Friday, 13 September 2013

Getting a Windows 8 PC to be usable and useful

The infamous start page is less of a deal than reported. It is mostly full of junk that is easily removed, but the small tiles are probably still a bad way to access a substantial set of applications. The desktop is only a click away.  I plan to leave installing RetroUI until after Windows 8.1 has been assimilated. RetroUI looks like it might have the ability to turn the start page into something useful, and some other interesting possibilities.

The full-screen 'apps' are a complete disaster from a user point of view on first encounter. Fortunately there are free alternatives (please donate where you can) that are better than MS offerings, which I would use anyway.

Apologies for the lack of links in what follows, but things are a bit fraught here. DYOR and YMMV of course, but my starter pack looks something like:
CCleaner of course.
Foobar for music and VLC player for other media.  You might want to add MakeMKV or FreeRIP.
Libre Office; The quirks of client templates mean that I will also need MS Office and MS have done the dirty as regards running earlier versions, but IMHO the open office spreadsheets are much better than Excel. Notepad++ may have features that are worth having over Notepad - depends on your usage.Blue Griffon for web page writing, including drafting blog posts such as this. Not sorted out .pdf applications yet.
Irfanview, Photofiltre, Inkscape, YEd for graphics.
Browsers of your choice; It is a real shame what has happened to Opera - Firefox seeems to be the only capable browser around now. SRWare Iron is essentially Chrome with all the right privacy settings and is good for simple surfing.
You really need a file manager with Win8; I paid for Powerdesk Pro 9, but it wouldn't run; found FreeCommander - nearly as good, free, and it works [update: Powerdesk runs fine under Win8.1, and is significantly better than FreeCommander]. FreeFileSync for rapid and flexible synchronizing of folders; In my experience it sometimes leaves junk folders starting FFS around, which need checking for content before deleting. Copernic for desktop search; At the start of Longhorn, "Where's my stuff?" was Bill Gates' big challenge for the OS that became Vista/7/8 but nothing seems to have happened.
PhraseExpress for keyboard shortcuts/macros/spellchecking/quotes.

This post at Lifehacker is good on alternatives to what comes with the machine.

Making it feel like home (surprisingly important) meant importing the coffee bean .bmp to tile on the desktop - it didn't seem to be on the machine.

Update after initial use of Win8.1

 The update wasnt' an update. It was an App in the Store. Here on Solaris III that wasn't obvious. Bing searches on the MS web site didn't help - had to get google to tell me. Apart from that, painless.
BUT they really want you to be assimilated. Transferring between your MS account and your local account always follows the path of maximum difficulty. For instance, there is no Freecell installed (and the old freecell.exe won't run - Update - solution here). Ah, there is an App; this means lots of going into your MS account and giving permission for it to access all sorts of things, then fighting your way back to a local account where I don't think it works. Far better to download free freecell solitaire from CNET (apparently a better game anyway). Why is is "my documents" but "your account" anyway? Just one of many instances of muddled inconsistency that bureaucracies produce when they don't do user testing.

Win8.1 is definitely an improvement on Win8. Given the outcry against Win8, it is still remarkable that there can have been no proper UX involvement, or just simple user testing before releasing Win8.1, however.

The Start screen is quite nice, and visually better than the old Start menu. BUT when you download applications, be sure to check that the icon is 'pinned to start' and maybe also 'pinned to taskbar'; otherwise you will be rummaging through Program Files. The pinning dialogue does, of course, have some annoying inconsistencies. The tile grid would be a good way to lay out options if MS didn't constrain the layout so much. Start out by getting rid of as much junk as you can.

Even without using the Apps, you are forced to have some un-Appy moments interacting with Win8.1. When in the middle of some mindboggling interaction remember that Esc won't work but that the Windows key gets you to the Start page. RetroUI is less necessary than it would have been with Win8, but may be worth it - I am still considering getting it.

The Start page does not have a search box - you just type and it appears. Some numpty must have thought that was as cool as Cupertino. Ok once you know. BUT it seems to be useless. If you want to know how to fix annoying aspects of Win8.1, google it. So far for me, this has included:
  • Restoring 'confirm' before delete. (hint: wastebasket properties).
  • Getting rid of the obtrusive 'help',which is even worse than Clippy was - at least Clippy didn't take up a quarter of the screen.
  • Moving between MS and local accounts, staying away from Skydrive, getting out of the MS account once forced to be in it.
  • Finding a workaround for the loss of Start - documents; made a desktop shortcut to 'Recent Items'. The MS website proposal didn't match the Win8.1 UI.

"What now? - Oh, that what now..."

Some of the revisionist capitalist-running-dog press with "leaks" of an update to Win8.1 are trying to airbrush what a disaster the Win8/8/1 UI is. I trust they were paid in silver rather than lunch. A group of schoolchildren with a UX project would not try to impose a phone touchscreen interface on a desktop monitor. To be that crass, you need a roomful of balding shouty predatory Silicon Valley business leaders. The penny is starting to drop in terms of updates to unwind this folly.
 Couple this with @tomiahonen's forecast that Nokia/MS/Windows phones are doomed, poor sales of Windows tablets to business, and we need to look elsewhere. The ending of support for XP and Win7 must be alarming a good many organizations. The move to open source formats in the public sector comes just at the wrong time for MS, and a free alternative to MS Office is very appealing in a time of austerity.
Apple and I parted company a long time ago. IMHO Apple without Steve Jobs is on its way to becoming as loved as Adobe (happy to be proved wrong). For business use, Android is a mess. So by default my next tech project is to try Linux - probably LXLE on an old machine. I just don't see the alternative.