Windows 10: FINALLY

Finally!
Finally!

I’d been playing around with the Windows 10 Preview on my virtual machine and I liked what I was seeing, so as soon as the “reserve your copy of Windows 10” thing popped up on my computer I filled in my name so I would be able to upgrade when it was ready. Despite this fact, it’s been over a month now and my main computer still hasn’t been notified that the upgrade is ready (even though everything is downloaded and seems ready to go).

My laptop was in the same position, but I got tired of waiting – so I tweaked a single registry setting to force my laptop to upgrade immediately. The upgrade started without a hitch and about a half-hour later, it was done. Other than re-arranging some icons on the Start menu and doing some slight preference tweaking, it was ready to use as soon as it was done and there have been no problems with it so far – everything that worked before still works just the same after.

So, now that I’ve finally got Windows 10 running on real hardware, what do I think of it?

Honestly, I think it’s pretty good, though there’s nothing to get particularly excited about. There are no earth-shattering changes or improvements to performance, just lots of small improvements and little tweaks all around. Essentially it’s just “Windows 8, but a little bit different.”

That said, there are a fair number of small things that have been improved and when you add them all up, it does come out to a pretty nice version of Windows – and definitely one I’d recommend over Windows 8 or 8.1. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the most noticeable changes and improvements!

(Oh, and a quick disclaimer: this is all from the perspective of a desktop user; if you’re running Windows on a tablet then I can’t really say how the tablet-specific stuff will have changed for you. Sorry!)

Start Menu is OK

Yeah, yeah, it’s nice to have the Start menu back, but honestly did we really need it back? I’m not so sure.

The Start menu is back... but will anyone really care?
The Start menu is back… but will anyone really care?

I know I’m going to get reamed for saying this, but I thought the Windows 8.1 Start screen was just fine. Yeah, it took up the whole screen but it was simple and elegant – all your icons in a nice, even grid. Power and logout options at the top and all your other apps easily searchable or you can click the little arrow at the bottom. You could give the Start screen a separate background, or let it be transparent to your desktop (which is what I always preferred).

Windows 10 sort-of brings back the old Start menu… kind of. It still has icons as tiles (and for some reason all tiles now all have the same background color, instead of being based on the icon color as they were in 8.1), but there’s sort of a side-section that kinda/sorta functions like the old classic Start menu. But I don’t really see the point – the icons here are smaller, making them harder to click with the mouse, and most people only use a few programs regularly so why have the full list taking up space when you don’t need it?

Still, I don’t hate the “what’s old is new again” start menu, and it does have some nice touches. I like being able to customize what folder shortcuts are on it, and it’s nice to be able to arrange the tiles for program icons.

Oh, but one thing I do not care for is that the Start menu and start screen now scroll vertically instead of horizontally. With most monitors and screens being wider than they are tall, why would you do this?? The horizontal scrolling of the Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1 was one thing that actually made a lot of sense. Changing it back to vertical scrolling does not make sense, and sadly there is no way to change it back through options. Not the biggest deal in the world, but still, I really wonder why they made this particular change.

Cortana is “Meh”

windows 10 cortana
Still not quite HAL 9000

Windows 10 is meant to be used on tablets and it seems like having a “digital assistant” thingy is a mandatory requirement these days, but on a desktop the new Cortana thing is just… meh.

Maybe if you use the built-in Windows calendar and mail and whatnot it’d be more useful, since it can look up and search your appointments and so forth, but if you don’t use those built-in apps, it’s basically just a glorified Bing search with speech recognition.

Also, I don’t like how much space the Search box takes up on the taskbar – it’s huge! Fortunately you can shrink it to an icon (or remove it entirely).

Multiple Desktops are Neat

It’s been possible to do multiple “virtual” desktops for years – I remember using them back in Windows 2000 – but it’s nice to finally see them available and supported natively in Windows. However, I do really think that most people will never use this feature. Instead, it’ll be used mainly by the more techy types. Still, it’s nice to have and I’m glad they (finally!) added it.

