I like new things. I like operating systems. And, apparently, self-torture. It’s for these reasons that I spent part of last weekend rebuilding my PC – something I’d been meaning to do for many months. The machine’s always been a trooper, but in the last few weeks it’s gotten grumpy. It needed a good hard formatting. I use this PC for gaming and work, but I keep everything mission-critical in a DropBox, so I thought it might be fun to switch the rig over to Windows 8.1 Consumer Preview at the same time.
This is the story of how I installed Windows 8.1 Consumer Preview and slashed my wrist, not in that order. It actually gets kind of gory so if you’re squeamish, clear off.
First of all, know that I’m pretty savvy when it comes to PC stuff. I’m not unbeatable, but my kung-fu is good. The kids would say I have skillz. Possibly phat, conceivably mad, not both, but they are indubitably skillz.
I’ve also had a run of success with Windows Consumer Previews. From the Windows XP Beta 2, still called Whistler at the time, I’ve been quick to adopt. Even in beta that one was so stable and so much more robust than Windows 98 it became a habit. A two-instance habit, but you know. I was willing to go to Consumer Previews, which Microsoft usually releases before a gold version of an OS, on the grounds that it would work pretty well and even if it didn’t, I’d be okay on account of the skillz.
I say “two-instance habit” because I’ve only actually done it twice – Whistler Beta and then Windows 7 Consumer Preview One. I skipped Vista because everybody skipped Vista; it was apparent well before the preview shipped that the OS was a disaster. I’d later upgrade to it specifically for DirectX 10 effects in STALKER: Clear Sky, and it only remained on my system long enough for the 7 preview to arrive.
You should also know that I’m not one of those people who despises Microsoft and all they stand for. In general my experience with their software side has been positive. I use Office every day. I find Windows – missteps aside – to be powerful and versatile, assuming you’re a person who actually wants to get stuff done versus finding weird satisfaction in recompiling your kernel to open a text editor. I like Windows, and I like Microsoft’s pricing strategy, which is eminently reasonable. No, listen.
Compared to Adobe’s suite, which I also use every day, MS is downright generous (if you call it M$ on my site I swear to Lucifer I’ll kill you and your whole family). They don’t release new versions of every eight months, and the price isn’t bad when they do release something. Seriously, $150 every three years for Office, with no compulsion to switch? I can live with that.
First I rewired the case. I built this PC into a Thermaltake Level 10 GT, a beautiful white chassis I bought as a peculiar treat to myself. Why I care about the enclosure I don’t know, but I really wanted this one. Back in 2009 or so, when I built this machine, I was a bit clumsy with the case wiring. It had always bothered me, but I kept on figuring I’d put it off until a nuke-and-pave weekend and then get the whole thing done at once. Of course, Windows 7 is so nice it rarely needs to be nuked – and so did four years pass before I unhooked everything and hauled the monstrosity out to the dining room table to perform surgery.
Surgery Performed, First on PC, then on Steerpike Flesh
So this was an undertaking. My PC could use an upgrade, I suppose, but it’s not so long in the tooth it can’t run stuff – Metro: Last Light was the first game to really chug at maximum settings, and while I’d love to drop a new CPU in there, I also remember the hell I went through getting the heatsink on in the first place. It’s a Scythe Mugen 3, bought in a fit of jealousy after Gregg brought his to show and tell. It’s glorious, but the thought of removing, cleaning, and reinstalling it makes me shrivel in my non-shriveling areas.
Two hours, 14 zip ties, three SATA cables, and one quart of my blood later, I installed Windows 8.1.
The quart of blood isn’t a necessary prerequisite to installing Windows 8.1. It’s not like they make you donate. Y’see, the Scythe Mugen evidently sensed animosity and attacked as I reached for the PSU power header thingy on the northwest side of the cooling assembly. Monofilament-thin silver aluminum fins keep a hot processor cool; they’re also good at delivering thirty-nine identical, parallel slashes along the inside of my wrist.
I installed 8.1. I did it knowing the differences, knowing the complaints. I justified the upgrade in three ways:
- A bite the bullet and get it over with mentality
- Staggering blood loss (this was the new one – see below)
The time was 9:08 pm. That was the first time the Windows 8 fish appeared on my screen.
At exactly 12:09 pm the next day, fifteen hours plus one minute, Windows 7 booted from its image and I was done with Microsoft operating systems until Windows 9.
Another weird thing you might not know about me is that – in addition to liking operating systems – I like interfaces. UX design interests me, and what I’d read about Windows 8’s new “Metro” interface was intriguing. Most pros who’ve evaluated Windows 8 declare it faster, more stable, and loaded with under the hood improvements… then they give it a five out of ten, and say Metro ruins the whole thing.
What nobody has said, to my knowledge at least, is how close Metro comes.
