Friday, October 18, 2013

What's Still Wrong With Windows 8.1

Probably my most popular post on this blog would be my post from over a year ago about the problems with Windows 8. As I've said there and continued to say in related posts regarding Microsoft's recent OS strategy, they want something they can't have: control. They want PC users to get all of their apps through their apps store, they want developers to develop their apps for the tiled UI, and they want to be the first on the market with hardware with things like the Surface. They just assumed for some reason that everyone would be OK with this. After all, it pretty much worked out for Apple. But they were wrong. Windows 8 was a flop. And inexplicably, they tried to do the same thing with Xbox One, attempting to seize control of their customers through constant online access and game installation. Again, customers balked at it and they have since gone back on their always-online plans. The moral of the story is that Microsoft can't change their entire relationship with their customers -- particularly not if the customers are blatantly losing out in that new dynamic -- just through simple marketing and rebranding of a product.

And on that note, here comes Windows 8.1, the second marketing attempt to rebrand the Windows 8 image in a last-ditch effort to somehow turn it into a success. They promised to alleviate some of the complaints most of us raised and finally manage to get us on board.

For those wondering, yes, I have been using Windows 8 since it came out. Not really by choice so much as necessity. I work in IT and the last time I skipped an operating system (Vista) it actually put me at a little bit of a disadvantage when it came time to evaluate Windows 7. So I decided to learn the ins and outs of Windows 8 through experience in order to have a better understanding when Microsoft inevitably releases the next Windows.

And on that note, I have also been using the preview build of Windows 8.1 for the past two months or so, and as it has just been fully released, I felt this would be a good time to give it a review.

And... well, it sucks. I'd go into further detail, but honestly, the biggest problem with Windows 8.1 is that it's pretty much just Windows 8 with a few minor cosmetic changes. If I were to review it, it would basically just sound like my review of Windows 8. If you just want to know whether or not 8.1 is different enough to get you to upgrade, the short answer is no, if you intend to use a mouse at least. You could probably manage to tolerate it, but if you aren't looking for a headache, just get a PC with Windows 7.

Reviewing it is pointless for me, so instead, I'll just outline what's still wrong in Windows 8.1 that's going to hold it back from being the savior Microsoft wants it to be.

Tiled Interface Still Unavoidable

It baffles me how Microsoft can so completely miss the point and nothing says it more than two of the most publicized 8.1 changes: 1) The start menu icon is back. 2) You can boot into the Desktop now.

On the surface, this might seem like a great change. Oh good! You can turn off the tiled interface, right?

Except, that's not what they're saying. Yes, you can boot directly into the Desktop, and yes you can see that old familiar Windows icon sitting in the corner again, but when you click on it... well, this Penny Arcade comic articulates it very clearly:

So really, what have I gained? Well, before, I would have to click the "Desktop" tile to get to my Desktop after booting. And before, if I clicked where the start menu icon used to be, it brought me to the "tile shit". So Windows 8.1 saved me a click at boot time and drew a bigger icon in the corner for me to mostly ignore.


This is a perfect example of someone hearing a complaint and not understanding it but trying to appease it anyway.

You know what I miss? I miss being able to click on my start button and easily scroll through my programs folders. Now when I click it, I can see my programs folders, but they're all expanded and they take up the entire screen and I still have to scroll along to find the one I want. I get that this is more convenient if you are using a tablet, but in case I haven't made this abundantly clear:






I have nothing against tablets and in fact I am very interested to see how tablets work in the future, but right now they just aren't good enough for me to use as my main computer. And so long as I'm using a mouse instead of a touchscreen, this interface is a very large and annoying step backwards. This is why we want to be able to turn it off. Not avoid it, not work around it, turn it the fuck off.

But no, we can't. Why? Well, that brings us to the next step...

The App Store Is Still Garbage

The App Store is Microsoft's entire reason for forcing this "tile shit". They want you to use the tiles all the time so that you will get your apps through their store so they don't have to keep supporting Win32 apps (the ones that end in .exe for my non-tech readers) and so they can actually have some decent apps for their phone OS that keeps getting its ass kicked by iOS and Android.

