Windows 8/8.1 Desktop Review
December 8, 2013 UPDATE: I mentioned in the article that Windows 8/8.1 does not have a competent search function. After speaking to a friend at college who had a functioning Windows 8.1 search function, I found out that I was wrong about this. Windows 8.1 was not finding certain administrative tasks because I disabled indexing in my C: drive, which is a solid state drive (SSD) and it’s recommended to disable indexing in an SSD. However, I moved the search index depository to my D: drive, which is a second hard drive that I use for storing non-operating system files. Therefore, I do not believe that there will be any problems with re-enabling search indexing in my C: drive because all the random writes associated with search indexing are now occurring on my hard drive. Please ignore any prior criticisms I made regarding Windows 8/8.1′s search function because with search indexing re-enabled, it is now just as good as Windows 7′s search function.
Original Post: This review is intended for desktop users as it does not cover the mobile touchscreen tablet aspects of Windows 8/8.1.
I think you all remember the negative feedback that Windows 8 got. Most people absolutely refused to upgrade their current PCs or even install it on a custom-built PC with no previous OS on it. Instead, they got stuck with it when they bought new PCs from vendors or they just downgraded new PCs. In my situation, since Windows 8 was cheaper and I’m a poor college student, I just decided to go for it and installed it back in July. If you don’t know, Windows 8 costs $100 and Windows 7 Home Premium costs $140.
Right after installing it and entering the Start screen, I could easily see what everyone’s problem was. The user interface (UI) was pretty unintuitive and carried a steep learning curve. While the Start screen could be configured to look nice, some functions were moved to areas that made no sense for desktop users. Basically, Microsoft focused too much on appealing to the mobile and touchscreen market without accommodating its largest user base, desktop owners. Apart from UI issues though, Windows 8 was a decent operating system. Almost everything from previous Windows operating systems was compatible with it and there were significant performance and administrative application enhancements. However, given that the UI is what’s needed to access some of these things, if the UI fails, then the operating system as a whole will be deemed a failure and that’s ultimately what happened with Windows 8. First, let’s go over what Microsoft tried to do and why it failed in what it tried until Windows 8.1 came out.
Although everyone stressed that the Start screen was terrible, keep in mind that it was meant to act as a substitute for the Start menu. Even though PC users only wanted to work on the desktop, use of the Start screen is inevitable if you want to access your applications without having to deal with a ton of desktop shortcuts. The problem with this in Windows 8 was that Microsoft did a terrible job explaining how to use the Start screen as a competent substitute to the Start menu. With the Start menu gone, access to administrative tasks and your list of programs is gained through the Control Panel and the Start screen. The Control Panel method isn’t that bad, but it opens up extra windows, which could lead to clutter if you’re working on a lot at once in the desktop. Basically, just right click on the lower-left corner, click on Control Panel, and then click on Administrative Tools. This is still the same in Windows 8.1. The problem with this method, apart from the clutter it can create, is that no one knew that the Control Panel could be accessed this way because Microsoft didn’t explain it.
If done properly, the Start screen can give you access to the administrative tools more quickly and more efficiently than through the Control Panel. The key word here is properly. As I said before, Microsoft did a terrible job explaining how to make the UI work well. In Windows 8, the administrative tools would be placed here:
They are initially unlabeled and undivided from everything else (the user in the image above added the division between “System Configuration” and “System Information” himself). It looks fine right now, but once you have a bunch of other programs installed, Windows 8 will place the shortcuts right next to the administrative tools and pre-installed applications, making things very cluttered. Case in point:
Yeah, good luck finding stuff in that (Windows 8 and 8.1 will only add divisions automatically if the amount of clustered icons becomes obscenely large. It still doesn’t help until you do it manually). Of course, with some configuration, the Start screen can actually end up looking pretty nice like what the user below did:
Unfortunately, the technologically illiterate (aka the average consumer) wouldn’t know how to do this right away. Luckily, there is a way to move to a section of Start that shows all your apps labeled and sorted. Just right click while the cursor isn’t on an app and click “All apps” to get to the screen below:
However, this isn’t immediately apparent to the user and we arrive back at the recurring problem in Windows 8 – a lot of decent ideas with horrible execution and tutorials. With Windows 8.1, however, Microsoft seems to have fixed its mistakes for the most part. But more on that later.
