An Outsider’s Perspective on Windows 10 Preview

I have been living almost exclusively in the Linux/BSD camp for over ten years now. While I occasionally find myself using Windows computers in offices or when I am helping people remove a virus or install new software, it is not very often I use a Microsoft operating system. I am very much an outsider when it comes to Windows, so while I can use and navigate, install and trouble-shoot the many flavours of Microsoft’s primary product, the experience tends to feel alien to me. Windows, you might say, is a second language to me.

With this in mind, it occurs to me many of the reviews I see of Linux distributions tend to come from people who are transitioning to Linux from Windows. These people typically use Windows at work or have more years using Windows behind them than years of using Linux. I often see people reviewing Linux from the point of view of a Windows user, but I rarely see Windows reviewed by anyone other than a Windows power user. Today I’m going to give my first impressions of Windows 10 (Preview build) from the point of view of someone who almost exclusively uses Linux and FreeBSD.

First, allow me to state that while I am a fan of Linux, I don’t hate Windows. There are things I find frustrating about Windows. For example, I don’t like that Windows changes appearance and moves things around from one version to to the next. (Yes, this is a problem many Linux distributions have too.) I also don’t like that Windows tends to nag the user. XP, Vista and Windows 7 hit the user with a regular stream of pop-ups which makes the interface very distracting, in my opinion. I find the Windows interface tends to be relatively inflexible when compared against most open source desktops and the lack of a proper package manager often vexes me. Perhaps my biggest gripe with Windows is the way it tends to automatically reboot after installing updates. I don’t know how many times I have watched Windows shutdown and take 15-20 minutes to install a series of updates, leaving the user stuck, unable to work. On the positive side, I find Windows tends to have pretty good backward compatibility and settings are usually easy to find. Almost everything can be managed through the operating system’s GUI and I like that.

Anyway, on with my impressions of Windows 10 (Preview). First, the download is pretty large, about 3GB and I had to go through quite a long series of web pages to find the download. Microsoft isn’t making it easy to find this ISO, bless them. Once I got a copy of the installation I fired it up in my machine and was brought to a graphical system installer. (Windows still doesn’t have a live desktop mode.) The installer is very, very simple. Basically all we can do is select a partition to install Windows on, plus maybe make or delete partitions. The partitioning screen is really not clear about what it is doing. We see buttons like New, Delete and Format, but there is no indication what this screen is for and we sort of have to assume it’s a partitioning screen and the New button makes partitions rather than creating a new partition layout. We can’t format partitions with alternative file systems and I am not even sure the Format button works. When I clicked Format the screen just flicked, with no indication anything had actually been done. At any rate, I picked a partition to house Windows (it is not possible to pick a separate partition for storing data) and let the installer copy its files. When the installer is done the machine reboots and we are asked to perform a few configuration steps.

Want screenshots? We’ve got screenshots.

One configuration step is making an on-line user account. I refused to do this and ended up getting the run around for a while until Windows agreed to let me create a local-only user account. Then we are presented with the desktop. Over the past eight years I feel Microsoft has been swinging from one extreme to the other with their interface. Windows Vista and 7 had a lot of eye candy, glassy window edges, lots of pop-ups, flashy progress bars and so on. With Windows 8 and 10 they’re going in the complete opposite direction and giving everything a sparse, empty look. Icons and window borders look like a child’s pastel building blocks that have been left in the sun too long. There is a lot of open, empty space and very few pop-ups or distractions. Notifications to the user are acessed via a system tray icon and are more subtle.

The Start menu is back and the Start screen is gone. I think this will make most people happy. The Start button is now similar to how it was in the Windows XP days, though a bit streamlined. And, it seems, there isn’t any way to copy icons onto the desktop from the Start menu. Instead of a separate Start screen, tiles now make up the right-hand side of the Start menu. It’s a weird marriage of Start menu and Start screen, but one that I think works, making it easier to find applications either in a menu or from a tile. I give Microsoft a kudos for reimplementing the Start menu and making it relatively easy to navigate.

Configuring the operating system is a weird deal. There are now two settings panels, the new Windows 8 style, dumbed down panel and the more powerful, classic Control Panel. I don’t know why we need two and why the classic Control Panel is hidden away, but it means walking users through finding the proper setting over the phone is going to be a huge pain for technical support departments.

