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Thoughts (mostly) on .NET development

Windows 8 Consumer Preview   (Windows)   
The Consumer Preview version of Windows 8 (fancy name for public beta) became available yesterday. I installed it into a virtual machine. This article summarizes my first impressions. I will updating this as I explore more features of Windows 8. My initial very negative opinion on the UI is now not so negative, resulting from the exploration and learning I did. But this also means that there is a learning curve, without it, with just intuition alone, you will not be able to "enjoy" the new UI, in my opinion.

Overall, apart from some usability complaints (which are explored in the rest of this article), I could probably imagine working in Windows 8. The UI still feels strange and a little bit clumsy. Probably this is because I do not think the Metro style UI and applications are in harmony with the desktop paradigm. Anyhow, there are improvements compared to the developer preview, but I still find it is not as smooth of a user experience as Windows 7 is today.

Update: If you are a heavy keyboard user, here is a list of keyboard shortcuts that come in very handy with Windows 8. Very useful! Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts.

If Windows 8 would be released today, I do not think I would want to upgrade. The mix of Metro-style and regular applications is not as smooth as I would want it to be. Frankly, I do not think this new Metro-style thing belongs to the desktop, and I for one do not see as an improvement.


Features of Windows 8

I will not try to introduce the features of Windows 8, because there are tons of articles with pictures. Please refer to Engadget for one such article. And I really like the punch line for that article:

We really liked Windows 7 when it launched. It felt like a big step forward in the short time that had passed since Vista. Now, as we creep closer to a likely release near the end of this year, we can't shake a sense of doubt. Windows 8 still feels like two very different operating systems trying to be one. The potential is hugely alluring -- a single OS to rule both the tablet and the desktop -- and with each subsequent version we keep hoping this will be the one that ties it all together. Sadly, as of the Consumer Preview, we're still seeing a lot of loose threads.

As it stands, Windows 8 is a considerably better tablet operating system than any previous version has managed to be. However, it's still a clumsier desktop OS than Windows 7. That's a problem Microsoft must fix before release.
(from Engadget)


The Metro experience

Anyone reading about or trying out Windows 8 will probably know what Metro-style applications are. They can be started from the new Start screen, they run full screen, and cannot be removed from being full screen (other than using snapping). Running applications full screen seems natural for certain solutions. For web browsers, it is a natural way to operate. For some other applications, it just isn't.

Sidenote: Why kill windows in Windows? If everything is full screen, there are no windows anymore. Hmm? :)


Full screen

For some applications, running them full screen seems outright ridiculous. For example, take the default calendar application on a 24" screen. On a 10" tablet those might look nice, but it just does not work on big screens. Messaging application - I never-ever run chat/messenger in full screen. I like having it floating around above/near other windows. I can do work in my main window and follow the chat at the same time.

I have created some tools and small programs that run as quite small Windows. There would be no sense in making an application full screen, that requires 2 or 3 textboxes for input. I simply cannot imagine how such a tool could be reimagined into being a Metro-style application. Of course if I wanted to create a smartphone or tablet version, sure, no problem. But putting 2 textboxes and a small image on a 24" screen? Or 30" for that matter. I just do not think this is a universally good idea. (I am about to explore Windows 8 application development further, so I might revise this paragraph in the future)

You cannot switch Metro-style apps to run in a Window. Going back to the calendar application: I usually have a webpage, email, chat or something else opened to which the calendar would relate. Having windows side by side makes it much easier than having to alt-tab all the time. I have a high resolution 24" monitor at home, and two large displays side-by-side at work. I have them not because I enjoy looking at full screen things. I have big screen real-estate to actually use it for MULTIPLE WINDOWS at the same time. Forcing new apps (Metro-style) to run full-screen, it is a waste of screen real estate.

Snapping applications partially solves this problem. You can use Windows+. and Windows+Shift+. keys to snap application windows. You can even snap a Metro style app (the calendar) and then the remaining space can be used by the desktop. And mind you, snapping is not something you would figure out for yourself - I certainly didn't :)

Normally I can remove apps from full screen, and very easily put them side by side. Just press "Windows+left" and "Windows+right" and you can arrange your apps very fast in Windows 7. Or use the mouse and drag the title bar to the left side, top side or right side. Very very easy and very very fast. I was actually very impressed, how much thought went into the usability of Windows 7. With Windows 8, I do not find that Metro-style apps improved this in any way, even considering snapping.

I really do not care how much Microsoft tries to justify this new user interface. When Windows 7 came out, you could feel the improvement. With Windows 8, you can feel the setback in user experience.

