Saturday, October 5, 2013

Thoughts on Windows 8 and a New Laptop

A few weeks ago, I finally bought a new laptop as the successor for my long serving and well loved Toshiba. As much as I love the computing setup I have on the Toshiba (including what IMO is the best keyboard around. Period.), in recent months, a number of factors have conspired to remind me that eventually, I'd have to find (and adapt) to working with a successor for it.

Among these no doubt were the following factors:
  1. The "Malware Outbreak" in April - Although I seem to have managed to get things under control again, this was not without some costs to the long term performance of the machine (and the fact that I've basically ended up avoiding doing anything that might remotely involve sensitive financial details on it just in case of any lingering and undetected issues)
  2. Raw speed and performance - At the end of the day, nothing beats a 3+ GHz processor and more wads of RAM. Being over 6 years old, the Toshiba had served me well: firstly, as a significant leap up from the crappy box I'd been using prior to that (going from a single-core 1 GHz processor to a 2.2 GHz dual core, and from the terribly restrictive 224 mb (or 125mb effective) RAM to the freedom of 2 GB), and over several busy years of Blender Development and Uni Courses. However, the computational demands I was throwing at it with my work were starting to get to a point where some lagginess was apparent, and the once-plentiful RAM was now frequently getting gobbled up by a combination of RAM-hungry Firefox (or really, any modern browser, Chrome included!) and/or various system-update background processes (sometimes in tandem!).
  3. Disk Space - At the time of writing, I now have less than 2 GB free space left on each of the drives (system + older files, and photos + newer code projects). Considering the phenomenal rate that those blasted automated updaters (and the system snapshots they create) can gobble up disk space in minutes left unchecked, this really doesn't bode well for continued daily work (and an active photography habit on the side), though a few portable hard drives may have extended/delayed the inevitable by a while if needed.
  4. Portability - Being an older model, the Toshiba is quite hefty (you'll definitely know this after trying to haul it up 3 flights of stairs, then up and down again to another building and across a courtyard), with about 30 minutes of usable battery life. This was fine for many years when I mainly used it at a fixed desk at home, but these days, it would also be handy to be able to work from other parts of the house "in-between" other activities (especially during deadline crunches, which was a major issue at the end of last year).
  5. Some failing hardware - Most notably, the microphone has failed completely, and the backlight is noticably dimmer than it used to be.

So, about 2 months ago, I finally started checking out the laptop market again (having largely ignored it for about 6 years!), and was not very impressed by what I saw in general. Mac-style flat "island/chiclet" keyboards were are in vogue nowadays (and it's practically impossible to get one without those here in NZ), with many also doing away with numpads (argh!). Other issues included the relatively low-specs presented (majority were 1.6 - 2.4 GHz dual-cores, usually topping out at 4 GB RAM), and the size/weight tradeoffs (light machines with tiny screens, or decent-sized machines with hilarious inch-thick chunkiness - but still not much improvement over the light machines in terms of performance or keyboard choice). Yeah, and by this year, Win7 machines were already practically extinct - there were a few exceptions though.

Against this backdrop, I stumbled across a "compromise" solution at the start of September, one Sunday afternoon: a HP Envy 17-j007tx.

