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.