Why I've all but given up on Windows

After more than two decades of being a dedicated Windows power user, and having invested tens of thousands of hours into mastering the platform, and run versions spanning from 3.0 to 8.1, I've now all but given up on Windows.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer

These are words I never thought I'd be writing.

After more than two decades of being a dedicated Windows power user, someone who over that time has installed and supported countless systems running versions of Windows spanning from 3.0 to 8.1, I've now all but given up on the platform.

It might sound odd, but writing these words actually makes me sad. I devoted my 10,000 hours to mastering the platform, plus thousands more, and got the point where there wasn't a file, registry entry, or command line trick that I wasn't familiar with.

I knew how to make Windows work.

But now, other than for test systems and virtual machines, I carry out my day-to-day work on a variety of OS X, iOS and Android systems. I barely give my Windows PC systems a second glance. My primary work system is a MacBook Pro, and in the ten months I've had it it's flawlessly done everything I've asked of it, from run Microsoft Word to render 4K video. I've lost count of the number of notebooks I've owned over the years, but this MacBook Pro is, by far, the most reliable system I've owned, and I put part of that down to the fact that it doesn’t run Windows.

Sure, I've downloaded and installed Windows 8.1 onto a number of systems for testing, and I've put an awful lot of hours into getting to know this latest release of Windows, but I see nothing in this new version that excites me sufficiently to tempt me back into the Microsoft ecosystem. If anything, the effect has been the exact opposite, confirming my belief that parting ways with Windows was the right thing to do.

So what's brought me to this point in my tech career?

Support fatigue

I've spent almost my entire adult working life involved with PCs, and the more PCs you are around, the more sick and dying PCs you encounter. And I've encountered a lot.

I've also cajoled and coaxed countless ailing systems back to life, but during that time I've come to realize how fragile the Windows operating system is, and how something small and insignificant as a bad driver, incorrect settings, or the stars being in the wrong position can bring a system to its knees, and result in hours of work searching for a solution. That's great if you're being paid by the hour to solve PC problems, but if you're dealing with your own systems, and you have better things to be doing with your time, then you want to get them up and running as fast as possible so you can get back to real work.

Troubleshooting is costly, time-consuming, and frustrating, and while I once used to relish the challenge, I now try to avoid it whenever possible.

Of all the desktop operating systems that I've used, the modern Windows operating system is by far the most fragile. It didn't used to be like that. I had Windows NT 3.5/40 systems, and some Windows 2000 machines that were rock solid. Partly this increase in fragility is down to the vast ecosystem of hardware and software it has to support, and partly it is down to the years of legacy that each version drags behind it. But part of the blame also lies at Microsoft's door for not putting enough effort into hardening the system, reducing the effect that faults – in particular software faults – have on the system, and providing better information when things go wrong.

Adding a :( to the Windows 8 BSoD screen isn't enough.

Windows systems keel over, and most of the time the only clue you have as to why is an ambiguous error message, which may or may not be a red herring. This sends you to Google – or Bing – in search of others before you who have suffered a similar problem, and whom you hope may have found a solution, which might be in the form of an updated driver, a registry tweak, command line incantation, or patch.

Sometimes you get lucky. Other times you have to try a number of things before you're successful. And sometimes you end up deciding that it's quicker to nuke the system and start from scratch.

And all the while I'm doing this, precious time is flowing through the hourglass.

The shift to post-PC devices

Another reason why Windows has been relegated to the sidelines at the PC Doc HQ is the proliferation of post-PC devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Now I've been using mobile devices for years, and remember Windows CE and the like running on devices with exotic sounding names such as iPAQ and Jornada (remember those?), but these devices were, without a doubt, companion devices. Basic operations such as installing software or moving data required a PC, and so these devices spent a lot of their lives tethered to a Windows PC.

Then Apple changed everything, first with the iPhone, and then with the iPad. Here were devices that were standalone, leveraging over-the-air software downloads and updates, and cloud storage.

I found that I could do more and more with less and less. Tasks that once required a full-blown desktop or notebook PC could be carried out faster and more efficiently on a smartphone or tablet. Unless I want to use full-blown applications such as Microsoft's Office or Adobe's Creative Cloud suite, then I can make do with post-PC devices. What's more, I can usually get things done faster since I'm not tied to my desk.

And the great thing about these devices (and I'll throw Android in here with iOS) is that they're there when I need them. I've had an iPhone and an iPad for years, and I can only remember a couple of times when they've let me down.