Double the desktop, double the fun!
Double the desktop, double the fun!

Perhaps once I’ve had a chance to use this feature on my main desktop while actually working (rather than just casually on my laptop) I’ll have more to say about it, but for now, it’s just a “nice to have.”

Notifications At Long Last

It is good to see Windows finally get a unified notification system but holy cow has this been a long time coming! Now we just need to wait for more applications to take advantage of it, instead of using pop-up boxes/balloon tips/etc. for their notifications.

If a notification center has no notifications, does it make a sound?

I also like the new “action center” bar, which I tend to think of as an extension of notifications (since that’s where they show up after). It’s a very nice touch and a long-overdue addition to Windows (especially for those using it on mobile devices – tablets, laptops, etc.).

More Consistent Control Panel

The Control Panel was long overdue for an overhaul, being an inconsistent mish-mash of Windows 7-style and Windows 8-style. Fortunately, Windows 10 goes a long way towards dragging it into the future. The main screen of the Control Panel is simple & clean, and most sub-screens are also done up in the same Windows 10 “flat” style, with lots of slider-type switches (instead of checkboxes) for options.

windows 10 control panel

Resizable Windows

Not being able to resize certain Windows 8-style windows used to drive me absolutely bonkers. It was a very jarring break from the standard Windows UI experience, so I’m very glad they fixed this and allowed all windows (including the “it’s-Windows-style-not-Metro-style” ones) to be resized (like they should’ve been from the beginning).

Flat UI is Getting Better

I’m still not a fan of the overall “flat/tile” visual style that started in Windows 8, but at least it is improving. Someone over at Microsoft finally realized that when you make everything flat & monochromatic you need to add other visual cues to help people know what can be clicked on. Too many things in Windows 8 and 8.1 were just completely undiscoverable unless you actually tried clicking on them. In Windows 10 at least things have outlines and hover effects to clue you in to the fact that they can be interacted with.

NO MORE STUPID CHARMS BAR

I’m not going to lie; I hated the charms bar – with a passion. It was perhaps the stupidest idea in all of Windows 8/8.1 and I am glad it is gone. If the charms bar had a grave, I would be dancing on it right now. (And, I would assume it’s buried right next to everyone’s other favorite bad idea, “Clippy” the Office Assistant.)

In Summary

All of these little improvements add up to a very nice experience in Windows 10. Sure, it’s nothing that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s worth upgrading for. Some people have had trouble upgrading, but this can usually be attributed to driver issues and not Windows itself. (As usual, many manufacturers take their time updating drivers and correcting problems – but this is true with almost every new Windows version.) My upgrade on laptop was quick & easy, and eventually I assume it’ll be just as easy on my desktop as well… eventually. (I’m still going to try and hold out until it tells me that the upgrade is ready – I’d like to try it without having to hack the registry to force it to happen!)

Windows 10 - like Windows 8, but more so?
Windows 10 – like Windows 8, but more so?

Overall, Windows 10 is a solid upgrade and if you were holding out because you didn’t like Windows 8 or 8.1, I’d say give it a go. And if you have Windows 8.1, upgrading is a no-brainer – at the worst, you probably won’t even notice much of a change, and at the best you’ll appreciate some of the little changes & improvements that have been made.

Windows 8.1 is Here – Is it any Better?

Windows 8.1 was just released as a free update for anyone with Windows 8 – but the real question is: is it any good?

Windows 8.1Windows 8.1 was released yesterday, and it’s available as a free update for anyone who already has Windows 8. So, naturally, as soon as it became available, I took the plunge and installed it.

Windows 8.1 is kind of a strange mix of “service pack” and “new operating system,” but the really big question is – is it any better than Windows 8 was? Does it improve on the shortcomings I pointed out in my previous reviews?

Read on to find out!

Installing

windows store tileGetting the update was actually a bit confusing. It’s not a Windows update, and doesn’t appear as part of your standard updates – instead, you have to launch the “Store” app and hope that the offer to upgrade appears (I’m not sure what triggers it, as it didn’t appear at first for me).

