Living With Windows 8

I was wrong about Windows 8.  There, I said it.

I have been playing with Windows 8 on a variety of hardware since the “Consumer Preview” was released.  Initially I hated it – a lot.  Looking back I can now admit many of those issues were related to the bug-filled nature of the early Beta product.   Apps would crash or not launch at all, many parts of that early release were simply not complete enough for daily use.  Hey, it was a Beta and I knew what I was signing up for when I installed it.

Fast forward a few months to the point where I was ready to make the leap and install Windows 8 on my work laptop.  This is the machine I count on every day to be productive in my office life.  Is that a wise decision?  Probably not, but despite my move into management I still can’t resist something new with a higher version number than what I am currently using.  Besides, working in a post-secondary institution means I need to eat the same dog food as our clients.  People are going to be showing up on campus with computers loaded with Windows 8 so I better have some idea as to how it interfaces with our systems.

I was immediately struck by how much more polished the final release was compared to the Beta. 

I joined the machine to the domain at work, but rather than signing in with my domain credentials, I used my Microsoft account.  I did this to gain the benefit of sharing my experience across all my Windows desktops and, I imagine at some point in the future, my XBox.

The Desktop Seems Familiar

When you are operating at the Windows desktop the experience is very familiar – it looks and feels like Windows 7.  The real noticeable difference is the Start button is missing.  However, when you move your cursor over to the corner where you expect that familiar “Start” to be you get a small pop-up.  Clicking on it takes you to the “Modern UI” or what everyone still calls “Metro” interface.  It’s the start button that has been with us since Windows 95 re-imagined in some exciting ways.

This is Not Your Father’s Start Menu

The big thing is that the Start screen is alive rather than being a bunch of static icons.  Mail shows me how many unread messages I have as well as a preview of the text contained within.  Calendar is showing me the current date as well as the details of my next meeting.  Messaging shows a preview of any unread IMs that have come in.  Weather shows me the current temperature as well as a brief forecast.  Photos is showing me a slideshow of my pictures.  You get the idea.

The more I use Windows 8 the more time I spend at the Start screen.  It is my dashboard, my at-a-glance view of the key things I need to know.  It’s only when I need to actually do something – such as send an email — do I need to launch the app itself.

And, herein lies the power of Windows 8 – you can add your accounts from a wide range of services, not just Microsoft properties.  Yes, Mail and Calendar nicely tied into our corporate Exchange system but they also are connected to my Gmail accounts and even my Hotmail account.  

Messaging not only took the place of the soon-to-be-killed-off Windows Live Messenger, but it also connected to my Facebook chat.  Now it doesn’t matter whether I get a Facebook message from my fiancée or a MSN message from a co-worker, they appear in the same place.

The People app needed a little tweaking to make it work for me.   I connected it to my Microsoft account, Gmail, Skype, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, as well as Exchange.  I was very impressed with the number of services I was able to consolidate into a single place.  However, that broad range of services is why it needed to be tweaked.

I use each of those services in a different way and trying to use a single app to connect to them didn’t work well.  I follow a lot of people on Twitter I don’t know and I didn’t necessarily need to see every tweet one of them posted showing up on the live tile on my Start screen.  I was able to tweak the settings to not include Twitter updates but it seemed to take a while before they stopped showing.  Now it works quite nicely for me.

Photos is also very powerful.  Now, not only do I have access to the photos stored on my local harddrive, but it also connects me to the images I have saved on my SkyDrive, my Flickr account, my Facebook page and – this blew me away – my home desktop.  Yes, when I installed Windows 8 at home I choose to share my Pictures library and since I sign in with the same Microsoft account on both machines those images are available from my work laptop.

It was that level of integration that really showed me how much I love this new Windows 8 ecosystem.  Before if I had wanted a copy of a picture that was on my home desktop machine I would have had to either email it to myself or Remote Desktop back to home (Windows Live Mesh was so great for that!) and retrieve it that way.  Now, if I want a picture I can just go the picture app and find it there – regardless of where it lives.

I know Microsoft had promised us this sort of integration with Windows 8, but I had just assumed it would only work if you lived in the Microsoft world – Hotmail, SkyDrive, Windows Live Messenger, etc.  Luckily Microsoft decided not to live in a walled garden and instead embraced the concept of openness – hey, we don’t care what cloud services you’re using, connect to it via us.  It’s a lesson that fruit-based tech company needs to learn. 

Don’t be fooled.  There is a learning curve to Windows 8.  You will need to adapt to a new way of doing things and you will need to go in with an open mind.  You will struggle to find where to go to configure certain familiar things.  I had a heck of a time learning how to print an email, for example.  But give it a couple of weeks and really give it a fair shake and I think you’ll find the new system really shines for those living in a “one user, many devices” world.

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