So I have been using Windows 8 for about three weeks now as it was made available early for Microsoft Technet Subscribers. I feel I should post my thoughts about Windows 8 and how I have used it for my gaming machine.

Before I start, I will say I see faults with the operating system and I do have issues, but I also like a few things and overall my reaction after three weeks of use is positive. Rather than just give up and wait for Windows 9 as many have decided to do, I had decided to give Windows 8 a really good go and try and make the best of it and see how I feel after an extended period.

Many things have changed and its unfamiliar at the start, but its not impossible to get used to the changes so you can take advantage of the benefits.

Installation

As Windows 8 (NT 6.2) is just an iteration of Windows 7 (NT 6.1) and Windows Vista (NT 6.0) the installation process is very similar. It comes with all the usual installation options for administrators that Windows Vista innovated in as well as the odd quirks, but it runs just as quickly.

They have added a UK specific version on TechNet, so it defaulted to UK English rather than US English when your installing it. I have had to change localisation settings in the past many times, so not having to do this is a nice improvement.

When installing to an SSD, I find that one of the starting steps where it copies files from the installation source to the disk shows 0% for a minute and then jumps to 100%. The first time was concerning, but I am used to it now. I don’t know if this is just my system or all SSD systems that experience that?

Bootup and Shutdown

One of the first things you notice is that start up and shut down times are now very fast. I don’t know how they did it, but the operating system loads after POST in just a couple of seconds. Its convenient and makes me wish I had a motherboard that had more fast boot options.

Shut down is equally as fast. Just a few seconds, which is handy when your finishing up gaming for an evening as you don’t have to wait to be certain its powered down time. Shutting down your machine might not be intuitive though. When you know its in the Charm Menu, starting restarts or shut downs is just as quick in Windows 7 but its not very clear.

If you step back from what you know of previous versions of Windows it might make sense. The Charm Bar contains settings and search and remains consistent throughout. As shutting down is a settings or technical thing rather than a start new program thing and its available all the time to the side, it does feel more logical, but people who have used previous versions of Windows will find it odd (myself included).

After I tried thinking with a clean mind, it does feel more logical and convenient to be in the Charm Bar rather than Start Screen. I am getting used to it.

Start Screen
This is the main reason people don’t like the new operating system. Its vastly different and it has been designed with touch in mind. I won’t go into how annoying this is as its been talked about elsewhere, but as I am trying to just embrace the change, I stuck with it.

It was worth while to get used to it. In fact although its a full screen start screen, it does fill quicker although you have to learn to trust and understand how buttons launch. Knowing if its Desktop or App for example.

Once used to it, going to the start screen to launch a program is probably quicker than a start menu because you can quickly see or simply remember where the large icon will be launch your program. As you can reorganise your program icons by logical groups that make sense to you, it kind of grows on you.

In contrast, going back to my Windows 7 machine at work, and clicking through little folders and scrolling up and down looking for some program I want to run is not quite as clean. As for searching, there is no type to search for applications visible in the search screen now as this was moved to the Charm Bar. This felt odd at first, but having streamlined my start screen, it makes sense. Search is always in the Charm Bar and it can search more than just your installed applications so it should be separate.

Without training I can appreciate that managing your start screen is not easy however. Adding games from Steam for example that are not in your start menu is long winded if you did not tick the add start menu option, which you don’t have when you preload unreleased games anyway. You have to create a desktop shortcut, move it to the start menu folder, then search for it in the charm bar search and right click it and choose pin to start screen. Once done, its nice though because all your games can be laid out in a way that is easy to remember and access later.

I feel that part of this fault is with Steam not yet supporting Windows 8 fully. Being able to right click games in steam and add to the start screen directly would be nice. The other part of the fault is with Microsoft for not making it clearer how to manage your start screen when an application is not in your start menu folder?

Overall its a pleasant way to launch your programs. It grows on you. Switching between the desktop to the start screen quickly is a little unnerving, but I like how you can arrange the start screen to suit your needs and how some things are dynamic. Maybe it needs more refinement, but I do like the general direction.

Charm Bar

Initially this is strange with a mouse. Its very different to anything seen before in Windows but after using it I can see it has some real potential. Actually its just cool once you know its there. You have to move to the mouse to the top right or bottom right corner and then move the mouse down or up to make it appear. The extra step initially feels annoying, but it quickly feels natural and it works. The Charm Bar never pops up by mistake when your using the machine and it always pops up when you want it to appear.

The Charm Bar has five main buttons. Search, Share and Settings I use often. The start button I don’t use. Devices does not seem to work with anything I own yet. Settings actually displays the settings of the current app if supported which is a good change but takes getting used too. Its options for the “Desktop” app are useful but you need to take time to become familiar with it.

Search (Charm Bar)

Search on the Charm Bar is brilliant. It feels more responsive and more helpful than the Windows 7 start menu search and had quite a few intuitive options and groupings to make it quick to find and do whatever you wanted. Furthermore, it seems like applications can plug into the Charm Bar so you have a standardised way to search different programs.