The installation is fairly straightforward, although it does take a while – even longer than installing a Windows Service Pack used to take.

Still, there were no hiccups and eventually after a few reboots I was back at my desktop. Not a bad start to things! And speaking of “Start…”

Start Is Back, All Right!

start button is back in Windows 8.1
We missed you!

The Start button is back – as it should have been all along.

While I understand the reasons behind using the corners as “hot spots” for both mouse and touch gestures, when introducing a new user interface element like this, you need to give some sort of visual cue to… um… cue users into the fact that there is something there that can be interacted with.

The Start Screen, Take Two

The ability to have your desktop show through the Start screen is a very small change, but it goes a long way towards making it feel more “cohesive.” No longer is the Start screen this weird world of squares & rectangles, with no connection to your desktop – instead, it’s just an overlay of icons you can click on, just like the old Start menu was (but bigger).

Windows 8.1’s Start screen also now uses different colors for tiles – and not just Metro app tiles, either. All your application tiles now have individual colors, which usually (but not always) match the color of the icon.

windows 8.1 - start screen colors
Instead of being mainly a single color for non-Metro apps, your Start menu is now a real rainbow of colors.

All these colors certainly make the Start screen a bit more visually distinct, but it also makes it look a bit busy. Still, it’s a nice touch to help identify the program you’re looking for at a glance, since the color helps with recognizing an icon before you even read the text.

The ability to go to the “All Apps” view by just clicking a single chevron at the bottom of the Start screen is a welcome addition – especially since Windows 8.1 doesn’t automatically dump newly installed program icons on the Start screen like before. Now you can quickly bring up your “All Apps” (the equivalent to “All Programs” in pre-Windows 8 speak) and find your programs (relatively) easily.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - all apps
Much better!

Windows 8.1 also adds some new sizes for icon tiles – instead of “square” and “rectangle,” you now have “tiny square” and “even bigger rectangle.” Not a big deal, but it’s helpful to keep your Start screen organized if you have lots of icons – though only Metro apps can use the “even bigger” tile sizes.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - different tile sizes
Little icons, big icons, all sizes of icons!

Modern Metro Madness

One small but nice change in Windows 8.1 is that Metro apps can now be split-screened in any proportion – you’re no longer limited to the 1/3 and 2/3 split from Windows 8.

If you have multiple monitors, you can also run Metro apps separately on each one – though I can’t really imagine many people doing this.

(Also, what should we be calling these apps now? They were originally code-named “Metro,” then they became “Windows 8 Modern.” Are they now “Windows 8.1 Modern?” Seriously, they need a better name!)

Search the World

I never understood why Microsoft chose to make search in Windows 8 segmented – it just made no sense to me at all. Previously, searching from the Start menu searched both your Start menu and all of your indexed locations (by default, your libraries) – which is exactly what it should do. Simple, search once and find what you need, no matter where it might be.

But in Windows 8, you had to choose where you were searching – were you searching apps? Or were you searching settings? Or files? And it got worse when you realized that some things (e.g., system settings) were not under “settings,” but actually “apps,” depending on their specific implementation. It was maddening and just made no sense.

windows 8.1 - search everywhereFortunately, Windows 8.1 undoes this terrible design decision, and by default the search now searches “everything” again. (That is, it searches all your apps and all your libraries.)

On the other hand, Windows 8.1 does by default include integration with Bing for search results – but this is easy enough to turn off if you don’t want to search the Internet every time you try to search your computer.

Boot to the Head – er, Desktop

Yep, that’s right – you can now have Windows 8.1 boot directly to the desktop, instead of the Start screen. This option isn’t on by default, but it’s available – and again, something that really should have been there all along.

windows 8.1 - new start screen options
Some welcome new options

Is That It?

Yep, pretty much. Windows 8.1 brings a number of welcome changes – though some of these are less “changes” and more “putting things back the way they were” – but at the end of the day it’s a very minor update – just as it’s name would suggest.

The Bad Stuff

Although the installation itself went very smoothly, there were a few hiccups with my upgrade.

