Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

“Rearranging Crackers on Plates on Deck Chairs on the Titanic”

Windows 8.1 is available as of today. It’s almost to Windows 8 what Snow Leopard was to Leopard: a refinement release, with very few new features. Unlike the $29 Snow Leopard, Windows 8.1 is free for existing Windows 8 customers. So, what’s it like?

Anick Jesdanun, Associated Press:

It still feels like two separate computers at times. Each mode has its own Internet Explorer browser. Pages I have open in one won’t automatically appear in the other. Many programs, including Microsoft’s Office, work only in desktop. I can customize the background images so both modes match, but that’s cosmetic.

David Pogue, New York Times (I took the link title from this review):

The fundamental problem with Windows 8 hasn’t changed: you’re still working in two operating systems at once. You’re still leaping from one universe into another — the color schemes, fonts and layouts all change abruptly — and it still feels jarring. There are still too many duplicate programs and settings, one in each environment. And you still can never live entirely in one world or the other.

Other reviews, however, are more positive. Peter Bright, for example, of Ars Technica:

In many ways, I think Windows 8.1 is what Microsoft should have released instead of 8.0. With the more complete touch interface and the greater concessions to desktop users, Windows 8.1 makes Microsoft’s case—that one operating system really can do it all—much more convincingly than Windows 8 did. Whatever kind of computing devices you use, Windows 8.1 will fit the needs of those devices better than Windows 8.

Having only used Windows 8, I can’t attest to whether the degree of changes made in 8.1 is substantial enough. However, Windows 8 felt to me like two distinct operating systems shoved into one. It was like using one of those crappy iOS app ports on OS X, except it was like that for the entire system.

I don’t understand this conflation on a conceptual level, either. A desktop operating system should be tailored to a keyboard-and-mouse (or -trackpad) setup, should it not? What’s the point of including two separate versions of some apps, like the web browser? Shouldn’t they “sync” with each other, so they feel less like separate apps? It still seems like an unnecessarily confusing operating system.

Update: On further reflection,the inclusion of a lookalike “Start” button which doesn’t behave anything like the Start buttons of yore (ie. four years ago) seems totally counterintuitive.

Meanwhile, there are ads in the desktop search feature, crapping on the user experience completely. Finally, if you have Windows Vista or older, you cannot migrate any data: you must start fresh and copy things over manually. That includes applications, settings, and documents. Stuff like this is a constant reminder of why I don’t miss my days as a Windows user.

Microsoft has some really smart engineers and designers on staff. They dream big and create interesting products. But, for some reason, they cannot ship anything without fucking it up first. I don’t want Windows to fail; I don’t root for the destruction of a company, or for the loss of jobs. I want great stuff to succeed, and Microsoft conceptualizes some truly great stuff. But they can’t seem to ship any of it as great.