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Computing Thoughts
Windows 8 is ... Not So Bad
by Bruce Eckel
April 27, 2013
Summary
After a lot of trepidation because of bad press, I've rapidly come to prefer Windows 8 over Windows 7. Because an equivalent-horsepower Mac is 3 times the cost of a Windows 8 machine, I'm moving back to Windows.

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It’s been a 6-year experiment with the Mac. I’ve adapted pretty well, I think. But in hindsight I realize there are a lot of things that never felt quite natural. Basic things like the finder and resizing windows. And more sophisticated things like any software installation that doesn’t come as a Mac installer. Obviously Windows has plenty of issues of its own but I was expecting to have a dramatic experience, that it would be SO much better that I could never imagine going back. I know a number of long-time Windows users that had exactly that experience. But it never really happened to me.

The biggest realization was that I wasn’t using anything that required a Mac. All the Mac-specific programs that I use have Windows equivalents (I know there are some programs out there that only work on the Mac; for example I’ve heard a lot about OmniGraffle but never tried it). Perhaps this was because I was still using my Windows 7 desktop; that encouraged me to stay neutral. And in all my books I’ve always kept in mind that I had multi-platform users, and users who didn’t necessarily have money, so I’ve always leaned towards open-source, cross-platform and low-cost tools.

I’ve also missed some things about Windows, believe it or not.

Ultimately I needed to use Word, the Windows version, for page layout, indexing, etc. Nothing else does the job (I’ve tried, and keep trying the alternatives). The waterfall model of “first finish the book with one program, then do layout with a different program” just doesn’t work -- you’re always finding things that need to be changed, right up to the end. And Word for the Mac is too crippled without macros. When we started laying out Atomic Scala, both Dianne and our designer Daniel put Parallels and VMWare Fusion (respectively) on their Macs to run it and could muddle through but there were some issues, like key combinations we could never figure out how to get working on the Mac.

I also wanted something with at least 4 cores, in order to do more concurrency programming experiments with languages like Scala and Go. The right Intel i7 has 4 cores and through “hardware hyperthreading” presents 8 hardware threads, so I wanted that -- as near as I can tell it will look to my programs as if there are 8 CPUs available.

When I actually started comparing, the price-to-horsepower ratio is rather astounding. Here’s what I ended up getting (yes, the 150$-off-sale at Costco helped make the decision).

I completely acknowledge that the Mac is the primary reason that Windows has gotten any better at all. My compelling motivation for moving to the Mac in the first place was that Windows laptops couldn’t go to sleep and recover -- it was a long, tedious process that half the time ended up in everything crashing, whereas the Mac would seamlessly and instantly wake up. That alone was worth the move. But since then Windows has finally fixed the problem and wakes up fast, with no more crashing due to suspension and hibernation. You used to have to reboot Windows regularly because of some kind of bit rot within the system, but that’s been fixed at least by Windows 7 and you can go for long periods without rebooting. Yes, it’s ridiculous that a company that makes so much money takes so long to fix things that are so fundamental, but at least they eventually did -- and now the cost difference is too great, and there just isn’t the pain anymore that drove me to the Mac.

It’s not that I’m off Apple products. When my little iPod which I use to listen to podcasts during long drives dies, I’ll get an iPod touch. As far as tablets go, the iPad just feels so much different than an Android, and there are apps that only seem to be on the iPad so I’ll get one of those. But neither of those are going to impact my keyboarding experience the way that moving back and forth between the Windows desktop and the Mac laptop has been. It turns out not to be that difficult to go back and forth -- I did it all the time, often several times a day. But in the end there just wasn’t that much of a benefit to stay with the Mac, once Windows got its act together and started catching up.

The touchpad experience is not as good on the Toshiba. On the Mac, it’s super-sensitive and like butter. I’m still getting used to the Toshiba’s pad, which because of Win8 goes “in the opposite direction.” This can apparently be changed (with hacks; they seem to REALLY want you to get used to the new direction) but I’m going to stick it out for awhile and see if it becomes natural (it’s probably like how your brain eventually inverts the world if you walk around looking through prisms to make it upside-down. Also it’s probably one of those mental exercises that fends off Alzheimer’s).

My initial reaction when I started hearing about Windows 8 was that it was going to be another Vista, and people have been calling it that. But my experience has been completely different. So far my impression is: “a significant incremental improvement over Windows 7, with the Metro interface that is initially a bit annoying but can easily be fixed.”

