Just after lunch yesterday, I got the word that the Windows 8 Release Preview was out (you can download your own copy from http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-8/download whenever you like, but be warned: there’s enough download traffic to those servers right now to make the download process take an hour or longer, even over a fast connection. As with previous Windows 8 downloads, you start with a smallish (5.5 MB) download bootstrap, and then it goes and grabs the real thing (about 18 GB) on its own after that.
There’s no upgrade from the Customer Preview to the Release Preview, either. The installer gave me only the option of starting over with a clean install, so I knew I’d have some cleanup work to do on my Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Tablet to get all the drivers and software right. But where the Customer Preview left me with 18-20 drivers to update, the Release Preview left me with 12 that DriverAgent could “see” right off the bat, though I did also have to provide a driver for the Ricoh multi-memory card reader so Device Manager could lose the yellow question mark that denotes an “Unknown Device” and gain a valid entry (and driver) for that card reader instead. Here’s what the final results looked like in DriverAgent after a couple hours’ work following the hour or so it took me to download (45 minutes) and install (15 minutes) this latest Windows 8 version:
Having now been through Windows 8 installations a dozen or more times, this one seemed to go pretty smoothly. I knew where to go to get all the drivers, and all of the tricks needed to get them to install properly (running
infinst.exe -a -P target directory ) gave me access to the driver files in the latest 220.127.116.110 Intel chipset download, so that I could go patch up the various PCI Express Root Port, Enhanced USB Host Controller, and DRAM Controller entries that the Intel update program failed to handle on its own. Then, after a quick visit to the Lenovo Windows 8 Beta Drivers page, I was more or less up-to-date with everything.
I do notice some slight visual changes in the UI, but probably not as far as the next release will go. This time I still see slight drop shadows on Windows, and some modest Aero/glass effects, but flatter colors, a flat taskbar, and squared-off corners on all desktop windows. I also ran into some interesting tear-off behaviors all over the desktop (and in IE) but a swap for the most recent Lenovo Synaptics trackpad driver seemed to take care of that pretty handily. The Windows Experience Index still includes a Windows Aero metric, however, and I’ll be curious to see if that survives and translates all the way into the GA release in October.
Almost any of the touchscreens you might buy today (especially those offered at more reasonable prices) will have bezels around the edge. By definition, a bezel forms a raised edge around the boundaries of monitor. When you try to slide from beyond the edge of the monitor onto the display surface, there’s a slight gap that is unavoidable as your finger falls off the bezel and onto the display.
Why am I telling you this? Because Windows 8 uses edge-in gestures of all kinds to provoke the charms (slide in from the right), for app-switching (up from the lower left), for split-screen (from the center left), and so on and so forth. On touchscreens with a bezel, “grabbing an edge” so to speak, can be a problem and will negatively impact the user experience (as in “drive you crazy”).
There is, however, an easy fix. For example, if you take a look at the controls in the NVIDIA control panel, you’ll see that it includes an entry labeled “Adjust desktop size and position.” If you’re willing to sacrifice some pixels around the edge of your display, you can easily beat the edge detection issue by moving what Windows 8 sees as the edge of the display inward, far enough away from the physical edge (and bezel) to prevent the finger drop-off issue from hampering the edge detection process.
By fooling around with the settings in the NVIDIA Control Panel widget (AMD/ATI Catalyst offers similar capabilities, and I have to imagine the Intel 2000/3000/4000 controls work likewise), you can move the edges of your display 20 or so pixels in from the absolute edge (I found my 1920×1200 monitor worked nicely at 1900 by 1188, for example) and give Windows 8 some room to detect your finger sliding across the edge boundary past the bezel.
Sure, you’ll lose some display pixels on your monitor that way (and see a small black band all the way around the edge). But gosh, it sure beats struggling to get touch to work properly, or being forced to switch to the mouse to get the UI behaviors you’re after.
