Two weeks ago, I decided to attempt an installation of Windows 8 on my work computer, on a virtual machine, side by side with my fully functional Windows 7. Before that time, I had not taken any time to install the preview releases, so it was a brand new experience for me. For some reason, I wanted to try to take the plunge into forcing myself to use it, to experience its strengths and shortcomings.

To put everything in context, and in case you don’t know this about me already, I am a systems engineer professionally, so, naturally, I am a very heavy computer user, and a power user at that. I use a lot of unconventional tools which would truly test compatibility and functionality. Whether you are a professional, or simply a curious user who’s looking to experiment with Windows 8, I think you will find something that will suit you here.

Let’s get started!!

Installation:

The installation process for Windows 8 in my case was a bit different than it would be for a regular user, as I had it installed on Parallels Desktop 8, so I pointed the Windows 8 ISO to the VM, and booted from it. Regardless, the process will be the same for a physical computer installation. The more important point to note is that I did a clean install, and not an upgrade of an existing Windows 7 installation. The virtual hardware that I used for the installation was relatively modest, 1 vCPU with 2Gb of RAM.

The speed at which the installation completed was quite reasonable. I was at the login screen in just about 15 minutes. The input required of me during the installation was very minimal, and also very similar to Windows 7.

First Impressions:

When I first logged in to Windows 8, I had to login with a Microsoft Live account, fortunately, I already had one, so I just signed in, and my profile was instantly available. One of the things that I noticed almost immediately is how snappy the whole experience is, even with all the effects enabled, everything was fast, really fast!

The lack of the start menu was a little curve ball, as I had to search for some of the functions that I would otherwise go to the start menu for. Fortunately, that wasn’t too hard, either hit the Windows Key on your keyboard, move your mouse to the bottom left of the screen, and click on the little pop up preview of the start menu, or slide your mouse on the right side of your screen to bring up the charms bar, and click on the Windows icon. All that said, my experience was not too impeded by the lack of the start menu, as I am a heavy user of Win-R (run prompt), and Launchy, this means that I rarely ever open up the start menu anyway, but even if you do, it’s not hard to get to it.

One item worth mentioning in the start menu is the hybrid view, which exists on that screen, but is not too obvious if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Let me explain:

When you open up the start menu, the tiles on the left side of the screen are actually live tiles, (also called metro apps).These applications are the ones optimized for the tablet experience, and to which you can add more apps from the “Store”. These live tiles are pretty obvious if they are rectangular, as they are a different shape than the regular start menu items which are square, however, some other live tiles are actually square, and look fairly similar to the regular start menu icons. One of the differences in the live tiles, is that you can make them larger or smaller, by right clicking on the tile, and select “Larger” or “Smaller” from the bottom pop up menu. Of course, once you setup the live tiles, then the whole thing becomes more obvious, as these live tiles will actually show you content from your different accounts.

Moving on to the start menu items, that part, I’m still trying to figure out, but here’s what I noticed: applications that I installed on the workstation will show its icon in the Metro start menu screen. However, not all applications show up there. If you want to see all applications, you have to right click in an empty area on the metro interface, then click on “All Apps” on the bottom right, at which point, all of the familiar start menu items pop up. If you would like to add any of the applications in the start menu to the metro start menu, it’s easy to right click on it and select “Pin to start”.

The “All apps” items are categorized in the same folder structure as they usually are in the regular Windows XP /Windows 7 start menu. I haven’t found a way to organize those from the metro interface, but I was able to do so, by organizing the actual start menu items, either in your own profiles (%USERPROFILE%\appdata\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs) or the all users profile (C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs).

Opening some of the metro apps was quite a treat, the apps are really nice looking, and pretty snappy over all. Perhaps, if you’re expecting a full desktop experience in those apps, you may be setting yourself up for a bit of disappointment, but every time I did get a bit disappointed, I reminded myself, that this section is meant for tablets only. That said, I really wasn’t too impressed with the mail client in metro.

