Living with Windows 8: On the desktop, it's just a better Windows 7

Living with Windows 8: On the desktop, it's just a better Windows 7

Summary: You only really get to know an OS by living with it. After using Windows 8 for over a year, I've seen it evolve, and found that - on the desktop at least - some fears are exaggerated.

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It's been over a year since I first installed a build of Windows 8 on a test machine. Since then, I've run it on a wide range of hardware, including slate-format tablets, hybrid touch/pen/keyboard tablet PCs, traditional laptops and multi-monitor desktop PCs – hardware that mixes the old (with Vista and XP-era devices) and the new (a recently upgraded Core i5 desktop system). It's been on Intel processors, on AMD, on physical, on virtual: on pretty much every machine I could find in the office. 

Testing and benchmarking is all very well, but you only really get to know an OS by living with it, using it every day to do everyday tasks on your everyday PC. For me, that means the good old-fashioned desktop PC.

Most of my time is spent in front of a multi-monitor desktop machine, exactly the configuration that many people have worried about in comments to various Windows 8 posts. While desktop users may soon be in the minority, there are still plenty of us around. I rely on tools like Office and Adobe Lightroom and they rely on the desktop – and that’s unlikely to change until the tools change. So for my desktop PC, there’s very little change between 7 and 8 in the way I work.

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So, after a couple of months of using nothing but 8, does it work on the desktop? The answer has to be “Yes”. I had work to do, and it got done - and, after all, I could have gone back to 7 easily, as I’d kept an image backup of my old machine and all my files are on a server or on SkyDrive.

One thing I’ve noticed in the months since Windows 8 reached RTM, its evolution hasn’t ended – and it’s still getting better. When I upgraded my desktop from Windows 7 to 8 just after RTM it was to all extents and purposes just a slightly faster Windows 7 machine with a new UI. But with the recent 160MB post-RTM update, and with the arrival of some new device drivers and a couple of new pieces of hardware, it’s becoming something rather different.

The one big change, of course, is the Start Screen. As changes go, it’s a huge one, but it’s not the showstopper that some have made it out to be. I’ve ended up treating it as a full screen version of the old Start menu, and use it in much the same way. Just like the start menu, the Start Screen ends up full of apps I’ve installed, and I occasionally tidy it up. There was a little work in getting it the way I wanted to start with, but again, starting with a fresh install of Windows XP or 7 I’d be doing much the same thing – grouping applications and removing references to functions or tools I don’t intend to use.

Launching apps is easy enough. Tap the Windows key and start typing, once the word wheel filter shows your app, just select and click – or hit return. You’re instantly back on the desktop and in the application you want to use. That’s all there is to it, and if you used Vista or 7’s search box as your main method of navigation you’ll find the Start Screen slightly more efficient as you don’t need to click in the search box to start finding apps or files.

The arrival of a new Microsoft Sculpt Comfort keyboard made some operations even easier. While Windows 8’s Charms are just a mouse gesture away, having them on the keyboard is much easier. Four separate Charm keys mean you can get to Search, Share, Devices and Settings without having to move your fingers away from the keyboard. If you’re using a Windows 8 Store-style app, the keyboard also comes with four keys that replicate the main Windows 8 touch gestures. One handles a left swipe application switch, while another toggles the Snap view for the running application. The other two launch the Start Screen task switcher and open the app bar.

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The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle came with the arrival of a set of driver updates for Microsoft’s Touch Mouse. I’ve been switching back and forth between the Touch Mouse and a Logitech MX since I first played with the Touch Mouse back at CES 2011. For some reason it just didn’t quite gel for me on Windows 7. But with these latest Windows 8 drivers, it’s really come into its own. Now, instead of just a couple of basic gestures, the whole Touch Mouse surface is active. I can use two fingers swiped right to switch apps, left to open the charm bar. I can scroll horizontally in the Start Screen and vertically in my apps – in fact all the gestures from the Windows 8 touch UI are here, and they translate simply from screen to the surface of the mouse. That free download has given the Touch Mouse a new lease of life, led to the retirement of the old Logitech device (even if I do still kind of miss its weighted metal free-wheeling scroll wheel), and saved me from spending hundreds of pounds on a new touch-enabled desktop monitor.

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Of course keyboard and mouse aren’t the whole story. I’ve also used a wide range of peripherals. Nearly all have worked flawlessly – in fact there’s only been one notable failure, an 8-year old HP inkjet printer that’s not yet received Windows 8 drivers (and to be honest, probably won’t). Still, even it has carried on working after a fashion, with an old laptop running Windows 7 acting as a temporary print server. That’s the real value of the Windows ecosystem, and Microsoft’s backward compatibility: over time it will save you money by keeping old hardware running.

I’ve ended up treating the Start Screen as a full screen version of the old Start menu, and use it in much the same way

Finally, what about software? Well, if you’ve invested in Windows desktop software, it’ll all still run. The only tools I’ve had major problems with are low level system utilities, especially those that hook into the Windows power subsystems to monitor battery usage. That’s not surprising, as one of the parts of Windows that’s had the most change in Windows 8 are its power management features. The underlying APIs have changed, and that means that tools will need to be updated to work with new hardware. Other minor problems have come from applications that hooked directly into Windows 7’s Aero user interface to dynamically update application colour schemes. Aero isn’t part of Windows 8, and again, those features aren’t available. In practice, switching to a default colour solves these problems. Your app may not change colour with your OC, but at least it works...

On the desktop, then, Windows 8 is just a better Windows 7. It’s faster, better at networking, and has all the features you expect to find in Windows. Like all new relationships, there are a few niggles at first, but they go away soon enough once you get used to how Windows 8 does things just that little bit differently. Sure, the new user interface does take a little getting used to, but if you match it with the latest keyboards and mice you’re both going to get along just fine.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Operating Systems

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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46 comments
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  • This article...