I did have to re-install a few programs because they ran as “services” in Windows, and for whatever reason the update had lost or removed the services. I also had to re-install my display driver – Windows defaulted back to the Microsoft provided driver, which works fine, but doesn’t have some features I like and need.

I also had to re-install my printer/scanner software, as it lost the ability to “Scan to” my computer (even though it still printed just fine) – although honestly this is probably more the fault of the printer manufacturer’s often finicky software.

Windows 8.1 also takes the odd stance of removing links for Libraries from the left-hand navigation pane of Windows Explorer window – though thankfully there is an easy option to bring this back.

Also, somehow my Windows theme had gotten changed so that the text in title bars and the task bar was black instead of white – and it’s not at all easy to figure out how to change this back.

Still, all things considered the problems with this upgrade were fairly minor – none of my devices malfunctioned (and I do have quite a few USB devices hanging off my computer) and all my settings were retained. Having to re-install a few programs, although slightly annoying, was not really that bad.

Windows 8.1 Final Thoughts

All-in-all, Windows 8.1 is still very “meh,” just like Windows 8 was – just slightly less so. Not exactly something I’d get excited about, but it is an improvement – albeit a small one.

The “Metro” side of things (or whatever Microsoft is calling it now) remains just as useless as before – although to be fair, there are more apps now and the built-in ones have improved a fair bit. For anyone using Windows on a tablet device, I’m sure these will be welcome improvements, but for the majority of people I’d imagine they will continue to be mostly ignored.

There are also some other changes I didn’t really go over, but to me they are just so minor as to be irrelevant.

If you already have Windows 8, upgrading to Windows 8.1 is almost no-brainer, as most of the changes are definite improvements over Windows 8, despite the few glitches you might encounter along the way.

If, on the other hand, you’re upgrading from Windows 7 or purchasing a new computer, I would definitely say that you want Windows 8.1 over Windows 8 – mainly for the Start button and Start screen improvements.

A Third (and Final) Look at Windows 8

After living with Windows 8 for a full 6 months, it’s time to take a measured final look at Microsoft’s ambitious attempt to merge the desktop & tablet OS.

windows 8So I’ve been living with Windows 8 for a full 6 months now, on both my main desktop computer and my laptop, and now I think it’s time for a third (and final) look at the pros and cons of Microsoft’s latest Windows incarnation.

Where Windows 8 gets it right:

Trying to delete a file and getting notification of what program has it open: This has been a long time coming. It is so nice to finally know why you can’t delete (or move) a file, so you can just close that program and move on with your day.

Multi-monitor taskbar: FINALLY. Something that power-users have been using 3rd party programs to provide for years is now built into the OS. The ability to customize how application buttons appear on the different taskbars (on all monitors, or only on the monitor where the application’s main window is) is also a nice touch.

Connected accounts & settings: This isn’t that big of a deal, but with people replacing computers more and more frequently, it’s a real nice touch to log into a new computer and have it automatically bring over your desktop settings, backgrounds, and other customizations. Although it’s not a totally perfect solution, it is very nice to have, and a welcome addition.

“Reset” Windows option: I know a lot of people think you need to reinstall Windows every so often as a matter of course, and while I disagree with this concept (I’ve talked about it before), I will admit there are cases where you need to “reset” everything back to factory defaults. Since each PC manufacturer tends to have their own way of doing this, having a way to do it in the OS itself is kind of a nice touch, and will certainly be handy for a lot of people.

Ribbon in Explorer: This is a welcome addition in my opinion, although I know some people hate the concept of the ribbon. Still, I think the ribbon is a useful UI tool (when done with care and thought), and in the case of Explorer, it works, and it works well.

Improved boot speed: This is always nice to see in any new version of Windows. It is especially noticeable with an SSD, although even computers with ordinary hard drives should see some improvement. It’s not much, but it’s still nice.

Lock screen: Again, this may just be a little thing, but for the longest time the Windows lock screen was just a boring “Press CTRL+ALT+DEL to unlock” window. Now though, not only is it a customizable screen (separate from your desktop background), but you can add other information on there, such as your unread email count, the weather, and other info – which can be handy!