Anybody who’s worked on Windows PCs regularly knows the drill to obtain an alternate “Safe Boot” screen instead of allowing the normal boot sequence to grind to its normal conclusion: wait for the POST/BIOS bootstrap phase to end, then start banging the F8 key (or whatever your platform or motherboard vendor requires instead) like mad to get its attention. With luck, you’ll be able to pull up the safe boot menu on your first try. I’ve sometimes had to try two, three, or even four times before I got my timing right on some PCs.
With Windows 8 machines that use the Uniform Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) instead of BIOS to boot, this can apparently be even more of a problem (if not downright impossible), as explained in a recent Building Windows 8 blog entitled “Designed for PCs that boot faster than ever before.” Seems that when UEFI enables fast booting, there’s simply not enough time for it to detect the keystrokes necessary to invoke alternate boot behavior. On machines that take only seven seconds to boot, goes the blog post, individual boot component runtimes are too simply too short to interrupt.
To handle this situation in Windows 8, Microsoft has created a single boot options menu that works equally well with touch or with mouse input. A new Windows Startup Settings item in the Windows 8 Advanced Options pane lets users provoke boot options ahead of time as well, if they want to use the boot options. Also, any time the Win8 OS detects potential or real issues during the boot process, it will also produce that screen so users may partake of its options, tools, and facilities. This comes from the Advanced startup on the General Tab of PC Settings, whose options depend on whether or not your Win8 comes from a UEFI- or BIOS-based install. You can pick settings from the Charms, then More PC Settings, then General, then scroll the right-hand elements until you see Advanced startup — but be warned, if you decide to “Restart now” you will reboot your PC. Or you can search “Settings” for Advanced startup, and get there quicker.
Kind of makes me wish I could find detailed instructions on performing a UEFI install of Windows 8 on my Lenovo X220 Tablet. That machine has UEFI, but it installs the OS in BIOS mode by default. I’d love to try this new functionality out, and will do so as soon as I figure out how to make this happen on that machine. If anybody else knows of any resources to help with this, please point me at them (and thanks!).
One of the great things about writing a self-guided technology blog is that I can use it as a platform for information and education, as the spirit moves me. Last weekend I got a warning from my Dell All-in-One (AIO) 968 printer, warning me that my color ink cartridge was almost exhausted. Because I try to keep one spare for each of the black and color cartridges that go into that machine, I simply popped out the old one and popped in a new one.
Later that day, my wife tried to print a yellow smiley face to put on a headband for my son to wear to school on Monday (it’s the last week from May 21 to 25, and then comes summer vacation) but the output was completely missing the color yellow. A couple of quick tests later, I came to the conclusion that this color cartridge must be defective because the other two colors printed fine (blue and red, that is). My hunch was confirmed when I dug the old cartridge out of its return mail envelope, popped it back in, and was once again able to get full-color output.
I purchased my last batch of print cartridges in November, 2011. I finally got around to calling Dell product support on Tuesday (May 22) and had to endure a 75-minute telephone runaround before I got to a support tech who was able to confirm that my cartridge needed to be replaced, and have one sent to me. It just showed up at my door via Fed-Ex after lunch today, and no sooner did I pop it in than I once again had full-color capability.
Getting there was something else entirely, however. I couldn’t find a category on the Website for defective supplies, only for primary products. And it turns out that printer supplies have a 90-day warranty which had already expired. When I got on the phone for the first time, after a modest three minute wait, it was with a general support tech who took me through the litany of “what’s wrong? what did you do? how do you know it’s the cartridge and not the printer?” (it’s no longer under warranty, either). After about 10 minutes, he realized he couldn’t help me, and I was routed to someone else in product support. Then came an 8-minute wait before my turn in the wait queue came up. The same drill, same information exchange, and same outcome took 12 minutes: I needed to be transferred again to a support tech who would be authorized to replace the cartridge if it was indeed defective. At this point, I was about 35 minutes into this adventure, with another 40 to go.