By the way, another new thing to get used to in the metro apps, is closing the apps. Keeping in mind that these are meant for tablets, the way to close the app is fairly intuitive if you’re using such a device: you drag the app from the top of the screen, to the bottom of the screen, as if you’re throw it out. When doing that same gesture with a mouse, or a touch pad, it’s not as intuitive, and definitely doesn’t seem as graceful, but it works.

Joining to the domain:

This section is likely a bit more pertinent to IT folks. After all, I did want to try to use my machine on my domain, so that I can see how well it could do in my work environment. Joining it to the domain was no problem. (I have a 2003 domain), so there were no issues with policies, domain backwards compatibility, drive mapping, everything worked like a charm when I logged in. (take that Apple!!). A little bit of a confusing point when I first logged in to the domain was the profile issue. before joining, my profile was my Microsoft one, so I thought that I may be in trouble, as I figured that since that profile is in use in the non-domain account, it may not let me do anything with it in the domain account, and since a lot of the metro apps depend on the existence of a live account, I really wanted that to work. To my pleasant surprise, when I went to check my account, I clicked on “Make changes to my account in PC settings”, and then clicked on “Users”, and I got a nice little message, asking if I wanted to link my domain account with my windows live account, So I decided to try it out, and voilà!  everything linked back up, and I was back in business. very nice!

Now that I was joined to the domain, it was time to start some experimenting, to see how much software I can installing before throwing my hands up in the air, and reverting back to Windows 7.

Software Installation:

The installation of software was very similar to Windows 7. Of course, the tests that really proved whether Windows 8 is viable, are the administrative tools for managing an Active Directory environment, and Exchange, etc …I decided to do a quick search for any tools that may exist for Windows 8, and the only thing I did find was RSAT for Windows 8. Great! I installed it, and immediately had full access to Active Directory management without a hitch. In fact, it was even faster than the previous versions. Things like GPMC, and other modules contain some additional functionality, like the “status” of a GPO which is new, and does not seem to work out of the box with AD 2003, and the Server Manager which looks awesome, but relies heavily on WinRM and Powershell. Of course, that’s not a show stopper, and there are probably ways to enable their management on older OSes. In either case, I definitely won’t complain that the Windows 8 management features aren’t fully working on older OSes, but the backwards compatibility seems to be full, and I am able to do everything with the new tools on the older OSes that I was able to do with the native tools. So that is great news. I am also running Exchange 2003 in my environment, so running these tools even in Windows 7 was problematic, however, there was a workaround, which needed an installation of the CDO before installing the Exchange tools. That worked again like a charm in Windows 8, and I was running the Exchange 2003 tools on there with no issues.

Other software I installed with no problems  whatsoever are the SQL Management Studio 2008, MySQL Workbench,PrimalScript 2012, PowerShell Studio 2012, Office 2010, FortiSSL VPN client, PowerGUI, vSphere 4.0 client, and 5.0 client, Dameware, eWallet, Dashlane, User Management Resource Administrator, and PhraseExpress (that last one, I had to download a beta version for it to work, but ultimately, it did work) among others.

Today I had a support call with VMware, and we were attempting to do a remote session with WebEx, and for the life of me, I could not get the remote control to start, so, my verdict is, that though, enabling compatibility mode to download the Webex client works, it doesn’t seem to work all the way to enable desktop sharing. I haven’t tried it on any other machines, but my install is relatively clean, so I will say that, as of this writing, WebEx still does not work with Windows 8. Not a showstopper by a long shot.

Learning Curve:

I consider myself a pretty fast learner, and given that I’m around new technologies every day, Windows 8 wasn’t hard to learn. The interface is by far the newest and most different interface of all previous Windows releases, but even with that, it is not to a point of frustration, at least beyond the first couple of hours of usage. To experiment, I have installed Windows 8 on my wife’s laptop, who has a Latitude Z with pretty good specs. She’s pretty comfortable with Windows 7. Windows 8 had a wow factor to it, with its smooth animation, followed by a bunch of questions, as expected, about the start menu. 2 hours into using it, there were no more questions, and she was well on her way into using the interface with no problems. I guess it would be useful to note that in her case, I decided to do an in place upgrade from Windows 7, where all her data had remained intact. The upgrade there also took about 20 minutes, and she was well on her way.