    ... Mirrors my thoughts exactly, after living with Windows 8 too, again on a multi-mon desktop system. Great read.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • Could have easily...

    Rolled back to Win7 - but it's never once crossed my mind. From the very start Win8 was too me better than Win7 on the same machine.

    Now at work I find myself looking for the Start Screen.
    widow maker
  • what about laptops?

    I'd love to hear about your experience with a laptop. Laptops can't swap out keyboards and mice. Should laptop users hold out until we can afford new, touchscreen enabled hardware?
    DalyDose
    • You don't have to.

      If your laptop is capable of Win 8 Pro, I recommed you to start budging in. It is great on Laptops without touch. Just remember to use hot corners on your screen with your mouse right click and you could easily navigate through, you don't have to learn the Win+. The experience is equally great with older mice and keyboards.
      Ram U
      • Windows 8 Pro is worthless for people who don't have to use it

        For certain work tasks. Windows 8 (the regular home usage version) is good enough for 99% of people.
        Lerianis10
        • but Pro has option of media player

          n/t, which most of the home users would look into. I know there are options.
          Ram U
    • Laptop

      If your laptop touchpad supports multi touch gestures then it's great. I haven't seen any semi-modern laptop without a Windows key, so that's not an issue. In the Developer Preview multi-touch on the track pad didn't work. It sucks scrolling the start screen. As soon as Consumer Preview came out I was able to use and it's been just fine on my laptop. To me that would be the only deciding factor.

      Then again, I think not having gesture support on the trackpad sucks for Windows 7.
      LiquidLearner
      • multi

        multi touch gesture support depends on mouse hardware and its drivers,utilities.. not on OS u idiots..it works flawlessly in win7 and m using ri8 now
        thunderwings
    • Will work fine

      I have my Win8 install in macbook pro. It was a good experience at first, it freezed up from time to time, i thought it has some drive issue for example,everytime i run a video, it freeze. After recent update it runs flawlessly.
      I use mouse with my notebook.Few tips here:
      Use scroll button will let you scroll the screen left-right,
      - use Win-c for charm
      -Win X for system menu
      -Win Q for search
      voidvoice
    • I know they might be boring but I have a couple videos you can check out

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_FXG6Yi4NI Shows performance on an older laptop vs a newer laptop and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXrzYw5a35I shows how to get consummated with the new OS.
      wardrive757
  • I have upgraded two desktop

    I have a muti-screen set up and and all in one. My kids have been much more engaged with the PC since I have upgraded. There is simply more to do on the PC. Full screen apps are great for education. They also can go back to desktop to use the Flash based games and other stuff.

    On my multi-screen set up for the most part I agree with you but there are times when I am in a full screen app when I wish I had my task bar rather then having to grab it from the other screen or use the Win+D combination. Also things like the Evernote Windows Store app are effectively useless on a desktop. Not really an issue though since I can just install the desktop version which works fine.

    I also have the tablet from BUILD. I still use it everyday and now that they have some better games on it, it is becoming the tablet everyone in the house is fighting to use. The iPad is not getting dusty by any means but is is now the number two tablet in our house.
    sharkboyjohn
  • At last...

    THIS is the kind of in-depth, waist deep analysis I've been trying to find and it confirms many of the predictions I've been making about the MS ecosystem.

    I'm still happy with Windows 7. It works just fine for my needs and is the OS of choice at my company making it the first time my home computer and work computer have been running the same OS in years.

    Even so, it is an inevitability that I will one day have a Window 8 machine. I image time is on my side in regards to improvements and refinements. Heck, you might even see me switching from Android to Windows Phone if 1) I end up liking W8 as much as the author and 2) the transition from desktop 8 to mobile 8 becomes more seemless.

    Well done.
    Gussy2000
    • Don't wait too long.

      The promotional offer to upgrade to Win8 for $40 is good through Jan. Make sure to take advantage of the special price. It is well worth it. I too have been using Win8 for over a year now and have watched it evolved. I went from unsure, to totally convinced and will not be looking back.
      gomigomijunk
  • +1

    I should add that were I not on my work PC and IE9, I would definitely +1 this article. I'll have to remember to do it from home.
    Gussy2000
  • I'm passing

    at least on the desktop. While the desktop aesthetics may not be important to you, it is too me. I prefer a clean desktop and task bar with a great photo. I don't want to have to switch to a Metro interface just to start a new program. Has nothing to do with how easy or hard it is, it has to do with how much I enjoy working on the system.
    roteague
    • You don't have to go to Start Screen to list all apps

      you could either pin them to your taskbar, create desktop shortcuts or use Ctrl+Tab to list All Apps you have.
      Ram U
      • Except ...

        that I don't want to pin anything to either the task bar or the desktop, and I don't want to switch away from the desktop to start another app. I like how clean the Windows 7 desktop is. Plus, I really like Aero.
        roteague
        • The windows 7 menu ...

          is "switching away from the desktop". The windows 8 version I find much cleaner, particularly with a large number of apps.

          Out of luck with aero though!
          david.steadson
    • "I prefer a clean desktop..."

      I prefer to, and Windows 8 compare to 7 or Vista desktop is for me much more clean and 'readable'. I also don't have any trouble with starting programs, i pinned to taskbar 27 most commonly used, which use jump lists, on desktop I have few more shortcuts to other programs, to be honest, working 6-8 hours on my PC I don't see 'Modern UI' at all.

      This is very nice article +1.
      Mr.SV
    • Harmless question

      What do you with your great photo on a clean desktop and taskbar? As soon as you launch a program/app, that all goes away. So do you literally just sit there looking at pictures? Please explain!
      ikissfutebol