Where Windows 8 gets it wrong:

The Missing Start Button: I think I’ve harped on this before, but it bears repeating – the Start button should not have been removed. I know that “technically” a corner is “easier” to hit with a mouse (or with a finger), but you could have still left the button there for the visual reminder and just to make it that much of a bigger target. Removing it was just plain silly.

Horizontal scrolling: I know many screens these days are widescreen, but it still feels terribly, terribly wrong for the screen to move side to side when you scroll up or down on your mouse or trackpad. (Not to mention that far too many things require this kind of scrolling.)

Hot Corners aren’t that hot: The idea is sound, but the execution is poor – especially if you have multiple monitors, where the corners are hard to hit on the border between screens.

Splitting search up between files/apps/settings: This is a change I just don’t quite understand – in the past two Windows versions, searching on the Start menu searched your files AND shortcuts on your Start menu AND some basic system settings. But now in Windows 8, you have to click to choose which are you want to search, and sometimes it’s not easy to know which one to use. Some system settings can be found under “apps,” for example. At the very least there should be an option to search “everything,” which can be set as the default should the user wish.

Windows 8 “Modern” (formerly Metro): I understand what Microsoft is trying to do here, I really do – but they need to re-think their UI guidelines for “Modern” apps. There seems to be too much of a focus on avoiding UI entirely and just displaying things as big as possible. This is OK for certain types of applications (e.g., a video playback app), but when your UI across an entire range of apps is “hidden,” it just invites confusion.

Too much inconsistency: This is perhaps my BIGGEST gripe with Windows 8 – there is simply a terrible lack of consistency across the OS. It is very much like using two separate operating systems, and it always seems to be a surprise which one you will end up in when you try to do something new.


If you noticed that most of the good things I’ve pointed out about Windows 8 are aesthetic or basic performance improvements, you’ve seen right to the point I’m trying to make here.

Windows 8 was a very ambitious project – one effectively forced on Microsoft with the rapid increase in popularity of tablet devices (or, one that Microsoft had been planning all along – but who knows). Nevertheless, there are just some things about Windows 8 that should not have been done, or that should have been fixed or changed before it was let out the door.

For the power user, it is not at all a “bad” operating system – but then again, power users are the ones most likely to be able to puzzle their way around the problems (or find workarounds or alternatives).

Ordinary users, on the other hand, are going to be frustrated. There just is no avoiding it. Windows 8 is going to drive a lot of ordinary people away from Windows – or at the very least, it will leave a very sour taste in their mouth.

I can only hope that Windows 9 improves upon the shortcomings of Windows 8, and that the lessons of this version of Windows (don’t mix UI conventions, keep conventions consistent, don’t hide too much of the UI, etc.) are well-learned and heeded by Microsoft and the Windows team.

A Second Look at Windows 8

Not too long ago I took the final RTM (release to manufacturing) edition of Windows 8 for a spin and shared my thoughts about it. Well, just the other day I took the plunge, ensured my backup was up-to-date, popped the DVD in and upgraded my computer. (Yes, upgraded – I did not do a clean install.)

So this is technically my second look at the final release version of Windows 8 – and this time I’ve been using it legitimately, all day long, doing all the things I normally do with my computer, and I now think I have a much better “feel” for things, to the point where I’m ready to share them.

Don’t Use Metro – Just Don’t

Yes, I know it’s technically not called “metro,” but honestly, who cares what it’s called? Just don’t use it. Unless you have a touch screen, avoid using metro apps entirely. There is absolutely no reason for you to use them on a desktop PC (or anything that uses a mouse/trackpad/etc. and not a touch screen).

None of the built-in metro apps are very useful, and with so few 3rd party apps, there’s not much else you can do here. And as we’ve already established, metro apps were made for touch screens – if you don’t have a touch screen, using metro apps is going to be frustrating and awkward.

