First thoughts and some tips for using Windows 8 (and 8.1)

My primary computer and OS for home is a MacBook Pro, with OS X Mavericks (I updated to Mavericks as soon as it was released). For almost everything I do my Mac works great. Occasionally I do need to run a Windows app, especially for some ham radio type apps. For some of these I can get them to work just fine using Wine/Winebottler on the Mac (like JT65-HF which works great under Wine).

Since new PCs are coming with Windows 8 now, I feel somewhat obligated under the ‘friends and family IT support plan’ (which everyone who does any work in IT is automatically enrolled in) that I should at least take a look at Windows 8 so I can pretend I know what I’m talking about 🙂

First thoughts: it’s really not that bad. The general press coverage is that it’s completely awful – it’s not bad, but it’s definitely very different in some areas. The Metro home page vs the regular desktop dual behavior seems a curious design decision to say the least. I can only wonder if there were internal strategic arguments within Microsoft whether the world was ready to go all Metro and whether that was a safe bet, or whether it would have alienated too many existing users. So instead you get both. It’s like your computer can’t make up it’s mind whether it’s living in a ‘post-PC’ tablet influenced world or whether it’s desperately holding on to the past. The two are so separate that it seems odd to have both running at the same time.

On the whole though, on my i7 MacBook Pro with 4GB, it’s really very snappy and responsive. Something I’ve honest missed with the OS X Mavericks update which can be sluggish (The best OS X version I’ve used so far was definitely Snow Leopard which was so fast it was unbelievable. For whatever reason later OS X versions seem to have been progressively slower after this release).

Here’s some random tips based on spending some time using Windows 8:

  • The Windows 8 Upgrade download from the Microsoft online store can be installed on a blank drive/partition – you don’t need a previous version of Windows installed just to use the upgrade version. In hindsight though, in the online store there was only the ‘Upgrade’ version, so maybe this really is the full install version, and not a discounted upgrade version like there was the option with previous Windows versions
  • Update: it turned out that my install wouldn’t activate when I was promoted to do so, it kept giving me an error that this was an upgrade install and not a full install. Luckily with a quick registry value change it activates successfully. Details here. This seems like a loophole in Microsoft’s full version vs upgrade approach. With this registry change you can successfully activate and therefore don’t need a full install version.
  • When you download the installer, you initially get a small executable. When you run it it determines what you are running on (Windows XP, Vista or 7 32 or 64bit) and downloads installable files to match the same version, 32 bit or 64 bit. There doesn’t seem to be any option to pick what you want to download. Also, if you run the downloader on a 32 bit older version of Windows, you don’t get the option to create installable media (either a USB flashdrive installable version, or an ISO file to create a DVD). If you run it on a 64 bit version of Windows then you do get this option. This tripped me up because a) I wanted a 64 bit version, and b) I wanted the ISO so I could create my own installable DVD
  • When using IE in Metro mode, you can access tabs and the URL field by right-clicking anyway on the page. The tabs appear and the top of the screen, and the URL entry field appears at the bottom of the screen. They disappear again once you’d used them
  • To get to your Metro home screen, move your mouse to the bottom left and click. Don’t move away from the bottom left to try and click on the popup image otherwise it disappears. This doesn’t seem very logical.
  • Top left seems to switch between running apps
  • Bottom left and then moving mouse up shows an additional bar with a list of icons for your running apps
  • If your 8.1 update doesn’t appear as an update in the Windows Store, apparently there are some Windows Update prereqs that you need to install first. You can install these from Windows Update in the Control Panel
  • I wasn’t able to change my desktop background image until after I updated to 8.1. In 8 selecting any background image didn’t have any effect. After installing 8.1 it worked as you’d expect.
  • After upgrading to 8.1, my screen brightness went extremely dim, and even changing the brightness setting to the max it was still too dim. Turning off the Adaptive Brightness setting on the Power options fixed this (details here)

I’ll add other updates here when I have more tips to share 🙂

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