My experience of Windows on tablets closely resembles that of my ZDNet colleague James Kendrick. Bottom line, they let me down too much to want to bother with them. Why would I trade a reliable iPad or Android tablet for an unreliable Windows 8.1 tablet? Why trade a tablet that just works for one that regularly sends me on quests, roaming the Internet looking for the right elixir to fix the system?

Any hopes I had that x86 versions of Windows would be more stable on tablets have gone. In fact, in my experience, the user experience is worse. Sure, most of the time the problem comes down to a rogue drivers or a configuration thrown out of whack, but a problem is still a problem, and these are problems I don't experience with iOS or Android.

Bill Gates was right, there was a market for tablets. Unfortunately, most of those tablets would be powered by operating systems made by Apple and Google. But then, Apple and Google didn't try to shoehorn a desktop operating system onto tablets.

Windows RT is certainly a better choice for tablets, but that's because what you have is the illusion of Windows, rather than the real thing. If Windows RT had come out at around the same time as the iPad, and the software ecosystem matured at the same pace, then Windows RT would be a real contender, but as it stands right now there's little reason to choose it over iOS or Android.

Unless, that is, you want something that looks like Windows. Which I don't.

The increasing irrelevance of the operating system

Once upon a time, the operating system was the platform on which people ran applications, but as more and more local applications have been replaced by services running on remote web servers, increasingly the browser has replaced the operating system as the primary platform.

Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and countless other web-based services look the same whether I'm using Windows, OS X, or even Linux. On smartphones and tablets, I have the choice of accessing most of these services either through a web browser or a dedicated app.

It doesn't matter what operating system is running my browser, so I'm free to choose the platforms that give me the least headache.

Change for the sake of change

One of the biggest problems I have with Windows is the way that it inflicts change on the user for no logical reason.

For me, Windows 8 was the peak of "change for the sake of change," removing the Start Menu and pushing the Desktop into the background. Yes, I understand why Microsoft needed the Start Screen (because the Start Menu would be too cumbersome for tablet users), and yes, I understand that Microsoft wanted to give apps center stage, but for hundreds of millions of users running Windows on a desktop or notebook PCs, these changes did nothing but hurt productivity.

Compare this to OS X or even Linux distros. Here you feel a progression from one version to the next. Yes, sometimes there are changes that are disliked, but overall there's a smooth progression from one version to the next. Jarring changes are best kept to a minimum because they have an adverse effect on productivity, adding unnecessarily to the learning curve.

Microsoft backpedaled on some of these changes with Windows 8.1 (which must have been a pain for users who had gone to the effort of learning how to use Windows 8), but for me the damage was done. It's clear that Microsoft is going in a direction that's incompatible with the one I want my operating system to go in.

No appreciation of power users

Microsoft's decision to end the TechNet program, a service which gave power users, enthusiasts, and those whose job it is to test and support Microsoft products cheap and easy access to products, is a strong indicator that the company no longer values what people like this bring to the platform.

Windows is now the expensive option

Windows is now the only operating system I use where I have to pay to upgrade it.

While I don't begrudge paying a fair price for something I need, paying big upgrade bucks for something I can do without makes no sense. PCs easily outlast the lifespan of the Windows operating system, and the idea of paying almost a hundred bucks per system to keep it updated is hard to stomach when it doesn't bring me any tangible benefits.

Going the Mac route might seem like an even more expensive option, but having owned a number of systems, including the MacBook Pro that that become my go-to system, the additional cost of the hardware (plus the additional AppleCare warranty) is offset by the fact that these systems have given me months, and in some cases years, of additional hassle-free use. I've not had to mess around with drivers.

I've not had to go digging through the configuration settings. I've not had to surf the web looking for solutions to obscure error messages.

Shift to console gaming

I used to love PC gaming, but then I got my first console.

While the graphics don't match up, and the gamepad is no substitute for the keyboard and mouse, the years of hassle-free gaming that a console offers, free from driver and patch headaches, more than makes up for the deficiencies. Not only that, but when I consider how long I've had my Xbox 360, it's outlasted several gaming PCs, which has saved me a ton of cash.

Pick the game I want, insert the disc, and BOOM! I'm playing the game in seconds. No patches to download and install, no  graphics card drivers to mess with.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that outside of a few edge cases, Windows isn't for me. If it works for you, then that's great. Stick with what works for you. I for one certainly won't sneer or look down on you or go all fanboy.

After all, I remember – with fondness, and more than a hint of sadness – a time when it worked for me.

Personal preferences are, well, personal.

Can I see a time when I might go back to Windows? Maybe, I'm not ruling anything out, but for the time being, I see Windows playing a smaller and smaller part in my day-to-day computing.

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