me when a log in screen would suffice. Logging in gets you the new start menu or, as I prefer to think of it, screen. By default, there are a good few Metro apps installed though I decided to rid myself of most of them.

Regarding those apps, one irritation could be that there isn’t that obvious a way to switch away from them to something else. Thankfully, ALT+TAB does seem to work and it has the most instantaneous effect. Otherwise, using the Windows key or hovering over the bottom left corner of the screen to get the menu that brings up the start screen. From the PC user’s point of view, I could see this needing a little more thought because it took a little while for me to figure out what to do. Closing Metro apps isn’t an option either unless you resort to the Task Manager to do so. Microsoft appears to want to leave them open from the point at which you start them until the PC is shut down. It’s a design decision that leaves me unconvinced though, particularly when thoughts of rogue apps running riot on a system come to mind. Then, a stop button could be handy.

There is no start menu as we have come to know it anymore with the start screen replacing it. However, it is possible to limit what’s on there to the software that you use most often an rearrange panels as you’d like them to be. Apart from hosting shortcuts for starting applications, it also acts as a task switcher like the task bar in Windows 7 and there is one of those in Windows 8 too when you jump to the desktop; handily, there’s a panel for that too. Installing Firefox added a panel to the start screen so a little thought has gone into such a common situation and that’s just as well. Still, there’s more work to be done because, currently, there’s no way of changing the background colour of the start screen without resorting to a hex editor or third party tools. Still, you can pick your own picture for the lock screen so things are not all locked down on you.

A preview of IE 10 is included and, apart from the occasional artifact when displaying one of my websites, it seems to work well enough as does Windows Explorer. However, apart from these and a smattering of Metro apps, the Developer Preview does feel barer that previous versions of Windows. However, it does appear that applications like Notepad, PowerShell and the Command Prompt are on there but you need to search for these. That also means that you know about them too so I’d suggest a better way of browsing the applications that are available too. This is one of the weaknesses of Ubuntu’s Unity interface and you need to search in the Dash to find them. Just starting to type in the Metro start screen (and other screens too, it seems) in Windows does trigger the completion of a search box much like what happens in the GNOME Shell Activities screen on systems with GNOME 3. While it’s good to see good ideas being reused from elsewhere, Microsoft might do well to note that you still can browse lists of applications in GNOME 3 too.

Shutting down Windows 8 also seems to be more convoluted than is the case with Windows 7. Logging off and then powering off from the log in screen is one approach and that was my early impression from GNOME 3 too. With the latter, I later was to discover a status menu plugin that added in the option where it was accessible or that using ALT key when clicking the status menu when the plugin wouldn’t work would do what I needed. Without logging off from Windows 8, you can do a shut down using the sidebar that appears on selecting Settings from the menu that pops up on hovering near the bottom left corner of the start screen or the Start button of the task bar of the desktop. Then, look for the power icon and select what you need from the menu that clicking on this icon produces. Of course, you may find that the ALT+F4 key combination when issued while on a clean desktop is the cleanest of all.

All in all, the Developer Preview of the next release of Windows looks fairly usable. That is not to say that there aren’t things that need changing. Apart from this being an early sight of what may be coming to us Windows users, it isn’t unknown for Microsoft to roll back on a radical move to make it more palatable to the user community. After all, it has to watch how it treats the corporate market too. The strong possibility of there being alterations is one thought that needs to be shared with those who are inclined to be losing their tempers at the moment and I have comments with unpleasant language out there on the web (none of that here, please, by the way). As for me, I like to look ahead in order to be forewarned about what’s coming my way in the world of computing. What I have seen so far of the next Windows release is reassuring though there are roughnesses such as PC shutdown and Metro app switching but Microsoft cannot commit commercial suicide either so these have to be fixed. It seems that the world of Microsoft operating systems is in flux with the company’s keeping a firm eye on the world of mobile computing with tablets being a major concern. Others may disagree but I can see Windows 8 working well on conventional PC’s and that’s no bad thing.

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