There's Yer Feckin' Start Button

Win81

Terrible fuss was made when Windows 8 introduced a whole new interface designed around touch, completely lacking the familiar and comforting Start Menu. Now instead of mousing through a list to find an app you were supposed to tap or click on its big bright “tile” on the new home screen.

This is an attractive interface, and as well designed for touch as anything from Apple or Google. The little problem is, the vast – indeed, vasty vast – majority of users do not have a touchscreen. They are still using mice, touchpads, and similar pointing devices. Because while touchscreens are cute and all, most people use Windows PCs for work things like typing reports or articles, or entering numbers on spreadsheets – things you need a keyboard for. And in those situations, a touchscreen is at best a frivolity. It’s actually inefficient because, at least compared to a touchpad, it requires you to move your pointing hand further from the keys.

For all these people, having to use an interface designed for touch is a small irritation but a constant one – and we all know how infuriating constant small irritations can be. In response, some PC vendors introduced their own solutions: third-party apps that imitate the old Start Menu. Samsung took a different turn, and equipped some of their Windows 8 laptops with an extension that looks remarkably like the Dock from the Mac OS X desktop. This has led me to formulate the theory that Samsung actually like Apple’s legal team personally, and look forward to meeting them.

Eventually though Microsoft responded to the outcry and yielded with good grace, restoring the Start Button to its pride of place in the free update called Windows 8.1.

Did they buggery.

They said they restored it. But if you’ve downloaded the 8.1 preview (or more likely, watched the demo video), you’ll see that all they’ve really done is placed a button on the taskbar of the Windows Desktop – a button that opens not the Start Menu, but that same old shiny tiled home screen. It is an improvement in that you can find your applications in the place that your hand has spent the last fifteen-odd years going to and so don’t have to change direction every. bloody. time (the “proper” shortcut is at the right-hand edge of the screen), but it’s still a touch-oriented interface on a mouse-oriented device.

Similarly, it won’t let you boot straight to a desktop like all previous versions of Windows. Even if you only ever want to use applications on the desktop, you have to get there through that damn screen of tiles. Every time.

A tip: If you move the Desktop tile to the top left position it becomes the default option, and so can be selected without any mouse movement at all by hitting the “Enter” key. Similarly you can put the Windows Media Center tile here – if you have it – to make Windows 8 more usable with a remote control. Or perhaps I should say, less unusable.

Why does Microsoft not allow these as options – even turned off by default? The reason is they want to ‘encourage’ software vendors to develop for the touch interface – by taking away any other option. In its visionary ruthlessness it’s a very Apple-like move, certainly a bold one. Probably, once the new religion catches on, they will allow flexibility and convenience again. But right now it’s just another little thing that makes me want to spend less time as a Windows user and more as a Linux one.

By the way, this is the first Windows version with a point-release name since Windows NT 3.51, way back in 1995. Though it should be pointed out that Windows 8.1 is known internally as NT 6.3. As the NT series started not at 1 but at 3.1, we deduct that to find that Windows 8.1 is really NT 5 – which was Windows 2000.

OK now I’m confused.

Windows 8 – First Impression

I.Doubt.It - installing untried, unstable software so that you don't have to. Not that you ever had to.

It’s like being a year into the future – probably more, the way these things tend to go. I’m writing this on a computer running Windows 8, the OS that is meant to get Microsoft back to the forefront of personal computing. On Windows 8, the complex and resource-hungry operating system of the past will be pushed into the back seat. The front end of your PC is going to be more like a… well, more like an iPad. More like a phone, or other lightweight browsing device. The main “Metro” interface is attractively tiled with little apps to do the little things you probably spend the larger part of your time doing. A basic browser, games, Twitter client, news feed reader, Facebook app, that sort of thing.

I have to preface my remarks with a caveat: It is not a fair test by any means. This is what Microsoft calls a Developer Preview, and it’s being released now, long before its ready even for beta testing, to give programmers a better idea of the forthcoming look and feel. Nonetheless I can start with unreservedly good news. This really does seem to be the lightest that Windows has been for some time. The spec of this computer is dated (1.2 GHz single core processor and 1.5 GB of memory), merely adequate for XP, yet XP’s great-granddaughter seems to run as well if not better. In the past I’ve used this or fairly similar hardware to test the betas of both Vista and Windows 7, but this pre-beta is more immediately impressive than either.

There aren’t a lot of other obvious changes from 7; perhaps the most notable is that the “ribbon” from Office is now in Windows Explorer. Version 10 of IE on the other hand is refreshingly clean and simple – and frighteningly fast. But of course we’re mainly here to get to grips with that weird new interface. Microsoft says it requires a multi-touch screen, but I’ve been getting by with pen input or just a mouse – Metro provides a scrollbar when needed. Presumably there are multi-touch gestures I’m missing out on. Indeed my first impression was that some such two-fingered salute must be a vital part of the interface, because for the life of me I could find no way to get those cool little apps to shut once I’d opened them.

That was when l discovered perhaps the strangest aspect of the future Windows: These apps are not meant to close. They stay suspended in the background, ready to spring back to life from wherever you left off. Which means of course that they use memory while they’re suspended, and I wonder how much they will be allowed to squander before something is done about it. Presumably the oldest will eventually be shoved onto the hard disk. If you’re desperate for memory right now you can kill them from a new-look Task Manager, but that seems a bit ad hoc.

To use the new “Metro” interface, you need to discover a couple of gesture controls that might not be immediately obvious: A stroke from either the top or bottom (with the mouse, a right-click) brings up a sort of context menu / taskbar in any app. A stroke inwards from the left edge (or touching the edge with the mouse) swaps between the two most recently-used apps – one of which can be the desktop – and most important of all, a stroke from the right (or bringing the mouse to the bottom left corner) opens the replacement for the old Start Menu. This though could hardly be more different. It holds just five icons, the main one returning you to the tiled Metro interface – which of course is the real replacement for much of the Start Menu’s functionality. Here you will find shortcuts to “traditional” application programs as well as the new apps.

Weirdly though, I found the lightweight Metro interface a little sluggish and unresponsive compared to Windows 8 proper. Pen input, smooth as silk otherwise (I’m writing this using the handwriting recognition and it works astonishingly well) is jerky in apps. Perhaps it makes too much demand on my Centrino-era graphics hardware. But if it’s still a little rough, it’s also surprisingly usable and interestingly different. Tomorrow, if you’re good, I’ll tell you how to start using Windows 8 yourself.