Then, tech number 2 shared the information with me that always makes any experienced IT person cringe: “We are experiencing unusually large call volumes. You may have to wait some time to speak to the support tech. Please write down this 800 number . Call it if your connection is broken before that happens.” I did write it down, and sure enough, about 12 minutes into my wait, the handset produced a fast busy signal, indicating that my connection had been dropped (now, we’re at 47 minutes).
So I called the 800 number, got back into the wait queue, and about 10 minutes later (57 minutes) I spoke to a support tech who said he was indeed authorized to swap a replacement cartridge for the defective unit. After we went through the litany, and he agreed with my diagnosis that it was the cartridge and not the printer that was acting up, he asked me to wait so he could give me information about the replacement. This took about 7 minutes, so we were 64 minutes into the call when I finally got the resolution I was seeking. When he came back 9 minutes later to give me a confirmation number for the shipment of the replacement, we were able to conclude the call in another minute, for a grand total of 75 minutes.
At some point about halfway through the process, despairing of obtaining an actual replacement, I ordered another color cartridge for the printer through the Dell online store. It cost about $46 including sales tax and shipping and handling fees. While I decline to say exactly what I think my time is worth, if you divide $46 by 1.25 you get $36.80 as the “per-hour value” for what it took me less than one minute to order and pay for online versus obtaining a replacement through official channels by phone with Dell. Let me simply say that my usual hourly rate is higher than $37 or even $46 an hour, and leave it at that.
Why didn’t I do this over the Web instead of by phone? Good question! I could find no way to request a swap, replacement, or credit for defective consumables on the Dell Web site. And because the printer into which the cartridge goes is no longer under warranty (according the My Products page in my Dell account, I bought it in July, 2008) I wasn’t allowed to open an online chat with Dell support to get instructions on how to expedite handling of the process. After poking around online for 10-15 minutes (and I didn’t count this as part of the 75-minute call, though perhaps I should have) I started the phone process, having been unable to find a way to seek resolution in the virtual world.
What would I like to see Dell and other companies do for such situations? Provide a FAQ with common questions, and keep it current, so people like me can find as much information as possible before going through a general intake process. Offer a “Chat with Dell Support” or “Ask Dell Support Your Question” link on all customer account pages (people must provide name, address, phone, and credit card info to get an account, and will usually also have purchased one or more products from Dell to have such a page. I’ve purchased at least three laptops, half-a-dozen monitors, a printer, and lots of other stuff from them over the years myself). Provide easy links to user self-help forums and social network points of access, so people can help themselves (and each other) as much as possible. Dell’s great at social networking, so this should be a slam dunk for their organization. May it happen sooner rather than later, so what just happened to me need not happen to you!
PostScript: As I was finishing this blog, the color cartridge I ordered from Dell also showed up at my door, two days head of its promised Friday delivery date. Now I have a spare, for when the present cartridge is exhausted. That’s when I may order some more, or decide perhaps that it’s time for a new printer. If Dell ups its online support access options, I will probably buy my next printer from them, too.
There’s a fascinating new post on the Building Windows 8 blog this morning, entitled “Creating the Windows 8 user experience,” by Jensen Harris, Microsoft’s Director of Program Management for the User Experience Team. In the story, he explores and explains the reasons that are driving how the user interface for and user interaction in Windows 8 are designed, with all kinds of interesting observations and insights.
Rather than drive you through his lengthy discussion in detail, with analysis along the way, I’ll simply summarize his high points, then conclude this post with a little (hopefully insightful) commentary of my own:
1. a quick history of prior Windows UIs with representative screen caps (1.0, 3 and 3.1, Windows 95, XP, Vista, and Windows 7)
2. basic design assumptions
2.1 People are connected all the time
2.2 People, not files, are the center of activity
2.3 The rise of mobile over desktop PCs
2.4 Content lives on the PC and in the cloud
3. Goals of the Windows 8 user experience
3.1 Fast and fluid means a “responsive, performant, beautiful, and animated UI” where “every piece of UI comes from somewhere and goes somewhere when it exits the screen” and where “most essential scenarios are efficient,…without extra questions or prompt” and “things you don’t need are out of the way.”