Having used it for a few weeks on/off in alternation with the Toshiba, I can definitely say that it is by no means a flawless setup. Notable issues include:
  • It runs Windows 8 by default
  • Chiclet keyboard. Although it felt workable (compared to many of the others I'd tried in stores over the past few months) when I tested it, there was quite a break-in adjustment period. During that time, issues here have included:
    • the drastically reduced travel of the keys (and overall flatness of the setup) which ended up causing brief RSI-like symptoms (mainly sore forearms) in the first few days until I developed an altered typing technique better suited to this, 
    • the fact that the spacing of modifier keys to the keyboard midpoint is actually a bit wider than I'm used to,  
    • frequent issues with coordination of fingers - it's far too easy with this keyboard to hold down the shift key for the first two letters of a word instead of just the first one, due in part to the different way that these keys respond,
    • the half-height of the up/down buttons - this was quite an issue initially, but over the past few days has become less of any issue
    • the F* keys not being usable by default without Fn. Fortunately, this is a simple fix via the BIOS (F10 on startup, Disable "Action Keys" option), though actually getting into the BIOS can be a challenge (you have to be really fast to catch it - practically stabbing the keys as soon as you touch the power button but before it lights up)
    • the lack of a status indicator for NumLock (though not necessarily such a big deal, since I usually have it on!)
  • Touchpad sensitivity is an issue as always. 
    • Of particular note is the need to disable "Tap to Click", as that just made using it plain unpredictable (and dangerous). Then again, I have to do that on every single touchpad I've ever used; for whatever reason, they tend to love treating a my finger getting friction-stuck or maybe making a slightly heavy-stroke in a hurry
    • The scroll direction is also something to watch out for. Although I kept in on the default setting ("natural scroll" - documents move as if you're pushing them around like pieces of paper) initially, I've ended up setting it to the more normal way of just moving the scrollbar in the appropriate direction to keep things simply when moving between various devices.
  • Other/General Issues:
    • The hinge is a bit stiff when opening the laptop, and since there seems to be a slight weight-imbalance between the screen and body (aka the body is perhaps not "heavy enough"), attempts to try opening it one-handed usually end up with the base lifting off the table if no further intervention is applied
    • While the machine itself is much lighter than the Toshiba, the power pack is another matter. It is big and it is heavy. And by heavy, I mean heavy. It's like a solid brick, with a relatively short cord attached to it. (Note to self: check on power cords next time, though the shop layouts don't make this very easy these days).
    • Over the past day, I've noticed that it tends to emit a high pitched and barely but just audible whining noise when in standby mode, which seems to coincide with the flashing of the power indicators. It sounds like an F'' <=> E'' (LilyPond Notation) sound. I'm not sure whether this has been there since day 1 or whether it's started developing following various tweaks I've been making trying to get a nicely-functioning Linux dual boot setup on it (more on that in another post - that's quite a saga...), but I'll definitely be keeping an eye (and ear) on it...
    • The color calibration of the monitor is way off kilter by default. After quite a bit of tweaking and hand calibration, I've managed to get it back into shape. Basically, it has a heavy blue tint and lacks a bit of reddish "warm-glow" in the default configuration. Notably though, this so far only seems to be on Windows! When testing a Linux LiveCD on similar sets of test images, all colours seemed to display exactly as they should (and do as every single other screen around). And this is with Linux reporting "no calibration" being performed on the screen. (/me thinks HP probably ended up optimising the screen's colour calibration to give a bit of a boost to the Metro colours, which is what most people will see when doing initial screen comparisons; Indeed, I've noticed that Windows 8 looks a lot better on newish screens than older ones - more on this in a bit)
    • Lack of VGA port - Although VGA's should in theory be being phased out, the majority of the world's projector setups (or at least the ones in this part of the world) all provide VGA connectors only (though there's probably a VGA socket somewhere on the backs of the projects, if you could climb up on the ceiling!)
Despite this, it does have things going in its favour. These include:
1) Quad-Core Processor, going up to 3.4 GHz when needed. So far, I've only really struck this when compiling Blender, and the rest of the time, everything keeps well that threshold, so things stay relatively responsive
2) 12 GB of RAM
3) NVidia Graphics
4) Optical Disc Drive
5) 4 USB Ports - 2 on either side. You can never have enough of these things, and distributed on either side is even better
6) 1 TB HD

Ok, so what about Windows 8?
Following my encounters with Windows 8 monkey-bashing various laptops in stores, I wasn't exactly looking forward to seriously working with it. In particular, getting in and out of the Metro interface to various apps, especially if you want to purely use the mouse/trackpad looked like it would be quite a struggle. But, nevertheless, I decided to give it a fair chance: after all, various HCI research in recent years seems to suggest that something like this for launching stuff should work nicely, not to mention the many other improvements they made to the core Windows system (boot times, task manager, copy progress, visibility of tools) are genuinely attractive.

So, does Metro stack up when you actually make an effort to customise it so that it can be used as a full-screen quick "launchpad" for your most frequently used shortcuts, allowing you to use your spatial memory?
From my tests so far... sortof. It's not as bad but still not as good as I'd anticipated. What is good is that it makes it really quick to fire up Firefox when I fire up the machine (I've got this in place of the IE tile in the first block). Jumping back to the desktop is also not too hard, as long as you make sure you keep the "Desktop" tile located in that first block too, and preferably in an easy to hit location (i.e. the default at the bottom is quite good actually).

