Dogfooding Windows 8: six long-term Windows 8 users tell all

We've all read the reviews. Many of us have installed Windows 8 in a virtual machine or on a test box. But how is Windows 8 to use, for real, day after day? We asked six users who've been using Windows 8 daily for their opinions. Their answers may surprise you.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Dogfooding is a term that goes back a while, but here in the tech world, it basically means using what you make.

With all the talk about Windows 8 over the past few months, I was curious about how it was to really use in a real-world work environment. I wanted to find out how people who spent day-in and day-out accomplishing their daily work felt about Windows 8.

Fortunately, I had a ready-made stable of lab rats, in the collected columnists here at ZDNet. Many of our IT writers have been using Windows 8 as their daily driver for quite some time, and I wanted to know what they thought of the new, somewhat-maligned OS.

To that end, six of our gang decided to donate a small portion of their Thanksgiving weekend to answer my questions. They are:

Over the next four pages, you'll see eight questions and the answers from each of our bloggers. But I wanted to see if there were any patterns, so I collated the answers and turned the result into the following chart. If you look at it carefully, there are a few fascinating conclusions:

  Jason Perlow Michael Krigsman Michael Lee Vaughan-Nichols Kingsley-Hughes Andrew Brust
How much have you used Windows 8  1 year  8 months  2 1/2 weeks 12 months  19 months  1 week
Use Metro vs. desktop  both  desktop  both  desktop  desktop  both
Using Modern UI apps IE, Skype, Messenger  none  none  none  games Netflix, NY Times
Miss or replaced the classic Start menu no Start8   miss it Start8  miss it  Start8
Tweaked Windows 8 no  same as Win7 turned auto-update off Start8 no Start8 and some Start screen icons
Using touch hardware yes no  no   no yes  yes 
Which OS to install on a new machine Win8 Win8 Win7 Win7 dual-boot Win8
Prefer Win7 or Win8 Win8 Win8  Win7  Win7  Win7  Win8 

As you no doubt noticed, about half of our dogfooders seem to like Windows 8 quite a bit, the other half aren't quite as convinced. For a Windows version this radical, this soon after release, that's actually quite promising.

The most interesting (and potentially troublesome for Microsoft and its partners), though, was the question about using Modern UI apps (the apps that are based on those little tiles on the start screen). The fact is, all of our correspondents treated them as nothing more than curiosities. Real Windows 8 users are not using the Metro apps.

For more fascinating insights into how Windows 8 is being used by real users, click into the following pages...

Question #1: How long have you been using Windows 8 (and previews) for day-to-day desktop use?

My first goal was to establish a baseline, to get a feel for just how much time each ZDNet columnist had spent with Windows 8 in a day-to-day use environment.

Jason Perlow: I have been using Windows 8 for day-to-day desktop use since September 2012, since general release. I have been using it in Developer Preview and Consumer Preview for about a year.

Michael Krigsman: Since the first consumer preview release. Then upgraded to the beta 2 and now the final.

Michael Lee: About two and a half weeks.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Day-to-day? Ha. I've been using Win 8 off and on for about a year.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: I started dogfooding Windows 8 back in April of 2011 when the Milestone 1 build was leaked. Back then it looked an awful lot like Windows 7, and my hope was that it would be a "Windows 7, only better." Since then I have extensively used pretty much every build I've been able to get my hands on -- both leaked and official releases. I had high hopes that Microsoft wouldn't jinx the releases by messing with the UI too much even as far as the Developer preview.

That all changed when the consumer preview was released ...

Andrew Brust: For day-to-day use, it’s only been about 1 week. I have been using Windows 8 very casually since the Developer Preview was released in September, 2011.

Question #2: Do you use the Metro tile interface, or live completely in the desktop?

I was particularly curious about the new Start screen and what used to be called the Metro interface. Did it grow on people after they'd had a time to use the system, or would our intrepid columnists simply bypass it and go back to the Windows desktop? See for yourself.

Jason Perlow: I use the desktop about 70 percent of the time.

Michael Krigsman: Never use Metro. Hate it on a desktop although it is nice on a tablet.

Michael Lee: I use a combination of both, but only because I'm sometimes forced to use it.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Metro was, is now, and always will be an annoying desktop interface. I spend most of my time on the Desktop, with just enough on Metro to make sure it really is as dreadful as it seemed at first.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: I try to live in the desktop as much as possible. I don't see the Start Screen being any better than the Start Menu or creating a bunch of links on the desktop. Whenever I have to use the Start Screen, my productivity drops dramatically, so I try to avoid it as much as possible.

Andrew Brust: I use both, but so far the desktop has dominated. I have had a lot of desktop software to install, which is part of the reason.