So that’s Windows 8’s Start screen. A radical idea flawed by a failure by Microsoft to teach its users about it. Unfortunately, other aspects of the UI are flawed as well. A huge annoyance for me was and still is the lack of a competent search function. Remember in Windows 7’s Start menu you could type in whatever you wanted and there would be a good chance that the operating system would locate it? That doesn’t happen in Windows 8’s or 8.1’s search function. All you get are search results on Bing. Here’s a comparison of Windows 7 and 8.1:
In Windows 8, the search function was even worse, being unable to locate certain things like the Control Panel. The end result of this was that I had to use really counterproductive methods to get to the Control Panel before I realized that you could right-click on the lower-left corner to get to it. In Windows 8.1, at least you can access vital administrative applications rather than just installed applications in Windows 8. However, Microsoft still needs to do more work in fixing it as Windows 7’s search function surpasses it by far. The only addition made to the search function in Windows 8.1 (this didn’t exist in Windows 8) is that you can search on Bing from it, but I don’t see a point for this when you can just open up your browser and head to Google.
The last major issue I had with Windows 8’s UI was the fact that Microsoft moved the Shut Down/Restart/Sleep button to a really unintuitive location that took me a while to find. I had to go into the charms bar (it’s the bar that comes up when you move your mouse to the lower-right or upper-right corner of the screen), click Settings, and then Power. Either that, or go to the desktop with no programs open and push Alt-F4. I had Microsoft’s website explaining the charms bar open when I did this, so you can see I outlined the Settings button and the Power button in Microsoft’s own screenshots below.
So now Windows 8.1 is out and I’m happy to say that it addresses many of Microsoft’s failures with Windows 8. First and foremost, the UI is much more accommodating to desktop users. You can now boot directly to the desktop instead of the Start screen, meaning that you no longer have to waste more time than necessary in the Start screen if you absolutely can’t abide by it. In fact, the tablet UI as a whole is now more isolated from the desktop UI. In Windows 8, after closing a tablet UI app, you would be put back into the Start screen. You can now set Windows 8.1 to put you back into the desktop rather than the Start screen. You can just use it to access whatever application, tablet or desktop, you need and then jump right back to your work on the desktop.
There are other options in the “Start screen” section that are useful. The second one, “Show my desktop background…” seems to be purely cosmetic and psychological. Apparently people think that the Start screen will be easier to associate with the desktop if it has the same background as the desktop. I only have it checked because it makes the Start screen easier to read. The third one in the “Start screen” section, “Show Start on the display…” is useful if you use multiple displays. I only use one, but I checked the option anyway in case I upgrade later. What this option does is it allows the Start screen to open on the display that the mouse is currently on when you push the Windows key on your keyboard to open the Start screen. Before this was available, the Start screen opened on the main display, which was whatever display had the Start button on the lower-left corner. Now you don’t have to move your cursor all the way back to the main display if you open the Start screen with your keyboard.