And... fine, whatever. I get why they want that. Frankly, so much of our computer experience has moved into the browser that it's not all that unreasonable. If I was forced to only use apps from Microsoft's App Store, even as it is now, I could probably survive and get a fair amount of my non-IT work done.

But they don't understand that this is a negotiation, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We're their customers, not their hostages. If people don't like their new app environment, they'll just keep using and developing for the Win32 stuff. And if they stop supporting the Win32 stuff, they'll just keep using the perfectly good operating system that does.

They need to incentivize the switch to touch-based fullscreen apps, and so far the new app store doesn't do that. The tiles that show "live" information are hilariously out-of-date, next to impossible to manage the settings for, and take forever to load. When you actually do use the apps, navigating between them is ridiculous and requires what amounts to several different secret handshakes, which are made even more impossible if you don't have a touchscreen. Multitasking has never been harder. The apps can't easily be closed and the few built-in menus they have are hidden and unintuitive when you find them.

Why would I ever want to use the tiled version of Internet Explorer on my laptop when the Desktop version allows me to see all of the buttons and close a window without jumping through hoops or taking up my entire screen?

If they want people to use the tiled interface, that's fine, but they have to make it not suck. Even the one app I do use on the tiled interface (SmartGlass) is a headache to navigate and buggy as hell. If I am watching Game of Thrones and want to watch a behind-the-scenes thing on my Xbox, doing so will crash the HBOGo app on my Xbox. Every time. And this is the good app. This is the one I like and actually use.

So it's no surprise that basically no one is taking their app store seriously. And they will continue to not take it seriously until they improve the tile interface and the core app experience that's at the center of the problem.

Windows RT Is Still Useless

Windows RT used to be a waste of time that could only use apps procured through the App Store and offered no support for Win32 applications.

But now with Windows RT 8.1... it's still exactly as useless and still can't support Win32 applications.

You can apparently jailbreak it and run DOSBOX and some Win32 emulators (that I imagine don't work very well), but that's exactly the problem with Windows RT. You have to jailbreak it. As though it were a phone.

I really don't understand why Microsoft is intentionally holding Windows RT back. Yes, I get that it can't support Win32 apps and I'm fine with that. But we aren't talking about a phone here. This is a computer. A Windows computer. People expect to be able to just do shit to it outside of what you offer in your app store.

I get that it's supposed to compete with the iPad which also only supports things within its own app store, but you don't compete with something by being exactly like it. You have to be better than it. Have the app store but allow people to develop their own applications if they want to. Let people work outside of your garden and maybe people will actually start playing with it. Tinkerers are the reason technologies take off. Low-risk environments foster innovation. Without innovation, Windows RT (and Windows Phone for that matter) will die. It's just that simple. You tried it your way and it didn't work. Give it up.

Limited User Access

Windows Vista introduced this annoying feature where even if you were logged in as an administrator, you would typically only operate with the simplest level of privileges possible and anytime your computer needed elevated privileges to do something -- such as install an application or change system settings -- it would generate a pop-up that asked if you wanted to allow it. If you clicked OK, it would elevate your permissions to do that one thing and then proceed as normal. This was called User Account Control, or UAC. And it was the devil.

With UAC active, Windows started asking your permission to do just about everything. All this so that if you tried to install a virus, it would at least ask you first if you were really sure. While that might sound good in theory, when you just instinctively click OK fifty times a day, you stop actually reading it and deciding whether or not it's safe to elevate your permissions. It's just annoying.

In addition, having this setting creates a slew of problems with installing or running older applications that just assume administrative permissions while running.

In Windows 7, they created the feature to disable UAC in the Action Center and it was a godsend.

In Windows 8, they still allow you to disable the prompts, but doing that no longer disables the Limited User Access feature, which is the part that lowers your privileges. Even with User Account Control disabled as in Windows 7, it still requires you to manually run something as an administrator in order for it to function.

However, there was a minor workaround. If you went into the registry, you could disable LUA with the caveat that it would prevent most of the tiled apps from working (what a tragedy).