Corners are Fun

In my original review, I thought that the new “hotspots” were limited to only on the primary monitor, but it turns out this is not true – you can use any of the 4 corners of ANY monitor! This means that technically you can use the lower-left corner (where the Start button used to be) of any monitor to bring up the Start page. Pretty sweet!

Above: The new “charms” bar can be brought up on either monitor by pointing to the upper-right corner of either screen, and the same is true for all the other corners of the screen.

I Miss The Start Button

Start button, come baaaack! I miss you!!

This may be nitpicking, but I really do miss having an actual “button” to click to bring up the Start menu (or Start page, or whatever the correct term is for the new full-screen Start screen). Not having a button there just makes the desktop look “unfinished,” and although technically speaking the corner is a much bigger UI target to hit with the mouse, years and years of training have conditioned me to hit a big button in the lower-left corner, which is now… gone.

Well, that’s not quite fair – it’s sort of still there, but it’s hidden, and will only appear once you slam your mouse cursor (or your finger, if you’re using a touch-screen device) into the bottom-left corner of your screen (any screen, if you have more than one).

Not really a “button” so much as it is a hidden, pop-up Start “tile.”

Still, the Start button is not something that should have gone away. I mean, Mac OS still has the little “Apple icon” system menu in the top-left corner, and that’s been there since version 1.0!

But I Do Like the Start Page!

I admit it – I like the new Start page. But one thing should be absolutely clear – I am not your typical user. Most “average” users have about 4 or 5 programs they use frequently. I have… a lot more.

Still, the new Start page is basically an over-sized, full-screen version of the old Start menu’s MRU (most recently used) program list.

The bigger “tiles” are obviously meant to make it more touch-friendly, but a side effect of all this is that you have a lot more room for shortcuts as well – and I like being able to have all my programs within easy reach.

And if that’s not your thing, well you can still search for programs the same way you did before – just start typing when the Start page is on the screen, and it’ll start searching for applications, just like it used to do in the Windows 7 Start menu.

“All Programs” Still Sucks Though

In earlier versions of Windows, you could arrange your shortcuts on your start menu (under “All Programs”) into folders to keep things organized. In Windows 8, you… can’t do that. Instead, you have “All Apps,” the equivalent to “All Programs,” and it is… well, just look:

The horror, the horror!!

It is a mess, to be sure. Everything is laid out in one big grid, and nothing is hidden. In my case, because I upgraded, things are still in folders (hence the sub-headings you see), but I have no idea how you’d create these headings or organize things.

On the other hand, I don’t really see a need to worry about it. Searching apps is simple and easy, just like it was in Windows 7 (just start typing when the Start screen is displayed), and this is honestly a faster way to find the program you’re after, no matter which OS you’re using.

Searching still works just fine – it’s quick, it’s easy, and for once, it kind of works for both touch and mouse interfaces!

Hate Metro? Consider the Alternative

I see a lot of vitriol out there for Windows 8, when really what people don’t like is the new metro-style apps and interface.

This is fine, and in case you can’t guess, I don’t exactly like the metro-style interface either. It really makes the OS feel like it’s got a split personality, and more than a few people have suggested that it might have been better to split off into 2 separate OSes, instead of trying to awkwardly combine them.

But consider the alternative – what if Microsoft had done exactly that? What if they had made an OS (the Metro OS) for tablets, and one for desktop PCs?

Keep in mind that the benefit of an OS is not the OS itself, but the programs and applications that the OS lets you run. So to begin with, a new Metro OS would have been worth… nothing. Because there would have been NO apps for it. If Microsoft had done this, the Metro OS would have been a complete failure.

Microsoft had to include compatibility with existing Windows apps in the new Metro OS, and if they were going that far, why not just merge the two OSes together, instead of re-inventing the wheel and wasting a lot of effort maintaining them?

Oh, sure, you can argue that this is exactly what Apple did with OS X and iOS – but keep in mind that iOS was in a unique position when it started out, since it had the first-mover advantage. There was no other big smartphone OS to compete with it (well, not really), and also Apple included some really great starter apps to make up for the fact that no other 3rd party apps existed.