3.2 Long Battery Life!
3.3 Windows 8 apps have “Grace and power.”
3.4 Live tiles make visible UI elements personal and keep them current.
3.5 Apps work together to save users time (better communication and interaction among apps)
3.6 Changes and customization follow the user across multiple devices (“Roam your experience between PCs)
3.7 Make your PC work like a device, not a computer
4. Touch is a first-class input method (but not the only one!)
4.1 Improving touch on the desktop
4.2 Creating an environment exclusively or primarily (suited) for touch input
5. Metro style and the desktop, working together, where the desktop is there to run programs designed for mouse and keyboard, and Metro is there for touch-centric apps
6. Enabling devices that can work as tablets or full-blown PCs with equal zest and celerity
7. Updating the visual appearance of the desktop: preserve maximum compatibility with existing programs, but with what MS calls “chrome:” title bar, borders, and a Windows UI surrounding application windows. New “clean and crisp” approach means no glass or reflections, squared-off edges, no more glows and gradients, shadows or transparency.
8. People learn to use Windows 8 by adapting and moving forward, and MS plans to post soon about “how people discover and understand new concepts, and the specific steps…to make sure people don’t feel lost the first time they sit down with a Windows 8 PC.”
9. Windows 8 is forward looking: “a bet on the future of computing” that “stakes a claim to Windows’ role in that future.”
Phew! So much for the summary. To me the most interesting parts dealt with how apps can exchange information with each other, and how important across-the-board resource optimization (CPU, GPU, display, disk, and so forth) is to maximizing battery life and improving foreground element performance. There’s still an awful lot of rosy rhetoric tied up with the change to the Metro style start screen and overall system design and behavior, but MS also seems to be trying to provide technical, aesthetic, and ergonomic reasons why big changes are afoot, with only slight twinges of “because we said so” (the parent’s ultimate explanation for inquisitive youngsters when questions go on longer than answers do).
There’s a lot to chew on here and it makes me think there will be some changes in UI when the Windows 8 Release Preview hits as early as the first week of June. In particular I found the remarks that gestures, particularly those involving swipes from the edge of the screen, will work better in upcoming Windows 8 releases than they did in the Customer Preview both interesting and revealing. Indeed it is partly a hardware problem (particularly for touch screens with bezels that essentially prevent real touch access to the very, very edge of the display) but I have also observed that there can be other difficulties, too, particularly when running CPU-intensive applications on the desktop. Should be interesting to see how it all evolves.
OK, you know that the Windows world has truly come full circle when OS maker Microsoft offers an official Signature (the italics are theirs, not mine, as a quick trip to the Signature page will reveal) designation for PCs (both laptops and notebooks), the idea being to carefully craft runtime behavior and performance to offer fast boot-up and shutdown, and to make sure the system runs at its best when using it for things buyers actually want to do. Shoot, the Microsoft stores even offer a post-purchase signature service for $99, where you bring them a PC and they clean it up for you in the same general vein. There’s even a Microsoft Signature Premium offering available that includes theft recovery, one year of technical support, in-store training sessions, and special offers from the Colossus of Redmond.
All this led me to recall Jodi Ballew and Jeff Duntemann’s classic book Degunking Your PC (Paraglyph Press, 2005, ISBN: 1933097035, $7.39 and up) which basically explains how to do what Signature does and a whole lot more for Windows XP and 2000 vintage PCs. It also makes me think of several good software tools available to help achieve many of the same ends, such as Piriform’s CCleaner (which used to stand for “crap cleaner” until the anti-pottymouth league got their hooks into them) and the more unabashed PC Decrapifier, both of which I’ve used to very good effect on new laptops to rid them of unwanted stuff piled on by the OEMs who put them together.
