Windows 8 Metro, high DPI screen chaos, and other epic fails of modern life

Windows 8 – a Lesson in Corporate Schizophrenia

Recently I moved up to a Dell XPS 15 (fast i7 machine) with Windows 8.1, from an old Dell with Windows 7. I am now, along with the rest of us, suffering in different ways from inexplicable corporate stupidity. This post on Tom’s tech Take II blog nudged me to post my own frustrations. I’ll be short and sweet.

Firstly, I quite like Windows 7. I use mainly ‘heavy’ development and publishing tools plus the usual office and web browser applications. (For the record, I like some aspects of the MacOSX UI, and not much of the Unity UI on most Linuxes. In fact, I don’t really like any OS UI 😉

My initial reactions to Windows 8.1: I simply could not believe that there was this ‘Metro’ interface even loaded on my laptop. What’s it doing there? Like most serious workers, my laptop sits in a cradle (on a box, …) with the screen about 70 cm from my face (my fingers don’t reach the screen), attached by a hub to second screen, other disks, sound system etc, and then it goes on the road. In neither environment do I ever want to:

  • touch the screen (I’ll kill you if you touch my screen)
  • double click on a PDF or other common file and have my laptop UI completely taken over, without so much as a way to exit the application (the first time this happened, it took me many minutes and much swearing to escape)
  • read through the exploded start menu on a screen with a bottom slider control (hierarchical menus were invented for a reason)
  • try and figure out if the last application I installed is accessed from the desktop home screen, or the metro apps exploded menu screen (see above)

I agree with Tom’s point that if MS were going to ‘go Metro’ they should make that the one experience. On a mobile device Metro would probably be nice. On a laptop? It’s of absolutely no use whatever. I can’t think of any work situation where the Metro interface would be useful or usable on a work machine that isn’t either a tablet or a phone.

The point is: laptops (and desktops) are work machines, used for data creation workflows (writing); tablets and phones are mainly used for information access (reading). Metro is probably good for the latter, but it’s got nothing to do with the former. Until manufacturers understand this basic dichotomy, we are in for some years of total stupidity…

The desktop part of WIndows 8.1 is fine by me. I don’t care that much, I care much more about a) what is inside any given application and b) the command line, for which I used cygwin on a Windows machine. Message: we don’t really need some new OS UI paradigm, because it’s applications that count, not the thing that launches them.

High DPI Screen Fails

Now here’s another serious gripe. Dell’s XPS 15 has a hi-dpi screen with 3200×1800 pixels – more than a MacBook Pro. My second screen is a ‘normal’ one, 1900×1080 (i.e. it’s wide, but of same resolution as older laptops). So the main (15″) screen has 2.8 times the pixels of the 24″ second screen.

What is shocking is the number of Windows apps that don’t work properly either on the hi-dpi screen, or across both screens. Key Adobe applications for a start – FrameMaker 12, Acrobat, and I presume things like InDesign etc. Adobe, of all vendors? See here for a giant list. And many others.

And yet, an application I maintain that just uses normal Windows framework libraries, or GtK for the Linux/Mac build, works perfectly on both high DPI, and across two screens. So the OS isn’t broken, just tons of applications and maybe some Java toolkits, that appear to equate text point size with number of pixels, or something equally wrong. Technically speaking, I could blame ‘developers’, but when Adobe Acrobat is utterly broken on a high-res screen, you know it’s something far worse…

Result: some of the most commonly used applications are simply unreadable on a high DPI screen, and don’t work across two screens of mixed density. Obviously this will get fixed over time. My question is: why are giant corporations that charge huge license fees like Adobe and Microsoft subjecting us to even one day of this? It’s not acceptable.

Apparently quite a lot of people agree – I have read of numerous high-DPI laptops being returned to the hardware manufacturer. Ironically this problem is nothing to do with them.

Latpop Keyboards and Pointing Devices

Now let’s talk about something that is the fault of the hardware. My new Dell XPS 15 is a truly beautiful machine, and comes out even with a MacBook Pro in various IT slug-fests. It’s super-fast, looks nice, and the bottom is made of carbon fibre, to I’ll be able to recycle it as a tennis racket one day.

Unfortunately, when I use it on the road (away from my docking station, with its ancient, wonderful IBM keyboard and proper Logitech trackball), I truly hate the keyboard. Here’s why:

  • there are no dedicated End or Home keys as on nearly every other keyboard on the planet – now you have to hit Fn+leftArrow or Fn+RightArrow to mimic two of the most common keystrokes in the life of any IT worker, writer or just human being using a computer. And Ctrl+Home and Ctrl+End are out of the question.
  • there’s no pointing stick in the keyboard. Without that, you can’t type and do cursor movement efficiently. Trackpads are useless when typing, they’re in the wrong place. IBM, Dell and Toshiba routinely include pointing sticks in their laptop keyboards, so they know this.
  • The Enter key is the thinnest key on the keyboard. You’ll find yourself hitting # or } a lot more than often than intended. Why?

This is despite the acres of space on the Dell XPS 15 main frame surface for a proper keyboard with pointing stick.

I should point out that I would have very similar complaints with a MacBook keyboard. The point is: modern laptops have veered off in a direction where aesthetics trump utility. Note to laptop manufacturers: give your next new machine to me for 3 days and I’ll write you a report on how broken it is and how to fix it. For free. And you’ll definitely get the laptop back.


We put up with modern, fast machines that are pretty to look at, but are horribly mal-adapted to their most common uses by their heaviest users. For no technical reason. I can only conclude that the inmates (marketing people) are running the asylum, and that the engineers and usability testers are on some lengthy vacation.