On top of that, iOS got its start on phones, which are useful even without apps (you can still use them as a phone, after all) and they also had the famously popular iPod music player capabilities built-in.

Our hypothetical Microsoft Metro OS would have none of these advantages – it would start on tablets instead of phones, and tablets are nothing but very expensive paperweights without lots and lots of useful applications.

This is why it had to be merged with the regular Windows desktop OS, and it kind of explains why we ended up with the OS we ended up with in Windows 8. Sure, Microsoft could have shipped a “desktop only” version of Windows 8 without metro… but if they did, people would instead just be demanding to have some new “Pro” or “Ultimate” version of Windows that had both, and we’d be right back where we started.

An Acceptable – but Uninspiring – OS

The bottom line is, the whole metro apps thing in Windows 8 is a bit of a gimmick – at least as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea if Microsoft’s marketing might can make this last into the next version of Windows (or even past the next service pack), or whether it will quietly fade away and die, much like its spiritual predecessor the Zune did (remember the Zune?).

But the good news is, you don’t have to use metro apps. In fact, beyond the big Start page, you never need to see any “metro-ish” stuff in your day-to-day use. You can use the same programs you’ve been using all along in Windows 7, and aside from some slight UI tweaks, you’d almost never even notice the difference 99% of the time.

So my verdict on Windows 8 remains much the same as before (although for slightly different reasons) – it is a perfectly OK, average, and uninspiring update to a popular operating system. While I wouldn’t exactly rush to upgrade, I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid it, either.

Update: After using it for even longer (6 months now), I’ve posted my (final) thoughts on Windows 8.

Living with Windows 7

Keith’s review of Windows 7 after living with it for almost a month.

So, I’ve been living with my new computer for almost a month now, and that’s given me plenty of time to become familiar with the changes that came with Windows 7.

Previously, I’d only played around with Windows 7 through the betas and release candidates in a virtual machine – which, by its very nature, lacked the power to really let Windows 7 shine.

My new computer, on the other hand, has enough “oomph” to let me turn on all the bells & whistles so I can see how they work and which ones I like. This has allowed me to really get a “feel” for Windows 7 – arguably in an even better way than I did with Vista on my old computer.

So far, I have to say that I am very pleased.

If you’ve read any other Windows 7 reviews, you’ve probably read a lot of praise on how Windows 7 is a great leap forward, it’s so nice, etc.

Well, those people weren’t lying.

Windows 7 is incredibly polished. I’m sort of a details person, so these little details, the “fit & finish” of Windows 7 really impress me.

In any case, let’s get down to the details – in a nice, convenient list format:

