Charles Young

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Sunday, July 8, 2012 #

At long last I’ve started using Windows 8.  I boot from a VHD on which I have installed Office, Visio, Visual Studio, SQL Server, etc.  For a week, now, I’ve been happily writing code and documents and using Visio and PowerPoint.  I am, very much, a ‘productivity’ user rather than a content consumer.   I spend my days flitting between countless windows and browser tabs displayed across dual monitors.  I need to access a lot of different functionality and information in as fluid a fashion as possible.

With that in mind, and like so many others, I was worried about Windows 8.  The Metro interface is primarily about content consumption on touch-enabled screens, and not really geared for people like me sitting in front of an 8-core non-touch laptop and an additional Samsung monitor.  I still use a mouse, not my finger.  And I create more than I consume.

Clearly, Windows 8 won’t be viable for people like me unless Metro keeps out of my hair when using productivity and development tools.  With this in mind, I had long expected Microsoft to provide some mechanism for switching Metro off.  There was a registry hack in last year’s Developer Preview, but this capability has been removed.   That’s brave.  So, how have things worked out so far?

Well, I am really quite surprised.  When I played with the Developer Preview last year, it was clear that Metro was unfinished and didn’t play well enough with the desktop.  Obviously I expected things to improve, but the context switching from desktop to full-screen seemed a heavy burden to place on users.  That sense of abrupt change hasn’t entirely gone away (how could it), but after a few days, I can’t say that I find it burdensome or irritating.   I’ve got used very quickly to ‘gesturing’ with my mouse at the bottom or top right corners of the screen to move between applications, using the Windows key to toggle the Start screen and generally finding my way around.   I am surprised at how effective the Start screen is, given the rather basic grouping features it provides.  Of course, I had to take control of it and sort things the way I want.  If anything, though, the Start screen provides a better navigation and application launcher tool than the old Start menu.

What I didn’t expect was the way that Metro enhances the productivity story.  As I write this, I’ve got my desktop open with a maximised Word window.  However, the desktop extends only across about 85% of the width of my screen.  On the left hand side, I have a column that displays the new Metro email client.  This is currently showing me a list of emails for my main work account.  I can flip easily between different accounts and read my email within that same column.  As I work on documents, I want to be able to monitor my inbox with a quick glance.

Windows 8 for productivity

The desktop, of course, has its own snap feature.  I could run the desktop full screen and bring up Outlook and Word side by side.  However, this doesn’t begin to approach the convenience of snapping the Metro email client.  Consider that when I snap a window on the desktop, it initially takes up 50% of the screen.  Outlook doesn’t really know anything about snap, and doesn’t adjust to make effective use of the limited screen estate.  Even at 50% screen width, it is difficult to use, so forget about trying to use it in a Metro fashion. In any case, I am left with the prospect of having to manually adjust everything to view my email effectively alongside Word.  Worse, there is nothing stopping another window from overlapping and obscuring my email.  It becomes a struggle to keep sight of email as it arrives.  Of course, there is always ‘toast’ to notify me when things arrive, but if Outlook is obscured, this just feels intrusive.

The beauty of the Metro snap feature is that my email reader now exists outside of my desktop.   The Metro app has been crafted to work well in the fixed width column as well as in full-screen.  It cannot be obscured by overlapping windows.  I still get notifications if I wish.  More importantly, it is clear that careful attention has been given to how things work when moving between applications when ‘snapped’.  If I decide, say to flick over to the Metro newsreader to catch up with current affairs, my desktop, rather than my email client, obligingly makes way for the reader.  With a simple gesture and click, or alternatively by pressing Windows-Tab, my desktop reappears.

Another pleasant surprise is the way Windows 8 handles dual monitors.  It’s not just the fact that both screens now display the desktop task bar.  It’s that I can so easily move between Metro and the desktop on either screen.  I can only have Metro on one screen at a time which makes entire sense given the ‘full-screen’ nature of Metro apps.  Using dual monitors feels smoother and easier than previous versions of Windows.

Overall then, I’m enjoying the Windows 8 improvements.  Strangely, for all the hype (“Windows reimagined”, etc.), my perception as a ‘productivity’ user is more one of evolution than revolution.  It all feels very familiar, but just better.