But hey, you can now buy new PCs in desktop, slate, or notebook form through the Microsoft Store that are already cleaned up if you like. Or, you can take your current Windows 7 PC in for a Signature service session if you’d care to have somebody else clean it up for you. The prices aren’t as cheap as you can find elsewhere on-line, but you won’t have to clean it up when you get it home, either.
Gotta love it! Will there be a corporate or enterprise version, or is that what special buys from the OEMs have been doing all along?
Wouldn’t you know it? Not until after I posted my own blog yesterday, did Paul Thurrott report in his SuperSite Blog that “Windows 8 Pro PC Upgrade Cost is just $15.” Looks like MS really, really, really wants to encourage new Windows 7 PC buyers to jump onto Windows 8, with a $14.99 promotion that begins on June 2, 2012 (original report appeared in a C|Net article by Mary Jo Foley entitled “Microsoft’s Windows 8 upgrade offer: What’s coming when?“)
Enough attribution, already! Here’s the deal: Microsoft will make this “Windows 8 Offer” available to consumers who buy a Windows 7 PC running Home Basic or higher editions, so they can download a copy once Windows 8 becomes generally available (around the end of October, according to most prognosticators). The Windows 8 Pro package aims squarely at business/technical users and enthusiasts, and includes built-in encryption, Hyper-V virtualization, PC management and domain connectivity, and will accommodate a separately priced Media Pack for Windows Media Center (which many guess will probably cost about the same as this offer).
Foley reports further that the deal will start up on June 2, 2012, about the same time that Microsoft plans to drop its Release Preview (aka Release Candidate). The deal stays good through the end of January 2013. MS won’t comment on any of this info, but Thurrott and Foley seem convinced it’s got legs. Keep your eyes out for more info in under three week when June 2 rolls around.
US and India based online ad network and data analytics company Chitika reported in late April 2012 that “millions are already using the latest Microsoft operating system every day” (Study). In fact, the title of their study proclaims that “Windows 8 Consumer Preview Usage Double that of Mac OS X Mountain Lion,” the most current Mac OS X version in use when the study was conducted and reported. Here’s a chart that shows the breakdown of the study’s user population based on “hundreds of millions of ad impressions from within the Chitika Ad network” taken from April 13 through April 19, 2012:
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the study is understanding that if “millions” from the Chitika point of view translates into 2 million actual users, that puts the total size of their sample population at 1.5 billion, give or take a few hundred million one way or the other! This also roughly matches the size of the total online global population, which gives the company a loooooooooong reach. Given that the size of their sample is reported as hundreds of millions in size, however, their total base has to be under a billion by definition, which means that their breathless “millions of users” is probably not much over the one million mark, if it truly is that much. I can’t find any concrete published numbers from Microsoft on the total number of copies of Windows 8 CP downloaded, which would set a hard upper bound on the number of potential users, either… In any case, that still points to a pretty sizable user population for the Windows 8 Customer Preview.
On a more serious note, these kinds of adoption and usage levels do seem to indicate that Windows 8 has some kind of future ahead of it, no matter how dire or delirious some pundit’s predictions about its success or failure might be. As far as I’m concerned, while the jury is still way out on how much uptake Windows 8 will enjoy in the marketplace, there’s apparently no shortage of willing users even now, before the new OS has gone all the way commercial. What I want to watch, very closely, is how many buyers opt for Windows 8 by choice when buying new PCs once that option is presented to them. This will be a far more telling statistic, as and when such numbers make themselves available late next October and through the end of 2012.
Earlier this week I stumbled across a January PC Magazine story entitled “Build a Touch-Screen All-in-One Desktop.” The star of the story is from EliteGroup (a Taiwanese mega-manufacturer of PCs and parts) known as the G11, a bare-bones compact PC with an integrated 21.5″ touchscreen and lots of other interesting and useful features (check out the PDF specsheet for a nice overview).
