Windows 8 has its problems. Some of these are immediate, others hypothetical (and potentially graver in nature). But I’m finding, as I write this using the operating system, having been playing games using the operating system, the negativity over Microsoft’s latest Windows seems a little extreme.
Sure, the Start screen is annoying, and the way Microsoft wants to tie so much of it to a centralised account is very un-PC, but I’m a guy who uses his PC for games, writing, games, browsing the internet then more games. If you’re much the same, and you’re thinking about jumping in early with the new OS, you should know that it’s nowhere near as bad as some will have you believe.
In the weeks leading up to Windows 8’s release, people have raised a number of concerns with the OS. Concerns that very nearly had me sitting back down, enjoying Windows 7 and not bothering with an immediate update. Maybe not updating at all. But I’m glad I did. Here’s why (and why you might not).
I have never, ever installed a version of Windows on top of an older one. I’ve always preferred a clean install on a wiped HDD or new PC, because technology simply couldn’t handle moving all my stuff and keeping it in order once it got there. Yet I’d heard good things about Windows 8’s install process. So I decided to risk it.
After a surprisingly brief install process – around an hour, give or take – my PC rebooted into Windows 8. And the transition had been as smooth as I could have hoped for. My desktop wallpaper was there, my files were all there, but more importantly, my games, game settings and even customised Steam skin was there. All my games worked, all my save games worked, and I didn’t even need to re-renter my Steam account information.
All the bad things you’ve heard are true. It sucks. On a tablet it’s a beautiful interface, and practical to boot. On a desktop, it’s silly. Customisation is limited, movement with a mouse and keyboard is counter-intuitive, full app support is restricted to official programs sold through Microsoft’s store, and every time you turn around you’re having to login to an official Microsoft account. Unless you’re a casual user with a touch-screen monitor, there is absolutely no reason for this to exist. At all.
And yet…right there, when it starts, is a big button that says “desktop”. Click it and you’ll be zoomed to “old” Windows, with a taskbar and desktop folders, just like you know it. You’ll also be sent straight there if you’ve got an application “pinned” to your Start screen that isn’t natively supported. From here, it functions almost exactly like any other version of the OS. All your games, programs, Fraps, whatever, this is where you’ll be launching most of them from, just like you always have, and they work here just like they should.
Well, with the exception of one weird oversight, the lack of a “start” button, but you can easily fix that with Stardock’s excellent Start8 (note: it costs $US5).
If it absolutely kills you to see the giant buttons every time you boot up, you could try RetroUI, which not only lets you boot straight to the desktop mode, but also disable some other mildly-annoying Start screen features like “corners” (hovering your mouse in the corner of the screen brings up pop-up settings and menus).
So your big games, the ones you ruin through Steam or Origin (or just off an .exe), should run without any problems whatsoever. You can either pin a tab to the new Start screen to launch those shopfronts, or once on the desktop execute individual games like you always would. There’s really not much of a change in that regard (though a new task manager makes locked/problematic game easier to deal with). I tried all sorts of games, from indie platformers to AAA blockbusters, across Steam, Origin and standalone executables, and didn’t run into a single game that had any issues, let alone that wouldn’t run.
There is a change, though, when it comes to Win8’s new “Games” section on the official Microsoft store. This is the place where games that can be pinned and launched from the new Start screen are bought. It’s…pretty awful. Old Windows stalwarts like Solitaire are now there, instead of sitting in your old Windows menu, and the way more complex games like Toy Soldiers are available there is troubling, since there is absolutely zero need for you to be playing a game from that screen on a desktop computer.
Since most serious games will still be bought and run from a program like Steam, all Microsoft’s own Games section on the Start screen is doing is splitting the feature across the OS, some casual experiences on the Start screen while the bigger stuff remains in desktop mode. In that way, it just feels like a more colourful, and prominent, version of Vista/7’s “Games” section on the main menu, which itself was a total bust.
About the only thing I like about it is the way that, once signed in, you can access your Xbox 360’s play history from the same section, and if you’ve got Smartglass installed you can even browse and boot up your games library from your desktop (as well as monitor and message with your friends).
The install process is painless, but also unnecessary if you just…stay on your current version of Windows. The Start screen is a pain, and one that you shouldn’t have to pay to bypass. Then even when you do, things look a lot like they already do on Windows 7.
So why would you bother? Because Windows 8 is faster.
While there are numbers backing up slight improvements playing 3D games, you won’t really notice it. Where you do notice things, though, is when you boot the system up and move around between programs on the desktop, with the former now blisteringly fast, even on my standard (ie not an SSD) HDD. The “burden” of the Start screen lurking behind the scenes at all times doesn’t affect things, either, with transitions between windows snappy and no noticeable change in game performance or boot times.
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So, yeah, surprisingly, I’ve been enjoying Windows 8. I didn’t think I would, given the doom and gloom, but it’s quickly won me over.
About the only thing I’d seriously caution against for those concerned are, as has been spelled out, the dangers lurking in the future, not the present. The way Microsoft has reigned in control of the “platform” to adhere to the new Start screen, and then tied that to its own game store, may not be a problem now, but if that store grows to become one of the biggest players in the market, you’ll be facing its various niggles and restrictions on a daily basis, instead of just ignoring it like you would now.
It also would have been nice to have the option to include a “Start” button and to boot straight to desktop mode, instead of having to pay someone else for the privilege.
But those present annoyances, like most things brought up in the pre-launch discussions, are just niggles. Once you get to the desktop, everything either works exactly the way it should, or better.
With a cheap upgrade path (it’s only a $US40 download for existing Win 7 owners), fast and intelligent installation and most important of all, select performance gains, I think Windows 8 is a worthy upgrade for the gamer itching to try the latest big thing, especially since all your heavy lifting – like running games in Steam – works just fine. And if you’ve just bought a new PC that’s coming saddled with the new OS? It’s the same story. Your games will work, and the sun will come up tomorrow.
If you’re not dying for the latest big thing, though, and are happy enough with Windows 7, your reasons for upgrading now might be less pressing. Unless the faster boot times and desktop switching are a concern for you (they’re probably more important for laptop users), seeing as the desktop mode is basically what you’re already using, and you don’t run into the odd accidental activation of a corner-of-the-screen shortcut, you may as well stick with Windows 7. At least until some cheaper/easier ways of tailoring the Windows 8 experience come along.
Obviously I haven’t been able to go into minute detail here; if you’re on the fence and have any questions about how the new OS works in the real world, ask below and I’ll do my best to answer.
For a rundown on the OS in general, including the best launch apps and features, you should check out Lifehacker’s excellent “Everything You Need to Know About Windows 8″ roundup.