My Thoughts on Windows 8: Part I

Note: This blog post became so long, I’ve decided to break it up into several installments. Here is the first one, where I discuss changes that were made to how search works in the start menu. The second part focuses on the Tablet PC Input Panel and general UI issues. The third part deals with the lack of new features and the good things about Windows 8.

Windows 8 has been given quite some press coverage thanks to or due to its new Modern UI (formerly known as “Metro”). I started using Windows 8 a few months ago and like many, many others, I have some thoughts on the design and implementation.

Any discussion on Windows 8’s merits and drawbacks should include what hardware it runs on. Primarily, I will be discussing my experiences on a Lenovo X230 Tablet, which has both touch input and a pen. However, I spend most of my time working at my desk with the tablet docked to a traditional keyboard, mouse and multi-monitor setup. In that mode, neither touch or pen input are available. In additionl to the Tablet PC, I also have it installed on my primary desktop computer.

I am not going to pick apart Microsoft’s decision to use the Windows Phone-style UI in a mainly desktop-with-mouse-and-keyboard operating system. Instead, I am going to focus on some of the consequences of that decision. There are some other changes I will discuss that aren’t related to the new UI.

Windows 8 Start Menu Search

Since the introduction of the maligned Windows Vista, I’ve loved the search bar in the start menu. I recall when using Windows XP as my primary OS, I spent time thinking about how to organize my files into folders and subfolders and subfolders of subfolders and so on. I’ve mostly kept that habit because there are still good reasons for doing so, but I found that I don’t often navigate those deep folder hierarchies anymore, I just use Search. Search is still there in the Windows 8 Start Menu: just start typing if you’re on a keyboard, or use the Search charm by swiping in from the right on a touch device.

However, the search results are presented very differently. Vista and 7 showed files, communication (e-mail), programs and settings results in the same list. For example, typing “windows update” would find the Windows Update UI, but also any e-mails with the text “windows update.” In Windows 8, the search results are shown in three separate areas: Apps, Settings and Files. In order to see file results, you actually have to either use the arrow down and Enter keys on the keyboard or the mouse to select the proper area.

It used to work so well that my fingers just walked over the keyboard to open certain reference documents I consult all the time. Hit the Start button on the keyboard, type a specific key phrase (I’ve learnt them by heart over the years) and just hit Enter. The right file opens immediately with a minimum number of keystrokes and no mouse interaction.

Other than the additional work to see file results, sometimes the line between Apps and Settings is very blurred. Device Manager, for example, shows up under Settings but Control Panel shows up under Apps. And Computer Management doesn’t show up at all anymore (type “computer” instead, right-click on the only search result in Apps and select Manage from the App Bar).

This is my biggest gripe, because I run into it several times a day. It bothered me so much, I spent a few dollars on a Start Menu replacement from a third party that keeps the integrated search.

Other Start Menu Issues

A final consideration about the Start Menu in Windows 8 is the clutter that results from application installations. The old-style Start Menu allowed application developers to create one or more folders to hold their applications’ icons. The concept of folders is gone and replaced by a combination of groupings and pinning. Newly installed applications have all their icons pinned to the Start Menu by default. IMHO, Microsoft had to do this, because otherwise most users would never find them: it’s not intuitive to right-click on a blank area to bring up the App Bar and then select All Apps.

Newly installed applications, however, are not properly grouped. I can’t deduce what algorithm is used for the grouping, but on one system, my icons for SnagIt, Mail Merge Toolkit and Office 2013 all ended up in the same group.

When using the All Apps interface, the grouping works marginally better because it’s actually based on a folder structure in the file system. However, folder hierarchies are flattened and everything is listed alphabettically. So, the subfolder “Configuration Tools” that belongs to “Microsoft SQL Server 2012” just has its contents shown under “Microsoft SQL Server 2012.” That leads to a huge list of icons that’s not really navigable. Maybe application developers will develop installers that won’t install quite so many icons… but then how would you launch the application (no, not app, application. Angry Birds is an app, SQL Server 2012 Management Studio is an application)?

So, that’s what I think about the new Start menu. In the next post, I will discuss the Tablet PC Input Panel and the poor integration between the desktop and Modern UIs.

Sven Aelterman.

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