making peace with windows 8

As far as I’m concerned, Windows 8 was all potential this past spring and summer – Microsoft attempting to leapfrog past Apple with a unified operating system, one which runs equally well on tablets and more traditional computers. Sure, it was a little awkward switching between the ‘Modern’ (nee Metro) environment and the traditional desktop, but the new fullscreen apps held a lot of promise. Here was computing being modestly rethought.

However, having downloaded the shipping version of 8 on release day, (October 26) and living with it for the last couple of weeks, I’m starting to agree with critics who say Modern plus desktop is not a marriage. I had hoped to be able to work in the Modern environment most of the time, and switch to the desktop only when I absolutely had to. What I’ve discovered is the exact opposite: at launch, Microsoft’s app store is thin; it doesn’t give me enough programs to work with, so I’m mostly back to the desktop. Besides, on an old laptop you have to use a mouse and keyboard combinations to accomplish what a tablet or a touchscreen pc – or a laptop with the right kind of trackpad – does with gestures.

And an old laptop – a Dell Latitude – is what I have. I strongly suspect that having a trackpad that supports multi-touch would change my take on Win 8 in its Modern incarnation. But I don’t, and millions of other users don’t either. So, what to do?

In my case, I’ve taken steps to treat the laptop as if it’s running some advanced version of Windows 7, which means I installed a start button (my preference was Stardock’s ‘Start 8,’ which costs a little money, but there are free alternatives, including the well-regarded ‘Classic Shell‘) and have downloaded desktop versions of apps I want to use. Start 8 – and I think this is common among start button replacements – skips the full screen Win 8 start page and takes me directly to the desktop.

Since I made the change and mostly abandoned Modern, my day-in, day-out experience of Windows 8 is much improved. True, I have a  vestigial sense that I’m somehow not using the computer the way I’m supposed to, but that strikes me as more than a little silly – I have to live up to the expectations of an operating system? Such is the life of a geek fellow-traveller – and the more work I actually get accomplished in Win 8, the more the sensation goes away.

A couple of other things about my Win 8: getting to a Metro app is modestly harder – I have to open the Start 8 menu, scroll up to ‘Windows Start Menu,’ click and open the app I want from there. I could skip this step by pinning Metro apps to Start 8 itself, but I like a clean menu. On the plus side, I still have available to me the system tools menu you can get by going to the lower left corner and right clicking, including the vastly improved task manager. One thing I kinda miss using the desktop: I still manually close apps, because the option to close is there. In Modern, there is no close button. The operating system takes care of memory management for me. Maybe it’s still doing it with desktop apps, but I can’t overcome the compulsion to close what I’m not using, and in the desktop environment, it’s far more obvious what programs are open.

And yes, I like the look of the Win 8 desktop. The squared-off aggressively 2D appearance is the opposite of the much-loved Aero glass look, but I think it’s sharp.

However, now that I’ve made Win 8 usable by mostly jettisoning the main event, Modern, I’m left with a big question – why bother with Windows at all? As improved as it is, Windows is still fussy and hardware hungry compared to my workaday Ubuntu desktops, and the nature of proprietary software still imposes little speed bumps that get in my way as I work. I’m writing this on an eight year old, very modestly spec’ed Dell Inspiron. It’s running Ubuntu 12.04, and aside from the initial load being a bit slow, the machine remains responsive, even quick. Same thing for a Thinkpad I picked up a few months ago which is also running Ubuntu 12.04. I wanted to run Google’s Chromium on it, though so far no luck, but I’m more and more running everything I do out of the Chrome browser, and am not all that far from taking the final step and getting a Chromebook, and letting Google do the heavy lifting. As nice as Windows 8 is, and as much as Microsoft is working on ‘the cloud,’ Google seems simpler and more, ummm, universal to me.

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