The reason I feel it has potential is because if Google or Steam plug into this, you could achieve some real benefits in terms of usability like I see in Android. For example, lets you go to the Charm Bar then Search and Steam would be one of the options to search within on the side. You can then choose Steam and search for a game and results would show instantly and grouped logically. You would have installed games that match your search term, then owned games and finally games on the store to purchase with prices next to them. This would be great, but requires developers to take advantage of the Windows feature.

Share (Charm Bar)

This is another option that also has the potential to be brilliant once developers start supporting it. The idea is that whatever you are doing, you always have the option to quickly share it. If you have a twitter application installed you can tweet it, if you have email setup you can send an email to someone linking to it. Its a nice idea.

Let’s say I am viewing an interesting page in Chrome and I want to share it with someone. Perhaps I am viewing a store page of a game in Steam or Origin and I want to tweet my views on it. Being able to quickly bring up the Charm Bar and then choose share and choose the program I want to share with has loads of potential.

When I think how many times I have to copy and paste URL’s from one place to another to share them, if I had tools to negate that I would welcome them. Just requires developers to add support for it.

Email Client

The next thing I noticed was the email client. It runs in the background and supports push like notifications for my Gmail account. You don’t have to start it, it just always runs and is always ready to inform you when you get an email.

I am so used to my phone beeping when I get an email that the fact my computer could not do this natively felt ancient. Now when someone sends me an email, my mobile will beep at the same time as my PC beeping and you get a nice notification window in the top right hand corner showing a summary of the email too.

This is something I like and I feel that Microsoft should have added this sooner. It also works properly with Gmail so if I read an email on my phone its marked as read on the PC and Web or vice versa as you would hope. If you delete an email in Windows, it archives it. Worth mentioning that it also correctly syncs your contacts and calendar which was also convenient.

Other Windows Apps

The messenger application is a good start and supports MSN and Facebook. If Microsoft took this further and made it support Google Talk, IRC, Jabber or anything else Pidgin or Trillion could do it would be very handy with the way its lightweight and runs in the background. Perhaps though we can see Pidgin or Trillion like projects appear in the Windows Store after launch though. Something like that with the slick Windows UI that is lightweight and runs in the background I would gladly pay money for.

News applications are also pretty good. I feel they could do more in terms of controlling what news appears on the dynamic tiles, but the BBC News application is a good start. The tabloid feel is smart, as is the way the news pages are where possible reformatted to match the user interface. Reminds me of Pulse News on Android. Currently it lacks customisation, but I imagine that will change. Hmm… Pulse News for Windows would be great actually.

TED Talks is also good although I wish it supported Share in the Charm Bar (currently does not) so I could send interesting talks by email to others who I feel might enjoy them. Weather was also fairly useful, but I am sure better ones will appear in the store soon.

Thankfully using the middle mouse click on the left side bar does close apps that are running too. This is convenient as its the same thing I am familiar with to close browser tabs.

Gaming Feedback

From a gaming perspective I have encountered no issues. Everything I have tried on Steam has worked fine, but then it would because while Windows 8 might look different, its just an iteration so many things are the same.

Steam, Origin, Teamspeak 3, Mumble, FRAPS have all worked fine. Performance in some games appear to have improved but the difference is small and might just be because its a fresh windows install. Everything feels much faster and slicker in Windows 8 though, its hard to pin down to something, but general operating system tasks feel more instant.

Adding your games into the start screen, which at present is a little long winded sometimes is very much worth while and I feel the start screen does well what the Games section of Windows 7 failed to do. My start screen is slowly becoming a streamlined Games Launcher and I really like that.

Because you can customise the start screen, and mine now just shows what I need to enjoy games. I feel Windows 8 is almost better for gaming than Windows 7 because you can make it more dedicated to that task. I know you could edit the Windows 7 start menu, but no one did and it was not quite a fun or visual.

There is already one tile application on the Windows Store that allows you to add images as tiles on the start screen, so I am hoping soon more will be added. So we can really have some fun and have nice screenshots of games as a tile or tiles that launch games. Perhaps developers will start supporting tiles more? Perhaps Steam will make the back of tiles for games run off the screenshots you see on installed games in the background of Steam? Perhaps Eve Online will have a dynamic tile that shows your skill training progress?

Overall Thoughts

The main thing I saw was lots of possibilities and I really hope developers exploit the Charm Bar, Windows Store and Start Screen to its fullest because I can see the potential. But even without that yet, my usage of Windows 8 has not hindered my gaming, in fact its probably improved it.

However I am a MCITP so these changes don’t phase me. The problem is for the average user as these changes would be seen as confusing because they don’t make sense to anyone coming from a previous version of Windows.

If no one tells you about the Charm Bar, I don’t see how anyone could spot it. If no one teaches you how to edit your Start Screen, then the interface will feel restrictive. There is so much change to the user interface that initial reactions will be negative, as people won’t know how to properly take advantage of it and that’s a shame.

I just hope good documentation and education is shipped with Windows 8 so people exploit what it has to offer.