Time to wake up people, and start demanding machines and screens that ACTUALLY WORK.




About wolandscat

I currently work in e-health, and am senior architect of the specifications, designed for semantic interoperability of health information. I also designed the Archetype formalism and model used in openEHR. Outside of work, I am interested in guitar, travel, and philosophy.
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7 Responses to Windows 8 Metro, high DPI screen chaos, and other epic fails of modern life

  1. bertverhees says:

    I see you are having a lot of fun. Enjoy your holidays. Good thing is that a lot of your fun is because you are badly informed.
    I read following in your text: “not much of the Unity UI on most Linuxes”

    Not that I want to spoil your fun, but some productivity can be good too. So, I keep it short. Only one Linux is using the Unity-desktop, and that is a horrible desktop. So every time when I have to work on an Ubuntu-desktop, I do three mouseclicks and one reboot, and then I have Gnome installed which is really a very nice desktop. Sometimes I choose KDE, it is heavier but has some more features.

    Sometimes I need to work on Windows, because some tooling (from Ocean) is only available for the Windows-desktop. So I try to avoid using that tooling, but sometimes I am forced too.
    Let me be short on that too.

    I hate working on Windows, always trouble, no freedom to configure the machine, only trouble.

    But I know, many people never take the time, or don’t have the ability to get better informed, and they always have to work on Windows. Sometimes, especially with Christmas, I spend a warm thought for them.

    Good luck, and enjoy your holidays.

  2. wolandscat says:

    Ha! I knew someone would correct me on which Linux desktops are available – I knew that was a bit wrong when I wrote it and forgot to come back to it. What I was really thinking is that a very large proportion of Linux user machines (i.e. laptops etc, not servers) seem to run Ubuntu, and its default UI is Unity, which is a pity. I.e. I am talking installations not numbers of possible Linux distros.

    Personally I work on Windows and Ubuntu. I really must do as you say and put Gnome there, or LXDE (my machine is somewhat old).

    I’m an old unix guy, so some part of my brain agrees with you, but on the other hand, there are practical necessities that require many people to spend some time on Windows. And modern Windows (apart from the Win8 Metro stupidity) is not that difficult for developers. You just put cygwin there. It’s not ideal but it’s pretty good. There are all sorts of limitations on Linux too – font management isn’t very good; you may be stuck using LibreOffice when you actually need some feature from MS Office because of something you got sent.

    If I was in charge of the world (;-) I probably would rule that all user machines (other than mobile devices) ran a very fast, lean unix and desktop. Or maybe Solaris 😉

  3. bertverhees says:

    As I understand, a pity that you cannot always work on the environment you like most. I can, and I passionately defend that, always as needed. Most people know, so they do not bring that to discussion. Everything I need runs better on Linux. It is a fact.

    I doubt if Unity is the most used desktop. There are many Ubuntu-derivates, like Kubuntu. And there are the Redhat-derivates and the Debian-derivates.

    Therefore I think Gnome is the most widely used desktop, and KDE is a strong second. Unity is really a disaster, I cannot understand why it exists.

  4. I’m on holiday too, and this time I’m traveling without a laptop, to see if that works. With the augmentation of two extra gizmos, it is working pretty nicely. I have a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, and a WD hard drive with built-in sd card reader. The later backs up photos easily and at full res. The keyboard only comes out when I’m writing a draft or editing. A surprisingly large number of control-key combinations “just work” (mostly the emacs flavor, like on other Unixes – I’m using android on a new nexus-9, Cath an iPad). From the keyboard alt-tab does the expected application switch, and copy and paste works between apps. Frankly I think that I could be quite productive like this.

    I think that you overestimate the usefulness of metro in a tablet context. I have one at work for development, and it’s rubbish. I’d stick with modern android, given a choice.

    I think that the days of PCs that you physically install applications on won’t last much longer. All screens will be “smart”, and you’ll just point them at your applications on some back room server, as many and wherever you need them.

    As you said, the modern ui is all in the app anyway, the os mostly gets out of the way.

  5. wolandscat says:

    @Andrew – re: the idea that all apps will soon be server-side… I understand the general trend of course, and our own product apps have already gone this way.

    I wonder how long it will take for developer tools though – tools with very detailed UIs, lots of special controls etc – including all software development IDEs, design tools, UML tools, AutoCAD, and so on. I saw a video about 18months ago of an attempt to make Eclipse into a web-based application, and it was horrible.

    Not that I care much if it does happen, and presumably we will eventually get there. What I do want to know is that the notion of private workspaces and private data is implemented somewhere.

    • Re tools: well, of course it doesn’t help that the actual mechanisms that are being commonly used are cobbled-together (i.e., accreted rather than designed), inconsistent, baroque and poorly documented. Sigh. There probably isn’t a direct path to there from here. At least they mostly seem to have a decent handle on resolution-independent font sizes (per your original argument.)

      There are some existence proofs, of sorts, though. Visual Studio has been natively HTML5 for a revision or two, I believe, and is now available as a web-served thing. I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen web-fronted versions of vim mentioned in blogs. WordPress itself is (gradually) becoming a reasonably useful text production environment, although off-line drafting is still a good idea for reliability reasons. Indeed, I do the vast majority of my text production these days inside various wiki or email tools, rather than stand-alone word processors.

      Private data is an interesting question. Personal clouds are certainly do-able (the Western Digital portable drive that I mentioned above is one, for instance) and I run one on my server at home, but the more interesting situation is going to come when cloud back-ends start to allow federated data interchange, based on shared identity mechanisms. I wonder if there will ever be a web-scale version of the “All my files” OSX smart folder? What sort of entity would we be able to trust to form that index?

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