In Windows 8.1, however, disabling LUA doesn't seem to correct the administrative privileges issue. Everything still runs with lower privileges and the tiled apps still don't work. So if you're using Windows 8.1, sorry, but you'll have to manually use elevated privileges whenever you need them and as far as I can tell, there's no way around it. This probably won't be too big of a deal for most of you, but if you're a tech geek like me, this gets really annoying really fast.

Fun New Problems

I'm not sure if these problems are going to be resolved in the official release, but as of this week, Windows 8.1 Preview Build also has a fun suite of new problems that I didn't experience in Windows 8.

Adventures in WPAD

Excuse me, but this next part requires me to get a bit technical.

As I mentioned, the PC I've been using Windows 8.1 on is my work PC. At work, we have a web security service that requires our web traffic to go through a proxy server. We have the Automatically Detect Proxy Settings option checked, it finds a WPAD file through our DHCP server (we used to use DNS, but this caused problems for our remote site workers) and the browser uses the WPAD file to determine where to send the web traffic depending on the destination IP address. In addition, we have a service that determines what user to associate that traffic with through Windows' built-in authentication. In Windows 8 and below, this worked just fine.

Windows 8.1, on the other hand, is a fucking nightmare.

When I first started using it, it simply refused to work. Yes, I could set it to send traffic directly to the proxy tower, but this caused issues if I needed to access resources from my local network and we also have Group Policy settings to reset the proxy settings for users who use laptops (like me) so I'd have to reset it constantly.

And you might be thinking, "Well Pat, just don't use Internet Explorer!"

You don't understand. Among other things, the Internet Options that affect Internet Explorer also affect Chrome, Windows Updates, the App Store, and (dun dun DUUUN) Activation.

That's right, I couldn't activate Windows because of this stupid problem. And the previous trick I used to activate Windows 8 with a different product key (since you could no longer change the product key in the dialog itself for some reason) stopped working as well for some reason. It just... refused to work.

Eventually, after changing all sorts of registry entries to force a WPAD override, I now sort of got it to work. After I boot, I have to open up Internet Explorer, disable WPAD, load a page, let it fail, and then re-enable WPAD and reload the page (sometimes twice). After this, Windows 8.1 finally gets the WPAD information and allows me to browse and activate. However, even then it still has annoying problems with the user authentication part.

You see, if an application doesn't support the automatic user authentication stuff, it prompts for a username and password. Microsoft stuff never used to do this because this is an authentication system they created. But what happens if I ever try to get Windows Updates direct from Microsoft instead of through my WSUS server? It prompts for authentication. Of course. Same thing if I try to use the App Store.

I just... I can't. Since we've started using WPAD throughout the company, we've accepted that sometimes software developers don't properly account for the use of proxy servers and it can be annoying, but we usually have ways around it. But there's really no excuse for the company that developed the freaking operating system that uses the proxy to not properly support it. It's completely asinine.

This particular thing probably won't affect 99% of you, but it's probably the one thing about 8.1 that annoys me more than anything else.

Search Sucks Now

I'm not sure if this was just something I didn't notice in Windows 8 or something that actually changed in 8.1, but I've found that Windows Search apparently sucks at searching file contents. I mean, it still technically does it, but it seems to only do it for folders you have indexed. Unless I'm mistaken, if a directory wasn't indexed before, it would still search through the file contents, but it would take a long time to do it. But now if I'm trying to search through my files on one of my workplace's servers, it just refuses to search through the contents. And since Windows can't index networked locations, I don't know if there's a way around this.

This is just another one of those things that I just don't understand. Windows 7 used to be able to search file contents on networked locations. As far as I know, this was never a problem. But now, Windows 8.1 can't do it. Why did this have to change? Is it because your new interface is so terrible that it's next to impossible to use efficiently without using the search tool for basically everything?

Oh, and on that note, the search tool now searches Bing as well as your files and folders. Because I'm sure that's exactly what everyone was asking for. More Bing.

