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.

Windows 8 – When Worlds Collide

I got my hands on the release version of Windows 8 the other day, and gave it a spin. What is this new version of Windows really like? Let’s find out!

So, I was able to get my hands on the final release version of Windows 8 the other day (thanks to the TechNet subscription I get through work), and in order to give it a proper look-see, I decided to install it on my computer using my real hardware, but also use a virtual hard drive. This would save me from the troubles of dual-booting (and potentially screwing up my existing Windows 7 installation), while still letting me run on “real” hardware (unlike a virtual machine).

Fortunately this was really easy (this guide from Scott Hanselman is how I did it), and it allowed me to not only give Windows 8 a proper test drive, but to do so using my dual-monitor setup.

It is worth nothing that I was not going into this blind – I’d taken a look at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview before, both in a virtual machine and on my netbook. (I had to give up on the netbook because Windows 8’s new UI requires a higher vertical resolution than my little old 10″ screen can provide).

Windows 8 – First Impressions

The setup is very familiar – the same basic “installing Windows” experience we’ve had since Vista, I believe. But it goes by very smoothly, with all the questions up-front, and it doesn’t take forever (which is always nice). In fact, the actual initial “installation” went by surprisingly fast – although after a reboot there’s still more “setting up” to be done. Still, a good start.

windows 8 boot loaderSince I was dual booting (sort-of), Windows 8 detected this and installed a very nice boot loader/OS-chooser thing. It’s graphical, which is neat, and very well designed – simple and to the point. However, this screen doesn’t appear right away – it seems like Windows 8 pre-loads itself, and only later does it show you this screen. This means that you have to wait a while before you can choose your OS. Presumably this is done because Windows 8 is set as the default OS so it just starts pre-loading it, assuming that 90% of the time you’re just going to boot into that.

Interestingly, if you change the default OS, the boot loader/OS-chooser changes as well. I changed mine back to Windows 7 as the default, and after I did, it showed the more traditional text-based Windows 7 OS chooser, which appears immediately after the BIOS POST stuff is done. So, apparently you only get this neat screen if you keep Windows 8 as your default OS.

The rest of the setup was pretty simple – enter your email address as your login and it’ll use your Microsoft account (if you have one). One of the potentially neat features of Windows 8 is how your user account is now sort of online, so if you switch computers some of your settings will come with you. I only have the one computer, so I wasn’t able to try this out, but it has some potential. Also, since your Windows login is tied to an online account (and thus, to your email address), recovering your password if you forget it is a bit easier than it ever used to be on a PC before. So that’s nice.

Once things booted up, I was greeted with this setup:

windows 8 on dual monitors

Windows 8 dual monitor screen capture

As you can see, the new Windows 8 UI is on the main screen, while you can see the old Windows desktop peeking through on my 2nd monitor.

At this point we’re going to need to address something – during development, this new UI style was code-named “Metro.” But just a few weeks ago, Microsoft announced that this is not going to be the final name for it – but they haven’t given us what the final name is going to be yet. So, in the interest of brevity, whenever you see “Metro” in this post, just read it as “the UI formerly known as Metro” or whatever pleases your fancy. Perhaps when they finally announce the real name I’ll come back and change it here.

ANYWAY – the new Metro UI, based on tiles, is your new Start page. If you’ve used Office 2010, you’ve seen something like this before – it’s what is called “Backstage View” in Office 2010 – and it’s what happens when you click the “File” menu/tab in most Office 2010 apps.

Windows 8 start page

Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that, but this is a good way to think of it to begin with. The tiles are interactive, and you can drag & drop them all over the place as you’d expect. The tiles “flow” from one column to the next, in a left-to-right order, meaning that you can’t leave any gaps on the column to the left – it automatically fills with tiles from the next column over. At least, it did for the first 2 columns. The 3rd  and 4th columns seem to be all on their own, and this is presumably likewise with subsequent columns on additional screens (which would appear to the right, and not down, as you might think – more on that odd convention later).

Native Metro apps can have double-width rectangular tiles, while the tiles that represent shortcuts to regular Windows programs will only have the square tiles.

mouse help icon
You’re going to see a lot of useless icons like this.