When you look at the changes from the tablet perspective, it of course makes all sense. I can understand ALL of these choices and behaviors when using a mobile phone or a tablet. There I would even expect everything to work like Metro does. And I don't doubt that Windows 8 tablets will be very nice to use. BUT the desktop is different, and using the same paradigm for the desktop will hinder performance and efficiency.


Messenger

I seem to be signed in to messenger as soon as I sign in to Windows (because I used a Live account to sign in). Where do I began to list all my problems with this solution. From not being in control of when I am online, invisible and offline (signing in to Windows DOES NOT MEAN I am available for chatting) to my chatting account being different from the one I use to sign in (I have 3 live accounts) there are so many things wrong with this solution. I finally found the "Accounts" setting for the Messaging application, but I cannot add more live accounts, nor can I change the one I signed in with.

I installed the currently available version of Live Messenger from the Web, and then I can just use it like I did before. So disable Messaging live tile, install Live Essentials, and good go go :)


Task Manager

You have to love the new Task Manager. It really works well for the power user, shows lots of details and lets you dig deep into how the system is working, what is running. It shows per application network usage, lets you manage the system services. Wonderful improvement.


Application switching

I can now switch to the desktop right from the Start screen. No tricks needed (like last time). By default there is a tile in the start screen that switches to the desktop. You can also switch there if you have multiple monitors by clicking on the secondary display. Because the start screen is only visible on the primary display.

And yes, Alt-Tab now switches between ALL open applications, both Metro-style and traditional applications. Also very good.

And you can move your Start screen and full screen metro apps to another display as well.


Corner menus

When you move your mouse to one of the corners, something will happen. Upper left corner allows you to switch application, and even to list the metro-style apps for easy switching. Lower left corner will allow you to go to the start screen or the regular desktop. Lower and upper right corner will show the charms bar.

They are good until you have multiple monitors connected. When you have multiple monitors, the secondary monitor will be either left or right side of the first. These corner shortcuts will thus fall onto the BORDER between two monitors. So it actually becomes an aiming excercise with your mouse to aim for the primary display's corner that now lies BETWEEN two monitors. Good luck with that! :)


Start menu, Searching

Windows 8 removes the start menu. Thinking about it, I hardly ever went in there. Usually I opened it with the Windows key, and searched for what I want. So it is not a big loss for me.

Windows 8 changes searching in a way, that the default search does not always find what I am looking for. You know the sound dialog, where you can pick your playback and recording devices? I usually typed sound into the Start menu to find it. It was the first or second pick.

If you do this in Windows 8, it will not find it. Because this dialog is categorized as a setting, not as an application. You see, there are three searches now: Applications, Settings and Files. You have to know in advance, what you are searching for, because only those results are displayed. You can change that, but it requires extra clicks or keys. Anyhow, remembering the three quick keys for these makes search usable (Applications: Win+q, Settings: Win+w, Files: Win+f)


Hard to find options

Every wanted to shut down Windows 8 - did you succeed without using Bing or Google to look up how to do it? Intuitiveness is very important in user interfaces. It is something that should be very very important in every user interface. People are lazy reading manuals, and they will get frustrated when something does not work they way they expect it. Shutting down or restarting Windows 8 is one of these things.

Again, my analogy - in Windows 7 many options feel very natural, and you really do not need much learning to use it. You might say I am accustomed to the way Windows works, but I also use Mac OS. I did not have trouble finding things there either, and I certainly did not have to use Google to figure out how to turn off the computer.


Task bar in desktop mode

A small complaint, but the task bar is now visible on both monitors in multi-monitor setup. Hopefully there is an option in there somewhere, that can make it appear only on the primary monitor. Not a big deal though.


Further notes

Just some random observations.

My mice have back and forward buttons (one is a Microsoft mouse, the other is a Razer). They usually work even without any drivers. However, Windows 8 does not respect these buttons, for example, in the Store, when there is clearly a back button on the user interface. Pressing mouse buttons does not move you anywhere.


Summary

Compared to the Developer Preview, there are some advancements in usability. The start menu gone, but you can launch your applications and with time, find your way around Windows again. I just do not understand why Microsoft fails to see how the Metro-style operation is not something that seamlessly works with the desktop.

I will not say that you could not renew the way Windows works. By all means, there are probably always improvements to make. But a mouse and a touchscreen with a finger will require different ways to operate things, and I simply do not believe that you can get away by trying to use the same solution to both scenarios.

 

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