The fourth option opens the Apps section of the Start screen by default instead of the main Start screen. The Apps section was previously only accessible by right-clicking in the Start screen and clicking “All apps.” For all the lazy users out there, you might want to check this option if you don’t want to spend time pinning your most frequent apps to the pinned apps main Start screen. The Apps screen has also been improved slightly. It’s much easier to get to it now since all you have to do is either enable the “Show the Apps view automatically…” option or just click a downward-pointing arrow on the main Start screen. You can also sort the Apps screen now to suit your needs. The fifth option, “List desktop apps first in…” does this for you if you check it since it’ll move your likely-unused tablet apps to the end where you don’t see them and give you faster access to your desktop applications. If you have the second, fourth, and fifth options checked, your Start screen will look like this when you push the Start button:
Overall, it’s pretty good, even arguably better than the traditional Start menu. You can access all your applications with just two clicks now instead of searching through several folders in the traditional Start menu. However, there’s a problem that caused me not to check the fourth option above. The good thing about all the folders in the Start menu was that you didn’t have a massive cluster of applications in the Start menu. Here, if you have a lot of applications, your Start screen is going to get cluttered very quickly, making it hard for you to find things. Luckily, this can be remedied by properly configuring the main Start screen with your pinned apps, although this takes a bit of time that the average consumer might not be willing to put up with. This could be done in Windows 8 also, but not many people knew about it without a proper tutorial. This is what I’ve configured my Start screen to look like (I’ve also outlined the arrow used to access the Apps screen now):
And while we’re on the note of the lack of Windows 8 tutorials…
After admitting itself that Windows 8 carried a steep learning curve that need to be addressed, Microsoft added in a Help+Tips app in Windows 8.1 for users to get acquainted with the UI and other aspects of the operating system. Unlike previous Windows operating systems, Windows 8 did not have a Getting Started or Help+Tips section, only a very basic tutorial after installation that didn’t focus enough on how to optimize Windows 8’s UI. I didn’t touch the app initially since Google told me everything I needed, but for the sake of this review, I poked around a bit and was pleased to find that the app does indeed help explain various aspects of Windows 8.1’s UI and other enhancements.
But what about the other issues I had with Windows 8? I’m sure you all know about the Start button returning, but I don’t see what the big deal about this is since it’s only cosmetic. You still go to the Start screen. I assume people are merely more at ease with it from a psychological standpoint. The search function is also still broken, as I’ve mentioned before. It may be possible to fix this though with third-party software that brings back the Start menu. There’s a lot of options, but the most popular are Start8 and Classic Shell since they resemble the Start menu the most. Start 8 costs $5 while Classic Shell is free, although the general consensus is that it’s less refined/polished since it doesn’t have a stable income for development costs. I personally don’t see the issue as severe enough to warrant the installation of third-party software, but others may want it. As for the Shut Down/Restart/Sleep button, it’s been moved to a far more intuitive location. Now you just right click on the lower-left and click on “Shut down or sign out.”
I focused a lot on the UI aspect of Windows 8 because that was the most controversial part of the operating system. All the performance enhancements, on the other hand, have been met with positive reviews. It’s hard for me to give a comparison between performance in Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 because I installed Windows 8 immediately after building my new PC and my Windows 7 laptop has hardware that’s vastly inferior to my Windows 8.1 PC. Therefore, much of what I’m writing about Windows 8’s performance will come from other sources. Also, most of the performance upgrades already existed in Windows 8 as Windows 8.1 was more of a UI/functionality update. Therefore, I’ll be referring to Windows 8 in the performance section rather than Windows 8.1.
Several journalists have noted that Windows 8’s boot up and shut down times are consistently faster than those of Windows 7. This is because the kernel doesn’t fully shut down, but instead hibernates itself by saving itself to the boot partition. Therefore, instead of booting up the kernel again from scratch, Windows 8 can just load the information from the boot partition and reinitialize the drivers. The end result is boot times of 15-20 seconds on a hard drive and 10 seconds on a solid state drive. This image from ExtremeTech.com illustrates this rather well:
Moving files, on the other hand, is marginally slower than in Windows 7. However, the difference is, as I said, marginal. You likely won’t notice it too much. According to Microsoft, the reason for the slower file transfers is that Windows 8 will do a malware scan on files as they’re being moved to improve security [1, 2].