Since this new Start page/view replaces the old Start menu, this is where you will find every icon/shortcut on your computer. That is to say, if you had an icon anywhere on your Start menu, it will be a tile here on this new Start page instead.

UPDATE: As it turns out, the new Start page actually is more like your “most recently used” items list, as opposed to “All Programs.” Only some shortcuts show up here by default to start with. The rest can be found under “All Apps,” which shows them all in one giant grid as I described here (but with slightly smaller icons).

This is a bit of a design flaw if you ask me – there’s not really any way to organize tiles other than by putting them in columns and spreading them across different pages (the Start page scrolls horizontally). There are no folders or sub-folders like you might be used to from the old Start menu. And if you install any old-style programs, your Start page will inevitably become cluttered with useless shortcuts that you never use.

While it’s easy enough to delete these, it is a bit awkward. And since the tiles on the Start screen are bigger than icons on the old Start menu, this sort of clutter is much more noticeable.

The Traditional Windows Desktop is Still Here

desktop tile shortcutFortunately, it is super-easy to switch to the traditional Windows desktop. On my computer in particular the desktop was still visible on my 2nd monitor (the Metro start page only covers one screen), and there’s a handy (and large!) shortcut for it right on the Start page.

Once you’ve switched to the traditional desktop, you don’t ever have to see the Metro UI again, unless you click where the Start menu button used to be, or press the Windows button on your keyboard.

As for how things work in the traditional desktop, well… they work just like you’d expect them to. It’s just the same desktop we’ve always had, but better. If these were the only changes in Windows 8, you’d be seeing nothing but praise.

It’s great that the taskbar now appears on all of your monitors (instead of just one), and the “ribbon” type UI in Explorer is kind of neat. Also, the new file copy dialogs are pretty sweet, with the extra info they can give you, as well as the better prompts that appear when you copy files with the same name.

In general, the traditional desktop UI is a bit more… well, square-ish, for lack of a better word. There is a bit of metro-ish UI inspiration here and there, and I sometimes feel like going back to a sharp-edged square UI is a step backwards (remember when having curved edges to a window was a big deal?), but otherwise is it just fine, no real surprises to speak of.

The UI Formerly Known as Metro

OK, I know you’ve probably been waiting for this part – so let’s talk about Metro.

The whole Metro UI is obviously very much inspired by the concept of touch – you see references to it everywhere.

windows 8's touch mentality
How do I “tap” with a mouse?

Having spent a good deal of time doing tech support for people, I can tell you right now that the Metro UI is going to confuse a LOT of people. There is a heck of a lot to get used to here, especially if you are using it on a PC without a touch screen (as most people will be).

Another thing that is inevitably going to trip a lot of people up is that Metro apps do not have a close button, and in many cases they don’t even have a “back” button, either. There literally is no way to “exit” the application in the traditional sense; and this is by design.

Metro apps are completely suspended when they are in the background, meaning they do not use any CPU time, so there technically is no reason to ever close them. This is much like how on iOS once you open an app, it is still “open” in the background when you switch to other apps, and remains open until you do a hard-shutdown of the device (or press & hold the “home” button to show running apps, then touch & hold the app’s icon to make them shake and have a red “x”, which is how you can actually force them to close).

(There are ways to close Metro apps, obviously, but they are not at all intuitive – probably because they are meant to not be necessary in normal use.)

This… takes some getting used to. I admit I found myself in a Metro settings screen and wanted to go “back” out… but couldn’t find any way to do so. For example, look at the picture below and see if you can figure out what you need to do to get out of this window.

Windows 8 metro PC settings page
How would you exit from this screen?

If you guessed “move your mouse to the upper-left corner and hover there for a second, then click the thumbnail which will appear,” you’re either psychic or you’ve used Windows 8 before.

Which brings me nicely to my next topic, which is task-switching in Metro.

Task Switching Just Got… Harder?

