As I’m writing this, a newer build, 7955, is out there on the Internet. This is a good thing, but makes me wonder, is my review section here dated? Not exactly. For a first milestone release, 7850 was actually a copy of windows 8 which contained many features and functionality. So please enjoy and we will see what 7955 has to bring!
As I ran down on a nice feature summary in part I of this review series, I want to now delve in to what promises Microsoft is actually keeping and how they play out in Windows 8 build 7850. You will be surprised at how much better Windows 8 is when compared to Windows 7, provided that you have been able to keep up with the changes Microsoft has incorporated into Windows since XP. For many of you dear readers, I realize that that is a big leap! Windows vista and 7 totally revised the Windows looks to many users.
I am first and foremost happy to say that Windows 8 will not radically shift away from what we know in Windows 7. That is, there won’t be any major overhauls in regards to the way you interact with your computer. This is good, and I think Microsoft is finally getting it right: Consumers don’t enjoy dramatic changes. Excellent.
What computers are running Windows 8 7850?:
I want to let you know the wide variety of systems Windows 8 can run on, because in terms of performance, it actually does better than Windows 7. This means that if your computer is 7-9 years old, you will still be able to utilize many of the functions provided by Windows 8. So let us run down the tech specs of 2 IBM thinkpads, both of which ran Windows 8:
-a Thinkpad t60. Beautiful and old, this machine sports an Intel Core duo t2500 processor, which does not have things like 64-bit support;That’s an essential feature all computers post 2007 do have. It has 3 gigs of ram, and a 160 GB hard drive, and uses a crappy ATI Radeon x1400 card that scores a 2.7 on the experience index as far as graphics are concerned.
-A more modern and even more lovely, Thinkpad x201. This 12.1 inch computer features an Intel Core i3-370M processor, that contains 2 cores clocked at 2.4 GHZ and supports more advanced processor features like 64-bit computing. This computer has 4 GB of ram and a 160 GB hard drive, but features an Intel HD graphics chip which scores a 3.7 on the experience index. (highest score is a 7.9)
Ok. Good. I’m glad we have the spec stuff cleared 🙂 let’s move on.
I can’t really comment on windows 8 installation, because to date it uses setup files from windows 7. Wait, what? Why is the windows 8 setup using files from windows 7? For one simple reason. The windows 8 setup cannot be released to the public, because it adds recent security measures Microsoft is taking to prevent people from leaking, or releasing, pre- released copies of Windows 8. Therefore, I can’t comment on the first stage of setup;To me, it looks the same as when installing Windows 7.
Narrator: Major improvements to Microsoft accessibility.
As a person who is blind, I use assistive technology day-to-day when navigating Windows. While installing Windows 8, I turned on Narrator in order to finish the last stage of setup, where you enter your name and all those lovely details that your computer must know. The first notice then, for me, was the improvements Microsoft has made to narrator. Let me explain them here.
Narrator now contains what is called the narrator cursor. This is similar to the way Apple uses their screen reader, called VoiceOver. The Narrator cursor can navigate anywhere around the screen, but you have to hold down the narrator keys in order to use it. These are Windows and alt. Therefore, for me to navigate the screen, I can either hit tab like I usually would, or use windows+alt+right/left arrow to review the screen item by item. It’s a concept that clearly is apple-inspired.
The narrator cursor can also pass over objects called containers. These are similar to “interacting” in the Mac world. For example, on a web-page, landmarks may be considered containers, as they group a website into sections like Search, links, and such. Narrator lets you review these containers and you can go into them by using alt+windows+down arrow.
The entire Narrator interface has been re-designed, and you can change things like notification announcements, how the narrator cursor behaves with regards to the system cursor, and how it is shown on screen. A list of 28 keyboard shortcuts can also be accessed from the main Narrator window or by pressing Narrator keys+f1. Overall, I am impressed with the way Microsoft has shifted their accessibility in Windows. While Narrator is still far from perfect (It won’t read the web well yet, and thinks that my GMail inbox has a table with “0 columns and 0 rows”), it will certainly improve in the future.