Apart from malware scans during file transfers, security has been improved through a combination of support for secure boot, bundled antivirus software, and memory allocation safeguards. Modern motherboards are now replacing the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) with the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), although they still need support from the operating system in order to use the UEFI. Otherwise they revert back to the BIOS. Luckily, Windows 8 supports this and is able to take advantage of the UEFI’s secure boot protocol, which prevents drivers from loading if they’re not signed with an approved digital signature. This poses problems for users of certain branches of Linux, however, but that discussion lies outside the scope of this review. Windows 8 also comes with an enhanced version of Windows Defender that is basically the same as the free antivirus, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) that was released for Windows XP, Vista, and 7 in 2009. The antivirus isn’t perfect though since many reviewers have noted that Windows Defender/MSE, while having a very promising start and scoring well on multiple benchmarks, now lags behind all of its competitors. For those of you who browse the Internet safely and intelligently, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. After all, the best antivirus is your mind; be aware of what you’re downloading and where you’re downloading from. For the uninformed masses though, it’ll probably be a good idea to invest in some form of antivirus. Still, I’m amazed that Microsoft didn’t get smacked with an antitrust lawsuit for bundling Windows Defender with Windows 8. As for the memory allocation safeguards, I will direct you to the image below from ExtremeTech.com. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure what all these safeguards mean .
Lastly, although the tablet UI received heavy modification, the desktop UI also got a bit of an overhaul. Windows Explorer uses the ribbon interface now, although if you already know keyboard shortcuts, it’s unlikely you’ll use it for much. If you live by your mouse though, you’ll find that various folder options are now more accessible. The Task Manager has also gotten a much-needed overhaul. All processes, tasks, and running services (a separate tab exists for a list of all services, running or stopped) are now located in one tab, along with a summary of their resource consumption. Startup items are now located in the Task Manager also and can be set to run at boot or at the user’s request.
So, after experiencing all the performance upgrades of the original Windows 8 and the UI upgrades of Windows 8.1, I can feel confident in saying that Windows 8.1 is a solid operating system that has answered the concerns of its users. It’s not perfect as there are still flaws to fix, but a product is never perfect. Universal acclaim is impossible to achieve in a world of seven billion people with different opinions. Now, is it worth the $100 dollars ($140 for the Pro version)? I would say that it depends on what situation you’re currently in. If you were like me and just finished building a new PC, get Windows 8.1. If you’re upgrading from Windows XP or Windows Vista, also get Windows 8.1. I see no point in spending the extra $40 for Windows 7 (even more if you buy Professional or Ultimate) when Windows 8.1 has better performance and has mostly fixed its UI issues. If you’re upgrading a current Windows 7 machine though, then I can’t really recommend an upgrade to Windows 8.1. Spend that money on a solid state drive instead. Except for boot times, which is remedied by buying a solid state drive, I don’t see the performance upgrades between Windows 7 and 8.1 to be significant enough to warrant a software upgrade. Windows 7 still accommodates newer hardware fairly well and I can’t see DirectX 11.2’s exclusivity to Windows 8.1 being a big deal. For $100, you can get some decent 120GB solid state drives from Newegg. If you’re worried about space, just use your old hard drive as a data drive and store only operating system files maybe a few frequently used programs on the solid state drive.
- Ability to boot directly to desktop
- Start screen more organized
- Better tutorials from Microsoft to help new user organize the Start screen
- Desktop user interface tweaked
- Faster boot times
- Increased security
- Search function is still broken
- Start screen still clutters easily without user intervention as folders/groups in Start screen are not automatically created like folders in previous Windows Start menus
- Secure boot becomes a pain to deal with when installing multiple operating systems although it can be disabled to boot in legacy mode with the traditional BIOS
- If you’re upgrading a pre-Windows 7 PC or installing a new operating system on a custom-built PC, get Windows 8.1
- If you’re upgrading a Windows 7 PC, spend the money on a solid state drive instead
Additional Sources http://www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/353255-windows-8-secure-at-the-deepest-level-1.jpg  http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2406668,00.asp
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