In the traditionial desktop, you had the taskbar, which was docked to the bottom of the screen. In Metro, you’ve got… something not unlike a taskbar set to auto-hide and locked to the left-hand side of the screen (each screen if you have multiple monitors). To access it, you hover your mouse in the upper-left corner, which will show (after a moment’s delay) a thumbnail of the last Metro app you were in. You will also see a tiny bit of the edge of thumbnails of any other Metro apps that are open (as well as a thumbnail for the traditional desktop) going down along the left hand side of the screen. Moving your mouse down over these slim edges will cause them to pop fully out, at which point it really starts to resemble the taskbar, just with thumbnails and on the left side of the screen.

This isn’t so bad, as far as it goes, but it does take some extra work to switch apps. (Using keyboard shortcuts still works as before, however.) If you were someone who set your taskbar to auto-hide, this might not bother you as much, but it is still cumbersome to use, especially if you’re used to the default taskbar behavior (which was to be visible all the time). I think this is the “make it tablet friendly” mentality showing through again – on a tablet, you don’t want precious screen space taken up with non-active UI elements like a taskbar. But for a PC with a mouse and a big screen (or multiple screens) it is just annoying.

Finally, there’s a big UI “fail” in the form of the “charms bar.” This is the bar that appears on the right side of the screen if you hover your mouse on that side of the screen, or if you hover your mouse in the upper right corner.

This charms bar has a search button and the settings button, among a few other things. It’s not a bad thing by itself, but the given that:

  •  This bar is always on the right side of the screen
  •  The metro UI is only ever on one monitor

This means that if you have multiple monitors, and have a screen to the right of the screen where the Metro UI is, then this “charms bar” is infuriatingly difficult to bring up, because your mouse keeps “sliding” past the edge of the screen and onto the next monitor!!

The whole idea of using the corners of the screen as “hotspots” like this comes from Fitts’s Law, and that’s all fine and good… but when you have multiple monitors, Fitt’s Law doesn’t apply to the side of the screen between two monitors, because it’s not really the “edge” of the screen anymore!

UPDATE: As it turns out, this isn’t quite as bad as I originally thought, because you can also use the corners of any additional monitors as well. In my setup, this meant that I could use the top-right corner of my 2nd monitor (where Fitts’s Law did apply), in addition to the top-right corner of my primary monitor. That said, getting all the way over to the far side of a multi-monitor setup is a lot of mouse movement.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Scrolling

This is a bit of a pet peeve with me, but… In the new Metro start page, and in all Metro apps, there is NO vertical scrolling. Instead, things scroll left to right (horizontally). Which kind of makes sense for a tablet because the natural thing to do is swipe left and right… but it just feels wrong.

Considering that basically every PC in existence has a mouse with a scroll wheel on it – a wheel that scrolls UP and DOWN – the fact that they decided to make the default scrolling in Metro be RIGHT to LEFT is just utterly incomprehensible to me.

The apparent obsession with touch & tablet design in Windows 8 makes me imagine that there was someone at Microsoft screaming at the Windows team, saying, “tablets are going to be the next big thing! We have to work on tablets!!”

…Which, considering the news about Microsoft Surface, doesn’t actually seem that far-fetched.

Final Thoughts

I wanted to like Windows 8 – and I guess I do. It has some differences to be sure, but what new OS doesn’t?

It is going to be a support nightmare. This is not an incremental change – this is significant departure from the conventions of desktop computing that we have all gotten used to over many, many years. Bringing these tablet-style conventions to a desktop OS is, frankly, more than a little jarring. I do not envy the people who will have to support large numbers of office workers when they switch to Windows 8.

There is going to be the inevitable resistance from people who don’t like change of any kind. People like what they know, and Windows 8 changes a lot of things (for better or for worse).

That said, is Windows 8 done well? Is it well executed?

In my opinion, the answer would be… no, not really.

Taken apart, the Metro UI and the traditional desktop are done very well. By itself, the Metro UI would have made a fascinating new OS, which would have gotten a lot of praise and been tried out by lots of curious people. But when you try to mash these two worlds together – the world of the touch screen device, and the world of the mouse-driven desktop PC – you end up with something that is just not as good as either part alone.

