Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Windows 8 - The OS with the split personality

Windows 8 Modern UI you either love it or you hate it (just like Marmite).

I'm a desktop user and I hate it.

I won't be buying it for reasons I'll outline below, but it means I will miss out on many of the under-the-hood improvements that the hard working engineers at Microsoft have made. Things like:
These are just a few examples of why I should be convinced to upgrade. But I'm not convinced and I'm not alone either. Most people I know have no plans to upgrade even with the discounted upgrade pricing in place until Jan 31st 2013.

I've tried using Windows 8 on my desktop, but it doesn't feel right.


From what I've read Microsoft have tried to build on OS that runs on multiple devices - phones, laptops, desktops and tablets, that looks and behaves the same across those devices. I believe, that design constraint has made Windows 8 feel like a second class citizen on the desktop.

Obviously Microsoft want a piece of the fast growing tablet market. Windows 8 is probably great on touch devices - I don't know because I've not got a tablet or a touch device running windows 8. Metro ModernUI apps look great running full screen on those devices, however on my 27" monitor the full screen apps waste space.

I understand why Microsoft chose live tiles on the phone and tablet, it's a UI paradigm that makes sense for those devices. It doesn't make sense on a desktop. It seems the only reason the live tiles are used on the desktop is a marketing ploy, so that the look and feel remains consistent across the Windows 8 product range.

Device Usage

Different classes of device have different strengths and weaknesses. Some devices will excel at certain tasks, and provide basic functionality with other tasks. This is to be expected, it is the nature of things. No tool can do everything, and electronic devices are just tools. In the same way you can't use a hammer to turn a screw, a touch screen can't be used with the same degree of control as a mouse when using Photoshop/Gimp, and typing on a keyboard is faster and more comfortable than typing with an on-screen touch keyboard.

This is not to say touch screens will never provide the same degree of control, however they are limited in this respect at this moment in history.

If different devices excel at different tasks, then the UI for each device should be designed to compliment the expression/utility of those tasks. The UI should make using the device feel intuitive and as effortless as possible, after all the idea is not to get in the way, but to enable the user access the functionality of the device.

A user interface across a range of devices may share commonalities, but no single UI will be able to elegantly express functionality across all devices. If a UI is designed to only to compliment specific tasks or specific methods of interaction, other tasks will feel laboured and unnatural.

ModernUI was clearly designed with touch screens interaction as the primary interface, with secondary consideration given to mouse/trackpad interactions. Using a touch based UI on desktop PC is a flawed concept. Elements of the new UI could be used with a desktop PC to give a feeling of familiarity across a range of devices, whilst other elements of the UI on the desktop should be tailored to provide the best experience on that device.

By trying to make the same UI work across a variety of devices, Windows 8, with ModernUI apps, feels  unnatural on desktop computers using a mouse.

Problems on the Desktop

The new Windows 8 start screen is built for touch devices. Nice big tiles/targets for fingers to launch full screen apps on phones and tablets.

It fails on the desktop because:
  • Most applications in the Windows ecosystem are desktop apps as opposed to ModernUI apps. This means that launching an app (from the new start screen) is visually jarring. Switching between ModernUI and the desktop makes Windows 8 feel like a system with a split personality. This split personality is emphasized by the fact the IE10 on the desktop is not the same as IE10 in ModernUI. This is not explicitly obvious to end users - the program has the same name, but in actual fact it's 2 distinct programs. The jarring effect may decrease if ModernUI apps gain traction, but even within ModernUI apps there are too many annoying animations between transitions.
  • Full screen ModernUI apps waste screen space on large monitors. An example of this is on a 27" monitor the bottom half of the Windows Store app is a blank white screen. 50% of the screen is not being used effectively.
  • Scrolling in ModernUI was designed for touch devices. This results in unintuitive scrolling for users with a scroll wheel mouse. Scrolling the mouse wheel up/down to moves the UI left/right.
  • Pinning Metro Apps - an attempt to overcome the obvious flaw of always using full screen apps. Sometimes, and more often than expected, it is necessary to be able to see the content from multiple windows. Traditional apps on the desktop cater for this - users have become accustomed to this functionality. ModernUI only lets the user see 2 running applications and one app is limited to 33% of the screen - it's not user customizable one app takes 33% of the screen, the other the remainder. There is no option for 50/50 or anything else, and there is certainly no option for seeing more than 2 apps. I have yet to see a ModernUI app where this is useful.
  • The new start screen can become visually overwhelming. It possible to have many hundreds of tiles, some of which are live tiles. This is a huge amount of information to bombard a user with, making the start screen look very 'busy'. Contrast this with Windows 7 or Mac OS X or Android, where the user is provided with less information and invited to explore.
  • Charms bar and task switching - I can't begin to describe how pointless these are for desktop mouse users.

What could have or should have been

My aim is not for this blog entry to be a critical rant, therefore, here are some constructive suggestions that may go some way to fixing the issues above. (Assuming Microsoft think there is anything to fix..)

If for whatever reason Microsoft wanted visual consistently across devices running Windows 8 then they could have achieved it without sacrificing the desktop experience.
  • The ModernUI look could/should have been better integrated into the desktop. There was no need for a new start screen for desktop users. The desktop could have had a start button like previous versions of windows and the tiles could be presented as an overlay of the desktop similar to Gnome 3 or the Dashboard in Mac OS X. This is less visually jarring for users as they are still connected to the desktop in the background. By presenting the application launching tiles in this manner the overlay could to scroll up/down rather than left/right matching the interaction with the mouse scroll wheel. The tiles overlay would be familiar to the new start screen on tablet devices helping contribute to a consistent Windows 8 look.
  • Making ModernUI apps have the ability to run as windowed apps would solve many issues for desktop users. Users with large monitors would be able to resize apps as they sit fit. Scrolling issues would disappear and users would be able to see multiple ModernUI apps simultaneously should they wish to. Running ModernUI apps on the desktop would allow desktop users access to the new apps in a context with behaviour they are accustomed to.
  • The simplest fix would be to have the OS use intelligence. If it's running on a desktop PC, boot to the desktop (or at least give the user the option) after login and if it's a tablet boot to the new start screen.


After using Windows 8 consumer preview for while it seem apparent that it was designed for content consumption on content consumption devices - phones and tablets.

Desktop PCs can be used for content consumption, however they are traditionally used for content creation. ModernUI is simply not good for content creation (in it's current form). 

Using Windows 8 on a desktop PC is sub-standard. It should have been so much better. Why alienate desktop users? Why not leave the start button for desktop users? Alternatively provide a range of options as to how the user would best like to use their computer?

I won't be upgrading from Windows 7. Before you buy a new machine or upgrade make sure you test Windows 8. It might work for you! If it doesn't demand Windows 7 on your new computer - you are entitled to 'downgrade' as per the EULA with Windows 8.

Maybe Microsoft will fix my issues with a service pack, or maybe the issues will be fixed with Windows 9.

If not Windows 7 is good for updates until Jan 14th 2020, and by then maybe Linux as Desktop will be a viable option...

For those that need to be on the cutting edge, but can't stand the new start screen there are a few products that provide a start button on the desktop.

Friday, 19 October 2012


I'm Dan and this is my blog. This is where I intend to share my opinions, catalog my successes and failures and share anything I think is meaningful or relevant.

I'm currently living in the Netherlands and learning Dutch.