Hybrid Boot: the solution to slow startups
So in 1998, Microsoft introduced a new feature to Windows called hibernation. This function placed all the stuff in your ram, or memory, onto your hard drive and actually turned off the computer. When you turned it back on, your computer simply reloaded what was on the drive and had your memory back to the way it was before you chose hibernate. Basically, if your laptop is dying, you want to place it into hibernation in order to change the battery, since the computer is turned off completely and resuming windows will only take a few seconds, and you won’t have to restart your programs.
In windows 8, a new feature is being introduced, called Hybrid boot, and it’s present in this early release. What Hybrid boot does is a combination of hibernate and shutdown. When you choose “shut down” from the start menu, your computer will log you off and close your programs. It will then proceed to place part of your ram into the hibernation state. The next time your computer is started up, you only have to wait for the ram to be re-loaded from hard disk, and for you to be logged back in.
This new boot type does not hold true when you choose restart on your computer. This is because a restart will actually do just that. It will re-load all the files required to start Windows up rather than loading a saved state of your memory. The reason for this is quite clear: Why can’t we do hybrid boot when restarting? Because if you use Windows update, your computer needs to restart in order to load files that were updated. In the power options control panel, the following is stated:
“Windows shut down settings
Use hybrid boot to reduce startup times after shutting down your computer. Disable to revert to “classic behavior. Restart behavior is never affected by this setting.”
Windows on a thumb drive? Told you so:
Windows 8 now has a new feature called “portable Workspace Creator”. This allows you to use a 16 GB flash drive and install Windows directly onto it, allowing you to boot off the drive when using a friend’s computer or at your workplace. This may actually be more useful when troubleshooting a computer infected with a virus, but could you see it being used to highjack other machines? Rightfully so! The wizard guides you through creating the flash drive. After the slow and painful process of extracting windows to it, your computer can boot off of the newly created drive and load Windows.
The problem? This does not seem to work with USB flash drives that are 16 GB. This is due to the fact that most 16 GB drives are actually only 14.9 GB (when using properties under Computer). Therefore, I had to use an external hard drive to test this feature.
Once the new OS boots, it takes a minute to install your device drivers, after which it can be used. I swapped the drive into 2 other computers, and they both were fine- sound and drivers worked for the most part. Basically, if the hardware you are plugging his into is supported by Windows 8, it will work with the portable copy. Problems come in when, like on my Thinkpad X201, wi-fi didn’t work by default and I had no way of connecting to the Internet in order to obtain drivers from Windows Update. Oops!
Disk cleanup cleans better:
When launching disk cleanup, you are presented with a new interface. Here, you have options to sort all the files on your system from the ones which take up the most space to ones which are smaller. You can choose between music files, documents, pictures, system files, and after clicking on one of the options, you are presented with a list of all the files on your system. Pretty neat, but are you really going to delete each file one by one based on their sizes? The decision is up to you. When choosing “system files” as the option, the classic interface is displayed, where you can choose between cleaning temporary files and the other options the original disk cleanup offered.
Aero light offers Aero for old computers, too:
In Windows 7, Windows 7 basic was a way for those users who had a slower computer to take advantage of some nifty graphical effects. Aero, as Microsoft calls it, was the more mid and high-end option, which gave a more 3-dimensional view of everything and in windows 7, features like “Aero Shake” allowed you to shake a window with your mouse to get some cool effects. With Windows 8, along comes Aero light. While it doesn’t quite use Aero features, it actually creates a “Microsoft software-renderer” device under displays in your device manager. This driver basically uses your computer’s processor to decode more advanced graphical effects, and can breathe some life into your old Pentium 4 machines.
Windows explorer: A redesigned interface.
Windows explorer now features a group called “view modes” where you can specify if you want detailed view, or large icons. This actually is directly in the explorer toolbar, so there is a slight re-designed interface there.