Next up, Modern UI apps and Start menu replacements...

Question #3: Are you using relying on any Modern UI apps for day-to-day use? Which ones?

This is probably the question I was most curious about. If our columnists had fallen in love with the new Modern UI apps, then it was likely that the whole Metro thing might have legs. But, as you can see, there's almost no real interest in the Windows Store apps. This isn't necessarily surprising at this early stage, but it also might not bode well for those vendors relying on selling a pile of Modern UI-based apps vs. old-school Windows applications.

Jason Perlow: Primarily I use the Modern UI version of Internet Explorer, Skype and Windows Messenger.

Michael Krigsman: Avoid them like the plague. If one starts, I still can't figure out how to get rid of it.

Michael Lee: I've experimented with a couple, but for the most part, I'm still using applications that don't use the new scheme. It's less of an issue around choosing not to do so, and more that the applications I use haven't yet jumped on the Windows 8 train.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Not a one.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Games don't count, right? I agree with Nielsen --  Win 8 apps have a far too low information density. When I'm using my PC, it's to get information. I don't want a UI to feels like a Robert Redford movie.

I've accused Apple of putting form ahead of function many times, but a lot of the Wind 8 apps feel like they're all form. It's almost as though the designers forgot that they needed to be useful. Yeah, they look good ... but then you try to use them.

Andrew Brust: I’m not relying on any of them. I probably have the New York Times and Netflix apps as my most frequent “Modern UI” apps.

Question #4: Do you miss the Start menu or have you replaced it?

I was really curious about whether the new Start screen, which does have some interesting capabilities, would overtake the old Start menu, or whether our team would simply restore the Start menu using an add-on.

Jason Perlow: No.

Michael Krigsman: I use Start8 from Stardock Software (thanks Jason Perlow for the recommendation). Does a great of hiding metro and booting directly to the desktop.

Michael Lee: I miss it. The traditional way I used to use the Start menu was to hit the Start key on my keyboard and just start typing the name of an application. Now I use the Windows key + Q combination to do pretty much the same thing, but it's never been obvious to me where these shortcuts are documented, and it completely bypasses the new Start screen anyway.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Stardock's Start8 is my Start menu replacement of choice.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Yes, I miss it, and have toyed with adding it back -- the best app for this is Start8 -- but unless Microsoft finds some sense and puts the Start Menu back into Win 9 then I don't see a point.

Andrew Brust: I’ve been using Start8 heavily. Again though, part of the reason for that is I have had a lot of desktop software to install. Once everything’s set up, I may use the Start screen instead.


Next up, Windows tweaks and touch hardware...

Question #5: How have you tweaked your environment for day-to-day productive use of Windows 8 (add-ons, settings, etc)?

This question expands on the previous Start menu question, to see how our dogfooders are using Windows 8. I wanted to know if they'd customized Windows 8 beyond the Start menu. I expected a relatively measurable amount of customization to have been done by our diehard users, but surprisingly little tweaking has been done.

Perlow: No.

Michael Krigsman: Nothing different from Win7.

Michael Lee: My desktop PC is on 24/7 and has a number of services running, some of which are manually started. I've come home to find that automatically installed updates have restarted my machine (even though they were applied several days prior), meaning any manually started services have stopped running and upon reboot, there is no indication of what actually occurred, only that the system is at the login page.

The first time it happened, I figured I may have had a power failure, but after looking through the system logs, I realised it was scheduled to occur, but without any user prompting. Needless to say, I don't allow Windows 8 to automatically apply any patches any more, which ironically reduces security rather than increasing it.

On security, it's worth noting that if you choose to link Windows 8 to your Live account, it also means that a compromise of one PC can lead to the compromise of the other.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: I tend to keep it basic other than Start8 so when I have something to say about Win 8 my experience will reflect what most people will see.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Not much yet. I've tried to keep the OS as vanilla as possible until I get a feel for how best to customize it.

Andrew Brust: Start8, as mentioned above, is my biggest tweak. I have also added a few important icons to the start screen that launch sites directly in the desktop version of IE10. These are sites that use Flash and are not whitelisted by MS, and so require desktop IE.

Question #6: Have you added any touch hardware (like a touch mouse or trackpad)? Do you find that improves productivity or just simply makes Windows 8 usable?

This whole dogfooding project has been about getting a feel for Windows 8 on traditional desktop machines, so I was very curious whether touch hardware added to the experience.

Jason Perlow: Yes, I use the Logitech touch products (mouse and trackpad) and I find it makes Windows 8 easier to use, as well comes in handy with particular apps that are multitouch enabled, such as Visio and Internet Explorer.

