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Technology Untangled: Windows 8.1’s good points bundled with annoyances

Stephen Bour
February 26, 2014
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technology-bourI have heard a fair number of complaints about Windows 8, and now the revised Windows 8.1 PC operating systems since they were released. There was enough anecdotal evidence to cause me to delay my purchase of a new computer for as long as possible. Even my casual attempts to examine and work with this new interface proved off-putting. As more of the court reporters in our office switched over, it became harder for me to assist them with problems without having a similar computer of my own. So, I finally bought a Windows 8.1 laptop. It is different, and it is annoying in many ways, but it does have its good points. Today’s article will cover some of my impressions of Windows 8.1.

If you read no further than this paragraph, here is the most important advice I have to offer. Be sure to choose a laptop that has a touch-enabled screen. Windows 8.1 is clearly designed to work best with a 10-point multi-touch screen. Part of the frustration that I had during my initial attempts with 8.1 was the result of working via mouse touchpad on computers with conventional screens. Yes, you can navigate by swiping and tapping on the touchpad alone, but it really is a sub-optimal experience. Spend the extra money and avoid the frustration.

Windows 8.1 doesn’t really strike me as “designed for business.” It seems a lot more like it is designed for amusement, distraction and fun ... and, oh yeah, it will also run your business software. The Windows 8.1 “look” and operating interface is different to say the least, and it definitely does take some getting used to. There are, however, plenty of useful tutorials available online, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to use and learn. Here are some things I have noticed.

The opening Start screen is very cluttered with little windows, known as tiles, designed to launch each app. This interface, officially dubbed the Metro UI, seems custom-designed for people with ADD. For example, the News tile is constantly distracting me with updates. Many of these dynamic tiles continuously scroll with changing pictures and information. There is so much clutter, it cannot fit on one screen. You literally have to swipe up and down, left and right to see it all.

Another small annoyance, the Bing Weather tile obviously knows my location and dutifully scrolls the temperature and the name of the Indiana city where I am, but the default readout is in degrees Celsius! What? Does it think I’m Canadian?

After many years of bowing to Microsoft’s odd convention of clicking the “Start” button at the bottom left to shut down the computer, now there is an “improved” method. Their new preferred convention is to sweep in from the right edge to open a number of iconic choices, none of which say “Shut Down.” You have to choose Settings, Power, and then Shut Down. Hardly straightforward. By the way, the given name for these icons is “Charms.” How cute. That hardly sounds business-like to me.

Thankfully, if you click the proper tile you can still find a vaguely familiar Desktop, similar to older versions of Windows. And after much persuading (due to customer complaints), Microsoft brought back the conventional Start button as part of the retooling from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1.

Annoyingly, you must use a password each time you turn on the computer. There is no option to turn it off. I assume this is intended to improve security, but all it really does is give the illusion of security. I feel no safer with this password that is forced upon me, because much like a smartphone, virtually every app you use on the computer includes permissions to violate your privacy at every turn, not to mention the cajoling to back up your data to the cloud (also known as Microsoft SkyDrive). Some data is automatically sent to SkyDrive by default! I don’t really trust the security of any of it.

Unfortunately, whenever the computer is on the main Start screen, my full name is unsecurely emblazoned in the upper right-hand corner. I can’t remove it, and I can’t change it. It is the name I entered when registering the computer. Do I really want any passerby knowing my name when I am using my computer at Starbucks? Curiously, you cannot even use a new Windows 8.1 computer if you do not already have an email address. You need one to receive the registration code info necessary to initialize the unit.

Successfully navigating this computer requires an orchestrated mix of screen touches and swipes, touchpad clicks, and standard keyboard strokes. No one input method does it best for all needs. It takes a little bit of each, and it takes some time to figure it all out. Funny thing now, after several weeks of reaching out and touching the screen of this newest computer, I find myself trying to control all my older computers by screen touches. At least it shows that I am getting more “in touch” with this new system.

I know that many of the annoying features can be custom-configured more to my liking, but the point is why should I have to spend the time and go through the trouble?

The arrival of the touch-screen-enabled Windows 8.1 system now further blurs the lines between PC and tablet. Some of these touch screen PCs allow you to fold over the screen or remove the keyboard completely to convert to a tablet-shaped form factor. But from my experience, a true tablet such as an iPad offers a better tablet computing experience than a touch screen PC. While the PC and the tablet continue to converge, I think there will remain a distinct and separate niche for each.•

__________

Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.
 

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