  • Multitasking: you need a true multi-core CPU to get the benefits of this, but Windows 7 does a superb job of running lots and lots of programs all at once without any sort of trouble between them. And if one program goes down, you can just kill it and keep on truckin’ – no reboot required.
  • Stability: Windows 7  has so far been incredibly stable for me – and I tend to push my computers hard, so I’m one to know. Of course, part of this is due to the fact that I’m running the 64-bit version, and the 64-bit versions of Windows don’t allow “unsigned” drivers. And since device drivers are often the biggest contributor to instability in Windows, the fact that only “signed” drivers are allowed means that (overall) the quality of drivers is much higher – which means, in turn, that Windows is more stable.
  • UAC: My biggest gripe in Windows Vista was the UAC prompts that would pop up in various places – most annoying to me, personally, was when I tried to drag & drop to re-arrange folders in my start menu (I like to have my start menu nice & neat). If the folder or icon I was dragging & dropping was in the “All users” branch of the start menu, I’d get a UAC prompt when moving it. It was just incredibly annoying. In Windows 7 these prompts come up less often, which makes me very happy!
  • New Task bar: This is one place where I found myself unhappy with the default Windows 7 behavior, which is to show programs in the task bar by icon only (even when the program is open). I like being able to read the title of a window at a glance, without having to mouse over it, so I turned that functionality off. Plus, having the task bar buttons be full-sized with titles helps visually distinguish (even more) between running programs and programs that are just “pinned” to the task bar.
  • Glass Effects: speaking of the task bar, if you hover your mouse over open programs, you’ll see that the sort of glowing colored highlight follows your mouse pointer – as if your mouse pointer were a light shining on the button. On top of that, the color of the highlight is based on the color of the program’s icon… Niiiiiice. It’s little details like this that really impress me.
  • Aero Peek: Though I think the name is a bit pretentious, it is a handy feature. Basically the evolution of the “show desktop” button in that you can just hover over it, and it will make all open Windows 100% transparent so you can see your desktop (any windows that are not full-screen will show a faint outline so you know where they are). Other than that, the button acts just like the old “show desktop” button – click it once to show the desktop, click it again to restore all windows. Simple and easy, but it’s nice to have it permanently attached to the task bar, so you don’t lose it.
  • Libraries: I’m not exaggerating here – I love libraries. I’d been wishing for some sort of functionality like this for years, without even realizing it – or even being able to describe what I wanted. But libraries deliver. Got a folder with some pictures in it, in some strange location on your computer? Just add it to your “Pictures” library and now it’ll show up as if you had copied it into your “My Pictures” folder – but without actually having to copy it there! And since things like Windows Media Center and so on use libraries (rather than specific folders), it makes managing a music & movie collection so much easier!
  • Windows Media Center: The new UI for Windows Media Center is nice, but I didn’t really mind the UI in Vista either, so this doesn’t really impress me that much. It’s nicer, sure, but not enough for me to sing its praises.
  • Windows Media Center Extender Support: OK, so maybe I will sing the praises of the new Media Center UI – at least, as it applies to Windows Media Center Extenders. Because the new UI applies to these little, under-appreciated, under-powered devices. My Media Center Extender (MCE) hasn’t gotten any faster, but it looks nicer and it works more smoothly than it did when it was connected to a Vista computer. So there’s a bonus there.
  • Media Sharing & “Play To”: In addition to having a Media Center Extender, my new TV also supports the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, which means it can connect to my computer and stream media (pictures, videos, music) from my computer. Under Vista, the only way to get this media was to browse for it from the TV – and the UI was a bit clunky and sometimes crashed! With Windows 7 however, the game has changed. Although the UI for browsing media directly from the TV is still clunky and slow, it is much more stable. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you can play media directly from the PC to the TV by right-clicking a file and choosing “Play To” and then selecting the TV (Windows detects any DLNA devices on the network automatically – though they do have to be turned on first!). There is just something deeply, geekily cool about selecting a video on your computer and then hearing it start to play in the other room!
  • Videos link on the Start Menu: It’s a little thing, but it was always very annoying to me that in Vista there was no “Videos” link option on the Start Menu. You had links to Documents, Pictures, and Music – but no Videos! Thankfully, this little oversight has been corrected in Windows 7. Again, it’s the little things that really add up and make Windows 7 such a pleasure to use.
  • Drag and Drop re-arrange of Task bar buttons: I’m not talking about pinned items, but actual task bar buttons for open programs – you can now drag & drop to re-arrange them as you see fit. Previously, you needed a 3rd party program to enable this feature. It’s not a big deal, but it’s nice if you’ve got a lot of windows open and you want them arranged in a certain order.
  • Volume control for multiple audio devices: Although Windows Vista handled volume control pretty well (you could adjust volume on a per-program basis), Windows 7 takes this even further. Now, most people will only ever have 1 audio device – their main sound card – in their computer, but increasingly you find people with secondary sound cards – maybe a USB headset, like I have (for Skype, etc.). When you click the “Volume” icon in the taskbar, it shows the “main” volume control, same as always. But, if you are using a secondary audio device (like, say, you have Skype open and are using your headset), when you click the “Volume” icon you get two volume sliders – one for the main volume, and one for the secondary device. Nice! You can control the volume for each individually – very handy!

So those are the big new things I’m very happy about with Windows 7. Suffice it to say, if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you upgrade. Believe me – it is well worth it!