In addition, if you wish, by the use of a registry hack, you can unlock ribbons in Windows explorer. Remember Microsoft office 2007/2010? And those things which replaced menus? Those are ribbons, and in Windows 7, they are in Wordpad and Paint as well. If they decide to stick with this same interface for Windows 8 in Windows Explorer, I can see some major gripes from many users.
Unlockable features: Let’s do it!
Speaking of features you can unlock, there are many others which work through the use of several registry hacks. I am including these as part of my analysis, because they may become integral features of Windows 8 in the future. So let’s dive in.
PDF Reader: Modern at it’s best?
One of the first registry unlocks which came to light was a PDF reader, which should ship as standard in Windows 8. The reader uses a metro-style interface, meaning that it looks and has been inspired by, Windows phone 7. That’s Microsoft’s phone operating system.
I can’t comment much on the reader. Unfortunately, because of my visual impairment, no screen access solution will work with the reader-not even narrator. I will discuss this further in the accessibility section. Regardless of my limitation here, I did confront a few sighted people about how the reader looks. (Isn’t confronting too harsh of a word here? 🙂 ) The reader has a scroll bar, and the page appears in a pane once you loaded a document. Overall, it’s not bad, and meets the standard of what you’d expect from a Windows-quality application.
Modern Task manager:
Modern Task manager will eventually replace Windows Task manager, or so it looks. The design of the window is more streamlined, and processes are displayed more efficiently. CPU and memory usage seems to have been consolidated into the main window, and again, the application draws heavily from Microsoft’s inspirations. I again can’t give much feedback for the same reasons as stated above. 🙂
Accessibility and usability the blind:
Now we get into the fun aspect of testing a new operating system. How well, as someone who is visually impaired, can I use my computer?
I tried to use several access solutions under Windows 8. I started with NVDA, installed JAWS 11, and even used System access.
Nothing major to say here, accept that Internet Explorer 9 was the only challenge. Most readers did not support some functionality in IE9. JAWS was the worst of these, and I had to change my browsing settings to use Compatibility mode. NVDA and System Access faired a lot better, though I’d say System Access has lot better support for IE9. Note that with the April 2011 update, JAWS 12 has added support for the browser, so I suppose my experience would have been different had the enhancements been released at the time.
Modern reader and task manager are not blind friendly at all. Ok, you can use the JAWS cursor in the task manager to see some elements in the window, However NVDA’s object review reveals a lot less information it seems. Modern Reader, on the other hand, is not accessible at all, and I hope that by the time the operating system gets released it will be made usable.
Oddly enough, Calculator seems to be broken with JAWS. I am not sure why;But JAWS just can’t find any controls on the screen.
As mentioned, Windows 8 boosts a lot of performance gains. With the new hybrid boot feature, it is much easier to “shut down” your computer and still boot up in under 15 seconds. When not using Hybrid boot, I was able to start my old IBM up in 26.7 seconds, and the new one in 18.9 seconds. (note: times were calculated after the bios posted and I was presented with the “list of operating systems” screen.) Before installing, Windows 7 took around 35 seconds to start on the old IBM, so there seems to be a tangible performance improvement when using Windows 8 for everyone.
From the early looks of it, I don’t see Windows 8 to be a “major” operating system just yet. Sure, we have a few new applications, better performance, but we aren’t seeing major user interface overhauls. It is very nice to see legacy programs like Disk Cleanup receive revamps, and perhaps that’s what Microsoft should focus on the most: Re-designing programs which haven’t changed at all since the windows 98 and 2000 days. By the looks of a new task manager, I think they are doing just that. It is also possible that Windows Phone 7 features will be a theme for Windows 8. Just as Apple is copying some elements from iOS into Mac OS 10.7 lion, so is Microsoft striving to bring functionality back to the desktop. And Since Windows 8 will be the tablet Windows OS, this may not be a bad thing.