Windows 8.1, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

You might have read my previous post about Microsoft not understanding it’s customers, and might be confused about the above title. My opinion still stands, but there is hope for Windows  8 and 8.1, if you want to know how and why just read on.

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Recently I have had a chance to get my hands on the Windows 8.1’Blue’. I finally understand why they called it blue, it will leave you blue as soon as you find out that the Start Menu hasn’t changed one bit. A few new customization options in the start button have been added, but for the most part the Start menu is still full screen and very intrusive. This is the biggest gripe that most people have with the OS. Yes, you can boot directly to the desktop, but modern Metro apps and the Start menu are still full screen. I think MS misunderstood the cries of the masses, when they cried bring the Start button back. The Start button is an easy and quick way to access your system with just one click. As a power user everyone knows that there are many shortcuts to applications and menus when you right click certain links in the start menu, for instance right click My Computer and you can map a network drive, get to Computer Management, or bring up the System menu. You get the picture and as a System Admin these are very handy shortcuts.

Don’t get me wrong the Windows 8 UI works for mobile computing, I’ve tested it on a tablet, and it really shines in this space. It is great for a touch interface, but it falls really short when it comes to desktop computing. In my humble opinion, the user should have a choice when installing the OS on their device. You pull the device out of the box and the image asks you if you’d like the Mobile or Desktop experience. But I digress…

I’ve been waiting on 8.1 since the rumours of the Start menu coming back surfaced. I was even excited, then disappointed when I got to try it. But I was also aware of a fix, a fix that even Samsung opted in on some of their Windows 8 consumer laptops. That fix is Start8 and ModernMix by Stardock. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for both Windows 8 and 8.1.

One can purchase Start8 for $4.99 and ModernMix for $4.99 from Stardock, or bundle these two together for $7.99, and voila Windows is back to it old self. For companies you can buy a volume license, but you will need to contact Stardock directly.

So what do these applications actually do you may ask. Well, Start8 essentially brings back the old trusted Start Menu, you can still access the new one but for the most part Start8 replaces it. With this software you can also disable the hot corners and change certain windows defaults that are normally not adjustable. Have a look at the gallery for all the available options in Start8.

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ModernMix on the other hand “windows” the metro apps, normally they occupy the entire screen. This also gives you the ability to close these windowed Metro Apps by pressing the X at the top right of the window, and a few extra options for the MetroApp become available at the top right corner as well. You can exit or enter full screen mode for these apps, and you can open the charms menu.

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These two applications really saved the Windows 8 experience for me, and for the price of a Pint of beer I really didn’t mind paying for the software, not even an afterthought. I am fully switched from Windows 7 to Windows 8 now, running the same applications i was in Windows 7. There are very few compatibility issues that I have noticed,  actually I have noticed none yet, it seems that all the applications I was running in 7 I can run in 8. I’ve been running 8 with both these application for a couple weeks now, and it is a solid and refined experience.

Also the Windows 8 is a little snappier than 7. Here is why the experience is snappier, I will explain to you as the Microsoft Engineer did to me last year at a Dell event. With Windows 7 prior to loading the desktop it loads everything, drivers, software, dlls, dependencies weather it needs it or not. With Windows 8 it loads things on demand, hence the quicker load times.

Like it or not Windows 8 is here to stay, but at least you don’t have to suffer through the most intrusive desktop experience ever developed someone out there has got your back.

Update: I ran into an instance where Bing Maps would randomly open up, on computer boot, and then while I was already in windows browsing or doing anything at all. Now with these Metro Apps there is no uninstall option. So what one has to do is use PowerShell to uninstall the Metro App.

Open PowerShell and type in the following to list all the metro application installed on your computer… listpckg

This will list several pages of text, scroll and find the package you wish to uninstall. Note the PackageFullName line, you can copy it by highlighting it with your mouse and right clicking it.

Next we will uninstall the package, in this example I will uninstall the BingFinance package. Type in “remove-appxpackage ” then right click into the PowerShell window and it will paste the package name you copied earlier, hit enter…uinstpckgPowerShell will progress to the next line, the cursor will change and show the loading circle beside it. Now if you look for Bing Finance it will be removed from your Win 8/8.1 machine.

Here are the Microsoft KBs associated with uninstalling the Metro Apps.

http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/hh856045.aspx

Microsoft does not understand it’s audience anymore.

Gamer’s a fickle bunch, strike that PC Gamer’s are a fickle bunch. Add to that a dash of Xbox One and a pinch of Windows 8.1 and you have yourself a perfect recipe for disaster.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit, a behemoth like Microsoft would be and is really hard to take down. You have to give them credit where credit is due if anything but they are persistent.

Let’s look at windows 8 for a second, when it came out there was an outcry about the Start button. I think the cries where a little muffled by the time they got to Redmond though. I don’t think it was as much as the lack of a start button but more of the lack of desktop and the fact that the start menu would take up the entire screen. This lead to the slow adoption of the operating system. Don’t get me wrong, for tablet and a touch interface windows 8 is great, and that OS is very deserving of the form factor.

Queue Windows 8.1, I hopped on MSDN and I grabbed the early version available to subscribers. I grabbed the ISO and installed the OS via flash drive. After install I changed a few settings and rebooted. Awesome, it now boots into the desktop environment, start button is there but as soon as you press it, BAM! full screen persistent start menu. What we have now is desktop/tablet hybrid OS. I was so disappointed that I could not change the size of the menu, and that it eats up all my screen real estate, that it prevented me migrating from Windows 7 to 8. I feel like the start menu is way too intrusive in the desktop environment, and yes it is has more customization, but it is not the start menu I like and find convenient. It’s supposed to be a sub menu for the OS not a fully fledged application like interface. I guess the only option left for users of Win 7 that wish to migrate to Win 8 is Start8. As a gamer and heavy desktop user, this irks me a little.

This brings me to Xbox One, when I watched the unveiling I was slightly impressed with the features. However I noticed two things. One the lack of hardware specifications, and two the complete lack of game focus. Instead MS decided to focus on the media capabilities of the device what it can do for sports, and Television, etc. I thought to myself I’m a gamer, I don’t watch sports I only play them. I don’t even have cable television let alone any television subscription except for Netflix. No longer is the Xbox a gamecentric device. I get this, it is supposed to appeal to the whole family not just the gamer in the house, but what if the gamer in the house is the whole family? Either way it looks like an interesting multimedia device, if it is able to play MKVs it would be a winner in my living room for sure.

At the moment all the media is giving MS flack for not having as good hardware specs as the competition, saying it’s 50% less powerful than the rival. I kind of laugh at this because as someone with a Computer Engineering background I know that hardware specs don’t necessarily mean better experience or performance. Prior to the 360 being released 7 or 8 years ago I worked for a company that designed the testing hardware, we worked closely with Microsoft and the drivers for the 360 weren’t finished until a week prior to it being released. Not only that, but driver optimization is a powerful thing, and if Microsoft knows something it is software, perhaps not their audience but definitively software.

Look at Nvidia and AMD they optimize their GPU drivers heavily sometimes yielding 33% performance gains and that’s in an open system such as a PC, imagine the optimization that can take place in a closed system such as an Xbox One. So all the naysayers are probably still working with Alpha drivers complaining about performance, let’s see what November 22nd brings. Either way someone from MS should step out and say something to that effect, because all the dirty console peasants are up in a roar pitchforks and shovels in hand.