Michael Krigsman: No.

Michael Lee: I have neither, but I've found that the new "slide in" menu when right clicking seems to have a lot less functionality than the previous context menus. I've yet to notice any productivity gains or losses, however.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Nope. I'm sure it would be much better with such an add-on, but really what OS should require you to get an add-on to use it properly? I've also heard people swear that Win 8 is great with two monitors. Again, that's fine for someone like me, with tech lying everywhere, but how many normal people have two monitors?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: There's some good hardware out there and the touch hardware does help. Problem is, the hardware is having to bend over backwards to accommodate for stupid UI decisions that Microsoft made, rather than complementing the OS. For example, I cannot for the life of me figure out why Microsoft decided that the Start Screen should scroll in a landscape manner as opposed to portrait.

Andrew Brust: I got Win8 installed on my Office PC today and so got to play with the Touch Mouse gestures. I guess they’re still new to me, and my muscle memory is still biased toward older techniques, but I didn’t really find them comfortable and the old tricks seem easier. For example:

  • Windows key + C seems a much easier way to get the charms menu then swiping two fingers from right to left on the mouse. Plus Win key + C is a toggle whereas I don’t think there’s a touch gesture to make the Charms bar go away.
  • Likewise, using a right-click (or Windows key + Z) to toggle between the App Bar being visible/invisible seems easier than a two-finger swipe up or down on the mouse.
  • To get “Semantic Zoom” to work on the start screen requires a *three*-finger swipe down (to zoom out) or up (to zoom in), but I find it easier to hold down the Ctrl key and then do a single finger swipe down/up (or scroll wheel down/up on a non-touch mouse).
  • A two-finger swipe from left to right is akin to a touch swipe in the same direction (i.e. it swipes over the next app). I’m not sure there’s an equivalent for a conventional mouse, but I’m happy to click the upper-left-hand “hot corner” or do a good old Alt-Tab instead.

Next up, Windows 7 vs. Windows 8...

Question #7: So, you're going to go out and buy your new, hot primary work machine. Would you put Windows 7 or Windows 8 on it, and why?

Here's kind of where the rubber meets the road. When it comes time for to upgrade their primary work machine, the one where they spend most of their waking hours, is it Windows 7 or Windows 8? Let's ask them, shall we?

Jason Perlow: I'd put Windows 8 on it, because I'm curious about the evolution of Modern UI apps, and there are clear performance advantages to using Windows 8.

Michael Krigsman: Win 8. It's stable and fast.

Michael Lee: I'd go back to Windows  7. Windows 8 is definitely a pretty upgrade, but I don't find there's any significant benefit to it when I'm constantly going back to working in the old Windows 7 desktop. If I had to move to a touch-based device, I could see Windows 8 being helpful, but the reality is, my PC workhorse isn't going anywhere. It doesn't need touch and I'm going to have a full suite of peripherals so long as I've got the desk space. Windows 8 looks like a great way of being more productive on a touch device that doesn't have the room for a keyboard or mouse, but on a desktop, it's simply not needed.

That said, Windows 7 isn't going anywhere in a rush and if the industry changes and Windows 8 becomes worthwhile, it's effortless enough to simply upgrade when the time comes.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Windows 7 period. End of Statement. Why? Because Win 8 gets in my way. Windows 7 doesn't. Linux is my preferred desktop OS, but WIn 7 SP1 is a fine, stable system in its own right. Win 8? I think it's best shot on the desktop will be SP1... which will have a desktop that looks a lot like Win 7 Aero. Then, then Win 8 may have real shot.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Dual-boot FTW! Gives the the best -- and worst -- of both worlds.

Andrew Brust: Not buying a new machine, but if I were, I’d get 8. I always go latest/greatest, and do so rather arbitrarily.

Last question: do you prefer Windows 7 or Windows 8?

Finally, I wanted to get a feel for which OS our correspondents just simply liked better. Here are their answers.

Jason Perlow: I prefer Windows 8.

Michael Krigsman: I prefer Win 8, as long as I can hide Metro.

Michael Lee: Windows 8 doesn't stop me from using my desktop in the manner that I used Windows 7, as the new interface can largely be ignored for most of my day to day applications. If you need to put me in a Windows 7/8 camp though, I'd say 7.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Overwhelming Win7.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: Windows 7

Andrew Brust: Overall, probably 8. Two very different reasons: (1) I do want the ability to carry a tablet that also runs Office and other Windows software, and (2) Win8 runs Hyper-V and permits hibernation on the same machine. Couldn’t do that with Win Server 2008 R2 (and getting it to run like a client OS took a lot of work).


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