Now, is Windows 8 “stay away” worthy, like some said with Windows Vista (or its spiritual predecessor, Windows Me)? No, I don’t think so. It has its oddities, but the desktop is still there, and as I’ve said, it’s easy enough to just treat the Metro UI as a glorified “backstage view” start menu. The other benefits and improvements to the underlying OS and the desktop side of things are well worth it.

All in all I’d say give it a go if you have the chance, but I wouldn’t rush it.

Update: I finally went ahead and upgraded my computer to Windows 8 “for real,” and after using it for a bit, I’ve posted my more in-depth thoughts. Give it a read!

Update 2: After using Windows 8 for even longer, I’ve posted some more thoughts.

Breathing New Life into an Old Netbook

Lately I had been getting a bit frustrated with the performance of my old netbook, so I decided it was time for an upgrade to a SSD.

Lately I had been getting a bit frustrated with the performance of my old netbook, Ryo-Ohki. Oh, it’s still a great little computer, but it was beginning to show it’s age… or rather, I was starting to notice it. Basically, I was getting frustrated that everything took so long to start up – Windows, Ubuntu, Firefox, etc.

The two typical ways to speed up an older computer are to:

  • Add more memory (RAM)
  • Add a bigger (or faster) hard drive

Generally speaking, what you upgrade depends on what is being “stressed” in your computer at the moment. For example, if you have plenty of hard drive space, but only 1 GB of RAM, you’re probably hitting your RAM limit more often, which means you should upgrade that first. Likewise, if you have only a 250 GB hard drive, but dozens of large programs (Photoshop, Office, etc.) and a large collection of music, movies, and pictures, then you’re probably hitting your hard drive’s space limits, so you should upgrade that first.

In the case of my netbook, RAM was not the issue – while it does only have 1 GB of RAM, it can only hold (at most) up to 2 GB – and I usually only have one or two programs open at a time, and they are generally not RAM-intensive (just a browser or video player).

Instead, the real limit for my netbook – and, increasingly, the limit on almost everyone’s computer these days – was the hard drive. While my hard drive of 160 GB was technically rather small, I don’t have a lot of files, so the problem wasn’t the amount of space – the problem was the speed.

Hard drive speed isn’t just a limiting factor for netbooks and laptops, either – hard drives have been the slowest thing in computers (of any type) for years now.

SSD drive iconFortunately, the past few years have seen a new type of hard drive appear which helps us get past this hard drive performance problem – the Solid State Drive, or SSD.

Solid State Drives are sort of like giant USB memory sticks; they are the same sort of chip-based non-volatile (i.e., it doesn’t lose its contents when the power goes off, like RAM) memory that you see in USB drives or even in memory cards for your digital camera.

The benefit of an SSD is that, being totally digital, they have no moving parts, and since they are purely electronic, there is no mechanical delay in reading data from different parts of memory (like there is with a regular hard drive, which has to spin a disc and move an arm to a particular part to read the data). Basically, an SSD can be as fast as the memory chips that make it up, and the interface used to connect it to the rest of the computer… which means they can be made very fast.

The downside to SSDs is that they are relatively new technology, and therefore the price is still quite high. You can easily buy a regular hard drive with 1 TB of disk space for about $99 (possibly even less these days), which works out to about $0.10 per GB of disk space. On the other hand, SSDs are currently hovering around about $1.00 per GB of space – that’s about 10 times the cost per gigabyte.

I’ve been mulling over SSDs before, and while they aren’t quite practical for my desktop computer (with its huge disk space requirements), I thought they might be a good fit for my netbook. So I started price-stalking a few different models, and eventually one of them went on sale for the very reasonable (for an SSD) price of $120 (for a 120 GB SATA II SSD), so I snapped it up.

Since the new drive was slightly smaller than my old one (which was 160 GB), I didn’t even bother with the idea of transferring my old installation over to the new drive. Spending hours trying to resize two main partitions (one for Windows, one for Ubuntu Linux) plus all the recovery & swap partitions was just not very appealing to me. Plus, my netbook doesn’t really have anything on it – all my files live on my desktop, after all – so reinstalling the operating systems was not a big deal.

So, I popped out the old hard drive and put in the new one. This involved exactly 6 screws (2 to open the cover, 4 to secure the drive in a tiny little bracket) and took all of 5 minutes.