Things I Actually Like

While most of the changes in Windows 8 and 8.1 are irritating and stupid, I can't deny there are a handful of things I actually like, so for the sake of full disclosure, here are some things I don't hate or even like.

It Works Great On Tablets

I recently had to deploy a bunch of tablets for a new demo room. Three of them were running Windows 8, one was running Windows 7.

You know what? Yeah, most of the interface changes and weird gestures actually make sense on a tablet. With Windows 7, the targets are just too small to use effectively and so it takes you several attempts just to do the thing you want. In addition, you don't really need to multi-task quite as much with a tablet as you would with a laptop or desktop, so the more simplified interface makes sense too.

I don't know if I'd call it perfect, but if this interface could be turned off when you don't have a touchscreen, I'd probably be a lot happier with it since it clearly has a place with at least some devices.

In addition, the Windows 7 tablet had a much harder time installing the proper drivers for the hardware and I wasn't able to get it to sync with the Bluetooth keyboard, which worked great on all of the Windows 8 tablets.

So yeah. If you want a tablet, I'd... well, actually I'd recommend you wait until tablets get better because they still haven't quite hit that sweet spot yet, but if you really want a tablet right now and you have a decent amount of money, I'd probably recommend getting the Surface Pro. It's pricey, but honestly if it had 4G LTE built-in and I could get it through Verizon and the battery life were significantly better... I'd legitimately consider getting one.

It Is Slightly Faster

Yes, the operation speed is generally a bit peppier than Windows 7 was. Particularly the boot time, mostly through a complete overhaul of the BIOS and architecture. Beyond that, it's not really all that noticeable in your day-to-day.

I Love The File Copy Window and Task Manager

One change I absolutely love is that they finally got around to making the copy progress bar useful to look at. No more green or blue bar with an approximate completion time that makes no sense. Instead, you get this handsome devil:

Look at that. You can actually see the increase or decrease of transfer speed over time. It's so elegant and informative. Whoever designed this deserves a raise. I know it's a minor detail, but I just love it. Maybe I'm weird, but for a guy who spends half of his day waiting for progress bars to finish filling up, something like this feels genius.

On a similar note, I like how the new Task Manager gives a lot more details regarding particular applications and processes and groups them together. Very slick.

I Like The Style

Some of my friends and colleagues aren't fond of the new style of Windows with it's flat colors and capital letters. Now that I've gotten used to it, however, I for one actually kind of like it. I dunno, I just think it looks clean and that it pops really well. In certain cases it doesn't lend itself very well to readable interface design, but for the most part I think it's a pretty snazzy look.

I've Adapted

After using Windows 8 and 8.1 for a while, I've got a few simple tricks that have made it so I can pretty much operate without changing too much of my usual work habits.

1) If you miss the start menu, just right-click the new start button. Doing that brings up a lot of the old familiar things like Control Panel or Shut Down. You can also install ClassicShell for the complete classic experience, but I'm not big on apps that completely change the core experience of an Operating System just because they tend to break with updates.

2) Pin everything. If you like to use apps that you used to just find in your Accessories folder like Notepad or Calculator, just pin them to your taskbar. Finding them in the new tiled interface, even if you do look through the all programs menu, is like playing "Where's Waldo?" Oh, and the Accessories, which used to be at the top of the list, are now filed under "Windows Accessories" near the end of the list, so watch out for that.

3) If you don't want to pin things, the Windows key is your new best friend. If you don't want to waste taskbar real estate on simple Accessories, the fastest way to find an app is to hit the Windows key (the one between Ctrl and Alt that you probably never used before) and start typing the app's name. When you start typing, it automatically starts running the search tool and will hopefully bring up the app you're looking for rather quickly. Apparently, this is how Microsoft wants you to find your apps now. Have fun memorizing the names of all the apps you don't want to pin!