The biggest effect you’ll get in “fixing” Windows 8 is installing a “start menu button.” There are a bunch of these, but the free one that was recommended to me is Start Menu 8, and I ended up installing a payware ($5) one called Start8.

Once you install a start menu button, there really isn’t much of a “feel” difference with Windows 7, except that some of the apps are really nice. One in particular is Netflix, which has a native Windows 8 app that’s just excellent -- the best viewing experience I’ve had with Netflix so far. I haven’t really explored many of the other Metro apps but now and again I’ll poke at one and they all seem pretty nice; it feels like most of the complaints are in the category of “this feels different to me, so I don’t like it.” I’m probably a statistical outlier because I like different and get bored with too much of the same, so my analyses are biased that way.

One thing I discovered is the Gnuwin package of unix utilities custom-compiled as native windows apps, so you get everything you remember from Unix but without the disconnect of having to install and run Cygwin (this is a new discovery so I haven’t yet figured out whether it’s going to do the trick, but it looks promising). In the process of working on Atomic Scala I’ve learned a fair amount about Windows Powershell, which I won’t say is great but does a lot more than the command prompt, and is built-in to start in the directory of your choice by typing “Powershell” into the address bar of the Windows Explorer. It’s possible that Powershell + Gnuwin might just satisfy my need for a Unix shell better than Cygwin does. For the full Linux experience I will install some kind of VM and/or dual boot Ubuntu.

There are also a ton of really good free apps on Windows. I rely primarily on this site to find them.

Although the Mac emphasizes usability, there are often design decisions that are just “different” and not necessarily more usable. When I pull a Chrome tab into its own window on the Mac, ALT-TAB doesn’t move me from one Chrome window to another, but instead to the next whole application. On Windows the ALT-TAB behavior is a lot more useful.

I’ve never gotten used to the Macs plethora of key combinations, and definitely not the symbols for them. Having “fn,” “control,” “alt,” “option,” “command,” and whatever the last one is, I call it “flower” but I think in the past it might have been open-apple, and I think you can combine all of those with the shift key to produce so many variants that it far exceeds the brain’s supposed seven-plus-or-minus-two capacity for remembering things. I know there is consistency across applications with some of the basic shortcuts but beyond that I’ve never discerned a pattern and so have never been able to remember much in the way of shortcuts on the Mac.

I’ll still keep the MacBook because there certainly might be some Mac apps I discover and want to run. But ultimately the 3X cost to get the same horsepower was just too much to pay. And realizing that I just wasn’t doing much of anything Mac-specific sealed the deal -- whereas I am doing at least a couple of Windows-specific things.

My 19-year old niece really likes Windows 8; in particular the metro interface is one of her favorite things about it. Her dad (my brother, the IT guy) says “she likes anything new.” But still, not the worst thing in the world for Microsoft if the kids like it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the effect of Windows 8 on the industry, saying it is disappointing, miserable, etc. But there are multiple things happening right now: lots of people have been discovering that a smartphone or tablet is actually all they need. Those people aren’t going to buy more laptop computers (and with this machine I probably won’t be buying any more desktop computers -- I’ll just plug this into a keyboard, mouse and monitor). So there’s actually no way to know whether these “disappointing” sales might not actually be better than without Windows 8.

Windows Vista was a really terrible experience for me and is a big part of what drove me to try the Mac. I also have a hard time with Microsoft’s (Ballmer’s) response of spending 400 million on PR to try to convince people that Vista was good. That money could have done so much -- like, fixed Vista if money were all it took. Or imagine 40 startups funded at 10 million each; a few of those would have produced something great. Instead, 400 million went to pay people to talk about how wonderful Vista was. And Sinofsky gets fired for Windows 8, which, once you get over or around the metro interface, seems like a decent incremental improvement over Windows 7. Based on early press (like PCMag, ordinarily a Windows booster, and this Monday Note -- notice, however, the ultimate analysis was made on sales), I was expecting a worse-than-Vista experience where Metro would be constantly in my face, but so far I find it quite usable, and there appear to be numerous places where they made it not hugely but notably better. It probably would have been smarter to make Metro an option and keep the basic Win7 look and feel (make something like Start8 the default), but the declaring of death for the PC based on Win8 seems overblown. Naturally, lots of people who never needed the full power of a keyboard-and-big-screen computer in the first place are buying handheld devices instead; because of those people we saw an artificial economy when desktops and laptops were the only computing game in town. Now that they’re not, many people are not going to replace their desktop or notebook computers with more of the same -- but that doesn’t mean Windows 8 is bad, or “has killed the PC market.”

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2013 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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