Power shell, ie the command prompt, is still there. Now it’s semi-transparent and running some DOS-style programs (such as edit) cause Windows to stop what you’re doing and pop-up a notice insisting more software needs to be downloaded. When we type a command that doesn’t exist or cause any other form of error, the command prompt window turns from soft white-on-blue to red-on-black text, which is ugly and looks like a design error.

Windows 10 ships with a paint program, a text editor, an audio player and a video player. These programs are all very bare bones. The video player especially was hard for me to get used to. There doesn’t appear to be any way of opening just one file, we need to copy videos into our Video folder and then the video program automatically adds it to our library. Then we search the library for the item we want to play. We could also locate the file in a file manager and double-click it, I suppose, but either way we need to use a file manager to get our video player to open a file.

Speaking of search, there is a personal assistant/search program build into the taskbar. I was excited about this until I discovered it only allows us to access more than the basic search features if we have an on-line Microsoft account. Likewise, the calendar app, the (new) package manager and just about every other would-be useful tool in the operating system requires we create an on-line account before they will work. Windows claims this is to personalize the experience and synchronize our data (ie copy the data for Microsoft to analyze), but I don’t want my experience personalized or synched, I just want to view a calendar and install a few local apps.

I mentioned there is a new package manager. It looks a lot like Ubuntu’s package manager, or Android’s. Windows’ app store features similar navigation to Android’s store with screen shot previews and descriptions with one-click access. The difference, as I pointed out, is we need an on-line account to access any of the software. There was an older package manager installed on my system, but when I tried to open it, I was told my system clock was wrong and the package manager wouldn’t work until my clock was set to the correct time. The sad part was my clock was on the correct time, so the classic package manager was permanently broken with no clear way of working around the problem. (For those of you keeping track, Windows is 0-2 for package managers.)

The file manager seems pretty straight forward and I don’t have any complaints there. Finding system settings requires going through an extra layer of the new user interface, but otherwise all the classic Windows settings are there, in a similar organization to what they were before. Software updates worked pretty well, but when new updates are installed Windows insists on rebooting. Now Windows 10 is a little flexible about it. We can reboot now, or at a time when Windows predicts we will be not using the computer or at a user-specified time in the coming week. There is no option to simply not reboot or reboot manually at a later date.

I tried out the new Internet Explorer briefly. The interface feels a little crowded, but I think the browser was faster than before and it was stable for me. Plus, Internet Explorer shipped with Flash, which was nice. The layout of the browser took some getting used to, everything is crammed into one horizontal line, limiting tab space. But, over all, the browser worked well enough.

In conclusion, here is what I think Microsoft got right and what they got wrong: The installer is easy to use, but needs to be more flexible and clear about what it is doing. Plus we should be able to set aside a drive or partition to house our user account so the operating system and user data are separate. The package manager(s) and virtually every other utility (calendar, search, etc) should be able to work without an on-line account. In my opinion anything that requires an on-line account is just deadweight that will never be used. Most of us techie people aren’t going to sign up for Google+ style on-line accounts just to download the Netflix app or use a local calendar application. I am happy to see the Start screen die and the Start menu return. The settings panels should be merged, both are easy to navigate separately, but they need to be unified to avoid confusing users (and tech support people). The system is awfully bare bones for a 3GB download. Where is the office suite, where are the file transfer utilities? My copy of Windows only came with one language, and very few system admin programs or applications, so what is taking up 3GB of space? I am happy about the Windows 10 notification area and the lack of constant pop-ups telling me about updates or offering to clean up old icons or asking confirmation prior to changing settings. There is a step in the right direction. The interface is pretty empty and does not use screen space well, but I still see it as a step up from the shimmering semi-transparency of Windows 7.

Long story short, Windows 10 feels like a beta for an early version of Android, a consumer operating system that is designed to be on-line all the time. It does not feel like an operating system I would use to get work done. In fact, other than watching movies, browsing the web or listening to music, I don’t think I would find Windows 10 particularly useful. At least not without the on-line account stuff being removed and the package manager(s) fixed. Forcing users to sign up for an on-line account is a sure way to tell us privacy is not a concern and the alternative, downloading applications from the web, is a sure way to introduce malware.