The upshot of the PC Magazine story is that you can put together a nice Windows 7 touchscreen PC for under $850 by adding your own CPU, memory, hard disk, and slide-in slimline DVD burner. Matthew Murray’s story features the following selection of parts to put that modest system together: ECS G11 ($449), i3-2120 CPU ($117), 2x4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM RAM ($40), 2 TB WD Caviar Black hard disk ($200), and a Lite-On DS-8A5S DVD burner ($33; actual total: $839; today you can get the 2 TB Caviar Green for $120, the memory for $37, and the DVD burner for $24; so today’s price is a nice and low $747).
I started wondering about the other possible tack, with Windows 8 in mind. What kind of top-of-the-line configuration might it be possible to install in this compact unit to use it as a Windows 8 learning, test, or pilot machine? Here’s what I came up with:
- The ECS G11 works with any Sandy Bridge processor whose TDP is 65 W or less. That means the i7 2600S will work, and these i5 items: 2500S, 2500T, 2405S, 2400S, and 2390T. All of the i3 models are rated 65 W TDP. Today’s going price for the quad-core 2.8 GHz 2600S is $310.
- The ECS G11 can handle 16 GB of RAM, using two 8-GB DDR3 SO-DIMMs. I found some serviceable GeIL units for $99.
- Instead of an optical drive, I selected a slim-line SATA drive tray to 2.5″ drive enclosure from NewModeus for $42 to accommodate an OCZ Vertex 3 55 GB SSD for an ultra-fast boot drive at $65 (after $15 mail-in rebate), along with a 2 TB Samsung Ecogreen SATA hard disk at $120.
- Most people who work on PCs want a mouse and keyboard at some point, too, so I picked the Logitech MK710 desktop set for $70.
- A mini PCI-e 802.11n wireless and Bluetooth combo card adds wireless capability to the unit and goes for $26.
When it comes to installation for all this stuff, I refer back to Murray’s PC Mag story, because it includes photographs and step-by-step instructions to put all these part in their proper places — except for the optical to SSD tray install, which requires plugging the drive into the internal SATA connection inside the tray, and then installing the tray just as you’d install the optical drive.
The ECS G11 is still priced at $449, so my total top-of-the line budget comes to $1,181. For just over $1,200 you can add in the cost of a portable USB-based optical drive to plug into this unit to write or write CDs or DVDs should you need to (I have two such units already, and suspect many other readers here do as well, which is why I didn’t make it part of my baseline budget, believing that the combination of an SSD for the boot/system drive and a bigger but slower data drive would be much more compelling).
I do still have some open questions, though: I’m working to find out if the ECS G11 supports SLAT, which is mandatory to take advantage of Hyper-V support in Windows 8. Ditto for the motherboard’s support for UEFI, necessary to use Windows’s pre-boot malware protection capabilities. I’ll report back as I find out more (I’m trying to get in touch with Elitegroup’s Fremont, CA offices, and have also e-mailed Matthew Murray to see if he knows more than he included in his PC Mag story).
Scott Fulton has just written a bang-up story for ReadWriteWeb entitled “Top 10 Windows 8 Features #7: Client-side Hyper-V.” It’s a gem of a story not just because it explains why Hyper-V beats the pants off the Virtual PC technology that made Windows XP Mode feasible (but alas, never terribly popular) on Windows 7, but also because it takes you through all the steps necessary to convert older virtual machines from the Virtual PC/Virtual Server environment into their Hyper-V compatible counterparts.
Running users through a sequence of Hyper-V setup and configuration screens, Scott explains what settings are needed and how they should be populated to enable Hyper-V to mount and use these VMs in the Windows 8 environment (or on other PCs that support Hyper-V including Windows Server 2008 R2 and the upcoming Windows Server 8 as well). Combine this with Sysinternals Disk2VHD tool, and you’ve got a sure-fire way to keep legacy OS images alive and well in the brave new world of Hyper-V that’s now on its way to a desktop near you (if not already on your own desktop).