As for other tools though, it doesn't quite work so well. Even though you can put other things nearby, it's almost invariably faster if you put your most frequently used directly on the taskbar, and your secondary apps on the Metro screen (before the scroll).

What about the Metro Apps/Tiles?
While there is generally apathy about the Windows store and Metro apps in general, having given things a good bashing, my conclusions about these are as follows.

The Metro Tile/App designs are not all a terrible idea. In fact, there are a few which IMO really shine:
  • The builtin Weather App/Tile - Looks great, provides info quickly one keystroke away, and is more accurate/up to date for local weather than the official weather service (Metservice) here in NZ. The only missing feature IMO is the ability to view the past stats (temp, rain/cloud/sun, wind) from the past 24 hours, which would be really handy for checking out just how bad things got earlier in the day.
  • Periodic Table by Revolution Software - Once again, looks really great, presents a lot of useful info in a nice way, and really showcases a different view of how computers interfaces could be like.
  • Sketchbook Express - Yes yes, I know this is software from the evil Autodesk. Having said that, IMO, Sketchbook is one of the most darn awesome painting interfaces out there. If nothing else, the feel of the various brushes is really nice, and it's quite neat seeing this running fullscreen (without any borders).
However, there are significant issues with the interaction design of the Metro platform in general, as have been discussed by many. Among these:
  • It is not easy to figure out how to get out of a Metro App. I eventually figured that you can do this by moving your cursor over to the top of the screen, waiting for the hand-cursor to show up, then click and drag the window towards the bottom edge until it starts shrinking, at which point you let go and it closes the window. An alternative is to bring up the App switcher (top left corner IIRC, then right-clicking on the offending apps), though this is really finicky to bring up once again.
  • The charms menu is awkward and confusing. It's somewhat confusing that this can be "taken over" by apps to display some app-specific options and settings (including search and options). The worst example here is the search functionality, which sits in a bizzare half-way land where you're not quite sure whether its searching within the app or whether it will jump out and start doing general-purpose search at any point in time. In other words, you simply cannot trust it! Besides, the charms menu is a PITA to activate - have I mentioned that enough already?
  • Waiting for the Metro tiles screen to show up when you press the Windows key is not so bad. However, when this happens when you try to open a document (Note: there's a built-in PDF-Reader app now, though it is a Metro thing, and takes over the screen after a short delay, doesn't do continuous scrolling that well, and cannot be used to check on things side-by-side with other windows), things aren't so rosy.
  • Accessing the All Apps part of the Metro interface is tricky/hidden by mouse. In fact, you're probably better off forgetting about that, and just doing "WinKey + <appname search>", using the Windows key as a quick app launcher (and forgetting about whatever is happening on screen).
  • Trying to name the groups is really hard to grasp. I ended up having to actually read the documentation (AND watch/toggle between a few video tutorials several times) to figure out how to do it - apparently, renaming groups is an operation that can only be done on whole groups of tiles, and whole groups of tiles can only be operated on when you zoom out. Brilliant! Who would have discovered that by themselves? Oh, and moving tiles between groups? Well, apparently it's not that obvious you can do that - in fact, you need to move it just a little bit further than would be obvious (i.e. it must go outside the current group it is in) in order to start getting a highlight to indicate that you can drop it outside the group to form a new one starting from there. Oops... that one also took a while to figure out (and would've been impossible without watching some vids on Youtube).

What about Windows in General?
In general, my two biggest pet peeves with Windows 8 are:
  1. It is frickin' annoying trying to turn off or put the computer into standby. Since when is "Power" a "Setting"?! What's worse is that you need to go through the Charms menu - something which is actually incredibly hidden, and annoying to activate (despite being able to do it in 3 different ways)! The first day I was playing around with the laptop, I struggled for ages to figure out how to power it off. IMO, the obvious solution would have been to stick a great big power button/logo beside the profile logo/name (or even just in a dropdown from there), but nooo! It had to be in that blasted Charms menu, hidden under "Settings". Blegh!
  2. The removal of the pretty theme "Aero Glass". The "flat look" is really really ugly, though surprisingly, not quite as bad on a modern-ish display than it looks on older displays (where it looks many times worse). Matters are somewhat compounded at times by various toolkits I use (i.e. Qt) which don't render correctly with this new half-arsed theme. It makes working in anything quite an annoying experience in general!
The loss of the start menu isn't that bad, though a bit inconvenient.