Even though my netbook is a little on the old side, it recognized the SSD without a hitch. All that was left now was to boot from the USB drives I’d prepared with Windows 7 and Ubuntu and then reinstall my programs.

Windows 7 was the first thing I installed (I prefer to install Linux last, so that it installs GRUB as the boot loader/OS chooser, which I like), and the installation itself took relatively little time (about 20 minutes.)

After that, it took several hours to download and install all the Windows Updates – and this version of Windows 7 I installed already included Service Pack 1! (To be fair though, some of these updates were for Microsoft Office as well.)

Installing Ubuntu went much faster, thanks to its ability to download updates as you install it (hint, hint, Microsoft?).

After installing the OS, I installed the few programs I use (Firefox and Chrome, Skype, Dropbox, and VLC media player, basically) and then I was up and running!

When everything was done, I had my new SSD cleanly split 50/50 between Windows 7 and Ubuntu, and everything was back up and running just fine.

Now though was the moment of truth. I’d rebooted many times already, but always to let some updates install… now it was time to see how fast this new hard drive could be.

Long-time readers will remember I did some completely pointless benchmarks of my computers a while back. The numbers I came up with from those tests showed that my netbook booted into Windows and Ubuntu to a fully-loaded desktop, ready to use, in 1 minute and 30 seconds and 47 seconds, respectively.

With my new SSD, those numbers have fallen to 1 minute even for Windows 7 and just 27 seconds for Ubuntu – a 33% improvement in Windows startup time, and a 42% increase in Ubuntu startup time.

Also, opening new programs is now much snappier (although not instant), and in general the computer just “feels” more responsive.

Keep in mind as well that my netbook, being a little on the old side, can’t really take advantage of the full speed of the SSD – the SATA interface is probably SATA 1, unlike the SATA II or SATA III interfaces that newer computers have. (The SSD drive itself supports SATA II, but it works just fine with SATA 1, just not as fast.)

While these startup times aren’t exactly “stellar” by modern computer & SSD standards, they are a significant improvement over my netbook’s old performance. Now the major limiting factor in my netbook’s performance is actually the old Atom CPU and the somewhat-sluggish graphics adapter.

Still, the SSD reduces much of the “lag” that my netbook used to have – and that’s always the way it is when upgrading a computer with more RAM or a faster hard drive. These things don’t really make the computer any faster, but they do reduce the things that used to slow it down (a subtle but important distinction).

In the end, the SSD was a good (and cost-effective) way to lengthen the service life of my little netbook. It may not be the fastest thing around, and new netbooks (and “ultrabooks”) are almost certainly faster, but I also spent a lot less than the cost of a new netbook/ultrabook.

Upgrading to an SSD is a great way to extend the life of any older computer – assuming that you don’t mind having to re-install all your programs and data. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll need to buy an SSD that is the same size (or larger, if you can afford it!) as your old hard drive so that you can just copy (or “clone”) your old drive onto the new SSD. But at the current price of SSDs and the typical size of an average desktop or even laptop hard drive, that might be a very, very pricy option… at least for the next few years.

To put it another way: if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up!

SSD image credit: Thrasos Varnava (via Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial, no derivative works license), USB drive image credit: Crystal Icon Set

Desktop Madness Vol. 85

Some lovely desktop wallpapers featuring an unofficial “mascot” for Windows 7.

I’ve talked about the OS-Tans before – the amusing, completely un-official, anime-style cute “mascots” or “personifications” of each version of Windows. Some of them are very appropriate (Windows ME-tan), while others just seem… out of place (Vista-tan).

Well, now that Windows 7 is out… that’s right, there’s a new OS-Tan character. And this time, she even has a name: “Madobe Nanami.”

Featured for the Japanese launch of Windows 7 (complete with her own Windows 7 theme including custom wallpapers and sounds), this character is a great match for Windows 7 (the name itself is a pun – in Japanese of course – on the name “Windows 7” – Google it if you want to know more).

Anyway, I’ve got a few wallpapers featuring this fun new character, and for today’s installment of Desktop Madness, I’m going to share them with you.

Enjoy!