Quite honestly, if Microsoft sticks with it (always a question mark with them, they love to be fickle and drop support for stuff before it’s had a chance to mature), it should be the interface of the future. The icon-covered-desktop-and-Start-menu paradigm is still functional, but it doesn’t work as well as it once did. Speaking personally, my workflow is hampered by it these days, and I can see exactly how something Metro-like would ameliorate those problems. Not being a UX designer, honestly, I knew the icons-and-desktop model no longer worked, but couldn’t conceive of an improvement. This is it… almost.
The Metro concept reminds me most of Active Desktop, the doomed Windows 95 update the company launched just before the US government started anti-trust proceedings against them. Remember Active Desktop? Hyperlinky, webcentric, it was way, way ahead of its time. 1997 was just too early for a push-based OS shell that essentially demanded an always-on internet connection for full value. I was still on dialup in 1997, and would be for another three years. Most people were.
Ppeople were also suspicious of Push back then, too. It seemed like too many fingers for a company to have in your home computer. The idea of live self-selected content actively coming to you, rather than you having to pull it down when you wanted it, didn’t sit well.
And really Push is the basis of Metro, or at least, what the basis of Metro should be. Nowadays a Push desktop makes sense, and a regular desktop doesn’t make sense. Customizable tiles are the way to go. Slick, elegant, and living – Windows 8’s Live Tiles would be awesome if Microsoft hadn’t invented them. They created the interface of the future, one that’s as beautiful as it is ideal for modern workflows, and then they crippled it.
What’s really wrong with Windows 8? They want me to use it the way they want me to use it.
That’s the most fundamental no-no of UI design. I want to use it the way I want to use it, and they locked me out because they didn’t want their delicate (and admittedly lovely) aesthetics messed up. They restricted me. I can’t size or move tiles the way I want to. I have little control over them, really, and I certainly can’t customize my own to the degree I’d like; I can’t build them from scratch and imbue them with specific Push functionality. There’s no reason I can’t other than it won’t let me, which makes Metro – and by extension Windows 8 – a clumsy, frustrating experience rather than an elegant one.
I Won’t Tell. I Won’t! You Can’t Make Me! Okay Fine, “Klordane.”
Windows 8’s tagline should be “why can’t I.” Why can’t I set tiles to any size I want? Why can’t I create a garish color scheme if I choose? Why can’t I create and customize Live Tiles from a slick user interface that allows me to build functionality up from the ground?
And why, for the love of God, why would they glue Windows 8’s Metro interface on top of a tacked-on, frustrating, half-broken, Start Menu-less 7-esque desktop? Metro is ultimately a shell, not an environment. Most applications, even many Microsoft applications, don’t use it, but they want you in Metro all the time, so you’re constantly flipping back and forth between it – which you wind up never using – and the desktop, which is crippled. It could be made to work like Windows 7’s desktop, sort of, but without the Start Menu it’d have to be an icon-laden mess. Besides, Metro was designed to integrate with the future: with cloud storage, with Push, with compute-anywhere. A “desktop” like that which Windows pioneered just… isn’t designed for that. It can’t be.
If you asked someone at Microsoft those “Why can’t I” questions they’d have answers, but they wouldn’t satisfy you, partly because Edelman – Microsoft’s PR firm – would provide them. I’ll tell you the real answers:
EDELMAN’S ANSWER TO ALL THE QUESTIONS REGARDING INTERFACE: the Windows® Modern User Interface Experience®™ maximizes positive Windows® functionality through full cloud integration with Microsoft® SkyDrive™ technology, Live Tile™ integration, a vibrant Microsoft® App Store™, and a variety of features suitable for today’s discerning computer user.
THE REAL ANSWER TO ALL THE QUESTIONS REGARDING INTERFACE: they want you to use it the way they want you to use it. Which is a terrible answer.
EDELMAN’S ANSWER TO ALL THE QUESTIONS REGARDING THE DESKTOP: Backwards functionality through a familiar Blackcomb©®-styled Windows® Desktop Experience®™ ensures complete usability as customers migrate fully to the Windows® Modern User Interface Experience®™. Exciting new functionality such as the Charms Bar™ and Type Start Search Applet™ energize the desktop experience in new and innovative ways.
THE REAL ANSWER TO ALL THE QUESTIONS REGARDING THE DESKTOP: they likely couldn’t get Metro working across the board, in which case they should never have shipped the OS, and/or they got scared and hedged their bets, in which case they should never have shipped the OS.
I was already having doubts before Windows 8.1 booted up and began its litany of horrors. First of all the computer’s main technical problems hadn’t gone away, they’d gotten worse. This wasn’t really 8’s fault (I haven’t ruled out the the possibility that some of my blood is shorting the motherboard), but it didn’t improve my evening. Then the Modern User Interface Experience®™ began, and that’s where it really went downhill.
Like everyone else, I do have a “Microsoft Account.” But I don’t use it for anything, nor do I want to. It’s tied to an email address I haven’t touched in more than a decade, and the system won’t let me change that, insisting that it doesn’t matter since you can connect as many addresses as you like to that account. I don’t care. I don’t like it. I want to change my primary email address. I like things tidy. When I got my first email address nobody told me to pick something sensible like “msakey” or “matt.sakey” or whatever. They said “pick a word you’ll remember.”