More annoying than the start menu loss IMO are the taskbar and Windows Explorer "folder/favourites pane" changes though (which stem from Windows 7). Together, these are the second most annoying part of Windows 8 for me, since together, these actually pose the greatest barriers to retaining a productive workflow in this operating system. Much much more than the much maligned (but IMO not that bad Metro screen) and the loss of the start menu. Here's why:
  • Open windows are now grouped by app, instead of by opening order as in the past. Even after making it so that these don't collapse together into a single icon with multiple tabs, the fact that you can't maintain the relative order of windows opened sucks. That's because, I tend to open clusters of windows for different projects, and it helps that each project's cluster of windows is grouped together. Contrary to Microsoft's beliefs, 1) I DO NOT WANT TO GROUP BY APPLICATION, 2) I ACTUALLY FREQUENTLY SWITCH BETWEEN WINDOWS FOR THE SAME APP AND NEED TO DO SO VERY RAPIDLY.
  • The "Libraries" concept is half baked. All it does is it adds an extra step to every file browse-operation: I now must do a "Go to File Location" on one of the files in the target folder to be able to properly launch all the various tools I need to use.
  • Showing the Folder Tree in the same pane as the shortcuts is actually a huge pain and nuisance. 
    • Then again, I would say so, since one of my research projects has been targetting the very problem of quick access to folders as displayed in the left-hand pane. At the very least, after starting to lose hope in the need/merits of the technique I'd developed, playing around with this for a few days has given me a much-needed boost that my technique is in fact as needed today as it was back when I first started work on it last year.)
    • Anyways, the main problem here is that, to get quick access to your shortcut locations (for quick rehoming), you need to remember to scroll up to the top of the list to get to these. If you haven't set any shortcuts yet however, navigating around the hierarchy (without using libraries) turns out to be an order of magnitude harder now, since it's really hard to predict where exactly those items may show up now (if at all). Fortunately though, setting shortcuts is now a lot easier with the new ribbon, removing a lot of the guess work and fairy-dancing you used to need to do to add shortcuts).
    • Once you click on one of these shortcuts, you're immediately taken into the depths of the tree. This actually ends up causing a bit of spatial disorientation when it happens! Beside, it also makes it harder to switch to another location if you accidentally jumped to the wrong shortcut.
Moving on from the problems, let's talk briefly about some of the "cool" things that are in Windows 8 in general:
1) Typing "cmd" into the addressbar of any Windows Explorer window brings up a console for that location. For people like me who use commandline a lot nowadays, this is a real time saver, and very neat trick.
2) Win + Printscreen  automatically saves a screenshot to the "Pictures\Screenshots" directory. No more need for bringing up Paint to save screenshots from the clipboard.  Alt-Printscreen still takes a screenshot of just the active window (though unfortunately, they didn't add Win + Alt + Printscreen to save a screenshot of just the active window! Pity... tsk tsk)
3) Win + X  brings up a quick menu of useful options in lieu of Start Menu, and seemingly tailored to power users. Pity though that it doesn't include Power Off/Standby options!
4) Task Manager - This thing is pretty sweet
5) File Copy Dialog - Ooh... fancy. Finally something that actually provides something worthwhile to look at while waiting on long operations.
6) Fast boot/shutdown - After getting used to waiting 5+ minutes up and down, it's always a pleasure seeing things ready to use so quickly (in under a minute).


Anyways, after my "Windows Experiment", I've figured that ultimately, this environment still has a few too many problems to be productive in the long term. So, I'm finally going to try and make the move over to Linux fulltime (I've been practically working in Linux back at uni for 2 years now, so I have a much clearer picture and expectations of what that will be like, and the kinds of tweaks I can make to get things working nicer). However, getting everything checked out and prepared for setting up the dual boot has proved to be a bit more of a struggle here, and will be the subject of  later post once I resolve three major lingering problems (namely, NVidia Optimus/Driver issues, Wifi Stability, and how to go about the partitioning without accidentally bricking/destroying things before I solve the lingering hardware support issues).

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