4) Disable UAC and Windows SmartScreen. Just as with Windows 7, the first thing you should do when you get it is go to Control Panel, change "View By" to icons rather than categories, find the Action Center, click "Change User Account Control settings" and drop it down to "Never Notify". Then go back and click "Change Windows SmartScreen settings" and select "Don't do anything". This will stop Windows from prompting you any time you want to run something as an administrator or download things. As I mentioned, this doesn't stop LUA from existing and ruining your fun, but it's easy enough to run applications as an administrator if you right-click them and select the option to "Run as Administrator". And at the very least, you won't have annoying pop-ups asking your permission every time you want to do something.

5) Win + I. If you must use a tiled application, just hit the Windows key and I and it'll let you access what little options that application might have. I had the hardest time trying to find out how to remove accounts from the Mail app until I found out how to find the in-app options menu. Why isn't it just a part of the interface? Why is it hidden? I don't know. But at least it's somewhere.

What Microsoft Should Do Next Time

Look, it's been a year, and a lot of the things I said last time still hold true. But having been able to actually use Windows 8 for roughly a year, I think I can safely say that it's not completely unsalvageable.

The obvious stuff from last time still applies. They need to either kill RT or open it up to more tinkering. It worked for Android, maybe it'll work for RT and Windows Phone. They need to overhaul the tiled interface and improve the overall app experience in their core products. They need to bring Office into the tiled interface. They need to improve multi-tasking in the tiled interface a LOT. If I can't hop between different apps with just a simple move and click, the Desktop automatically wins because that's what I'm already doing. And if they can't do these things right away, they need to make it so you can disable the tiled interface or at least make it so it can more closely resemble the former start menu.

But they also have to refocus on the things they're doing in regards to marketing. Stop hiding the Desktop. I know they don't want people to use it and they want people to get used to the tiled interface, but the Desktop is their biggest selling point over an iPad. The biggest problem with iOS is that there's no centralized experience. No true "home". The tiled interface is similarly problematic. Once you start clicking, you just bounce around from app to app and getting back to square one to get your bearings straight is difficult and unintuitive. People don't find the new tiled interface inviting, they find it alienating. If they offer us something familiar, something we've been using since long before the iPad, they'll make us feel welcome and open to trying new things.

I don't care about the snappy keyboard or the cool sliding tricks you can do when you hire a choreographer. I do care about the fact that if I get a Surface Pro instead of an iPad, I can play Steam games on it. I can manage files and folders on it. I can connect a controller to it. They need to advertise the things it can do that people have been wanting tablets to do for ages. This is a tablet that can do the things most tablets can't do without sacrificing the things some people like about tablets. The Surface Pro has the potential to be the link between the desktop/laptop world and the tablet world. It just needs to not destroy the desktop/laptop world in the process.

Right now they're trying to get people to switch to tablets by making it really hard to use a mouse. Every time I have to navigate the tiled interface, it's like Microsoft is telling me, "Man, this would be so much faster if you had a touchscreen!" And yeah, that's true, but it's still not faster than the start menu from Windows 7, so why the fuck am I forced to use it? What they should be doing is making it easier to use a touchscreen than a mouse. They should be trying to make me want to switch interfaces.

But really, I don't expect them to be able to. They aren't playing the same game the rest of us are. They aren't really all that interested in making us happy. Right now our best alternative to Windows 8.1 is Windows 7, so why should they care which one we buy? They get money either way. They just want an app store so they can actually compete with iOS, which is the one market they can't seem to get any footing in, but they don't want to go the Android route of opening it up and allowing experimentation because that requires them sacrificing too much of their potential bottom line. So they changed their entire primary OS just so they could try and strong-arm the development community into giving a shit about their mobile devices. Maybe they think it'll eventually happen if they just get stubborn enough. After all, Windows is ubiquitous enough that we can't all just collectively give it up. Maybe they expect us to all get the interface equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome if they hold out long enough.

Then again, Microsoft has been known to just give up when something isn't clicking the way they want it to. They gave up on Vista, they gave up on Zune, they gave up on most of the new features for the Xbox One. Maybe the probable failure of 8.1 will be the last straw before they finally just give up and start developing Windows 9, which will probably have a less terrible interface that you can completely turn off if you don't have a touchscreen.

Better luck next year, guys.