Annoyances:

I know that it sounds like I’ve been praising Windows 8 across the board so far,  and it sounds like it, because, well, I was. There are a few items in the experience however, which are pretty annoying, and rough around the edges. I will mention a few of them here:

  • Multi-monitor experience: because Windows 8’s menus and pop outs are more optimized for tablets, the doing the same with a mouse is already a bit of a hassle on one screen. On two screen, however, it’s a different story, whether you have your second screen on the left or the right, you still have some pop up menu that you may need, either the open application sidebar (on the left) or the charms bar on the right. Trying to get to these menus while you have a second screen is next to impossible, as the mouse tends to jump to the second screen immediately, before the menu pops out, and when it does pop up, you have to make sure to move your cursor just upward in about a 1 pixel width for the menu to stay visible. Describing sounds tedious, because it is. Try it and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
  • Second task bar and applications: I believe this was a feature that just got added in the latest update, where you can now create a taskbar on the secondary monitor, and have a choice to mirror the original task bar, or only put apps in that taskbar, which are open in the secondary window. In theory this sounds nice, and I’m sure Microsoft will probably iron out the rough edges here: If you use alt-tab to switch between applications, and you have an application that is open on the second monitor, the alt-tab doesn’t seem to switch to that open application (the window doesn’t restore), even though the application does show up in the alt-tab list of open apps. who knows, this may be a bug there, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Metro apps, and their equivalent desktop apps do not retain the same user data. browser tabs, favorites, etc , get retained on IE metro separately than IE desktop.
  • Application and file associations defaults are a bit out of whack, meaning, if you open up a PDF, it automatically opens in the metro app. Ideally, if you’re on a desktop environment, you probably want everything to happen in the desktop environment, unless you explicitly decide to switch to the metro interface. For that to happen, some application defaults, and file type association defaults need to be changed. It’s not the end of the world, but this makes things a bit less turn key, and a bit more confusing for the regular user.
  • UAC: for Metro apps to work, UAC must be turned on, even at the lowest level. If it’s not, then the metro apps don’t run. this is the single most annoying problem I’ve seen so far. On my laptop, as well as a lot of computers on my domain have UAC turned off, which result in sever limitation of functionality of the interface. Personally, I would want the metro apps but I also want UAC off, as I do a lot of administrative stuff that makes UAC very inconvenient and annoying.

Concerns and discovery points:

I am the first person at my work to install and use Windows 8. And for me, it’s great. I still haven’t fiddled with the enterprise features, not have I played with Windows server 2012, to see the level of control that exists for Windows 8 client. This is a yet to come study point. That said, I would suspect that some organizations may need / want to turn off the metro interface, the live tiles, or the ability to connect to social networks which integrate pretty deeply with the operating system. Is there going to be a clear separation, while allowing the usability of the OS to be maximized throughout the process?

This section will obviously need more elaboration, but due to lack of experience and answers here, I will keep short and sweet, and perhaps my future experience may warrant a whole article about this section later on.
Conclusion:

Most people just scroll to this section to see what the final verdict is on Windows 8. I don’t blame you… that was as pretty long article! That said, if you haven’t read the whole thing, go back, and do so! really… there are some useful tidbits in there.

Windows 8 has pleasantly surprised me. I had heard the positive feedback about it, and was encouraged, however, up until my installation of the OS and forced myself to use it, I was not completely convinced, and was wanting to wait until Service Pack 1 was out. Quite honestly, I think that Windows 8, even in its RC release is a solid OS. The interface, is familiar, but not really;major improvements on performance, great backwards compatibility, and an overall satisfying experience.

At this time, I have powered off my Windows 7 VM, and archived it on an external hard drive, just in case, but I am happy to report that I have finally setup all my tools needed on Windows 8, and am using it as my main production workstation for work. If you are an IT person, you should really be encouraged by this report. If you’re a bit hesitant, and your company doesn’t have any restrictions on what OS you have, then get rid of the hesitation and give it a shot, you may surprise yourself, and be glad that you did the upgrade.

 

 

 

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