This was The Past. I was eighteen years old. It was 1993. Things were simpler. I didn’t know it would brand me forever. I just picked a god damned word I knew I’d remember. While stoned out of our gourds in our dorm room that afternoon, my roommate and I had watched a Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers marathon. So I picked a character’s name. How was I to know that it would follow me for the rest of my life, courtesy of Microsoft? How was I to know that my University alma mater’s domain name would be a lot less suitable when I’m a 38 year old professional?
Similarly, like everyone else, I don’t use Internet Explorer as my default browser. Microsoft needs to get over this. Let it go. Crippling the OS by making it impossible to create website-driven Live Tiles unless IE is your default is the kind of thing that gets you investigated by the Justice Department, yet there it is.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that 8.1 supposedly “brings back the Start Menu.”
It really doesn’t.
Clicking the button just swaps you back to Metro. Right clicking on it summons this offense:
Which I assume they’ll gussify a little before the actual 8.1 launch this autumn, but it’s not what people had in mind when they asked for the Start Menu back. When they asked for the Start Menu back, they wanted the fucking Start Menu back, you knob-goblins.
It’s a Virtue
Recalling that I went through a similar layer of confusion with Windows 7’s compulsory minimalism after the pleasant chaos of XP, I resolved to be patient. I got Steam up and running.
Now there’s a delightful piece of engineering, Steam. You know what you do to resurrect Steam after a nuke and pave? Not a god damned thing. You start Steam. If you keep it on a non-boot drive like I do, it announces that something weird has happened and it’s confused, but don’t worry, it’s fixing itself. Then it does. Presto.
I installed the Office 2013 trial (I told you, I like new things). Typed some stuff. Made a slide or two. Intelli-filled some spreadsheet cells. Another demand for my Microsoft Account information. Meh.
I installed the Creative Cloud trial (look, I’m running out of ways to say it). Downloaded some creative clouds. Applied a gradient to a stroke in Illustrator, which probably doesn’t excite you much but lemme tell you, it made me fizz – actually fizz – with joy. Gradient strokes! Can you imagine?
I visited the Windows App Store, which is a chaotic mess of crap tools by eleven year olds, and installed some . I tidily set up my Metro “desktop” according to my whims, if not precisely how I wanted. And I started poking around in Windows 8.1’s innards.
By about 4:00 am the writing was on the wall, but I was undaunted. For every retarded design decision (yeah, you can set it to boot straight to the 7-like desktop, but I’ll give you a buck if you can find that checkbox without Googling it), 8 or 8.1 included something really nice, like a massively revamped Task Manager. “I could get used to this, eventually,” I thought.
The sun was coming up when the computer froze for the umpteenth time – again, I can’t really blame Windows 8 for this, my PC is messed up and I don’t know why, skillz or not – so I went to bed.
Several hours later I hunkered down, booted the machine, and stared blankly at Metro. My brain had hit a roadblock; I couldn’t remember the “best” way to access my C drive. Or, in fact, any way. In truth there is no “best” way to access the C drive, because Microsoft wants you to forget that the C drive exists, Microsoft wants you to store everything on its SkyDrive®™, so conveniently linked to your granite, unchangeable-as-the-tides Microsoft Account. But I wanted something from my C drive and I was damned if I could remember how to get to it.
“Hell with it,” I said.
About 45 minutes later:
Yeah, it’s weird and chaotic, and yeah, it’s still not working right, and yeah, my workflow isn’t compatible with it any more, and yeah, it’s not a long term solution because things change and eventually I’ll have to change with them. The irony is that normally I don’t mind the change.
And thus ended my fifteen hours with Windows 8 – fifteen hours I have no plans to ever repeat. If Valve pulls the trigger on the rumors and releases a Steam OS, I’m there.
In the meantime, I’ve seen the future, and it could be Metro. It could be. Windows 7 is still perfectly acceptable, and I haven’t looked back, but it’s true that Windows 7 just doesn’t cut it today the way it did four years ago… any more than Windows XP cut it at the end of its life.
Interface for workflow. I know what I want, but it’s not possible in 7 and tantalizingly close (but similarly impossible) in 8.
Tools like Rainmeter exist, I guess, but if you’ve ever tried to use Rainmeter you know it’s more a piece of performance art than a useful solution. It’s so hard to use, so venomously obtuse, that every tiny action is incessantly one step (or one line of Lua code) out of reach. Even efforts like the Omnimo skin, which is pretty damned amazing, don’t come close to being acceptable. Not close. The idea is there, but you need the engineering prowess of a… of a Microsoft to realize it. Sadly they didn’t bother.
Windows 8.1 isn’t going to change any minds. I have seen the future, I say. I have seen the future, and it could be Metro. But not until someone starts thinking about it correctly. Not until they let me use it the way I want to use it, not the way they want me to use it.
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