April 3rd, 2015
I did the unthinkable – left Linux behind and lived in the Windows 10 technical preview as my primary computing environment. Here’s what I learned.
Every now and then, it’s nice to break out of your bubble, to really get outside your comfort zone and see how things are “on the other side of the fence.”
I love Chinese food. Could eat Chinese food every day of the week. But, once in a while, it’s a good idea to mix things up. You know. And order a pizza.
This is that time for me. Only instead of Chinese food, it’s Linux. Instead of pizza, Windows 10 (Technical Preview). That’s right. I’m a full time Linux user, and I just spent a few days trying to live in the preview edition of Windows 10.
One thing should be emphasized right off the bat: this is not a review of Windows 10, and it is not a list of every feature of the system (there are other articles for that). This is a Linux advocate taking some time out to see how things work in the upcoming major release of Windows and seeing what he can learn from that experience. Are there things Windows 10 does better than Linux, which we in the Linux world should take some cues from? (Every system has advantages, right?)
It should also be noted that I am focusing entirely on desktop functionality. I tested the Windows 10 Technical Preview on a Dell M3800 (which was previously running Linux) and a VirtualBox virtual machine (with 8GB of RAM dedicated to it).
See also: 9 Linux distros to watch in 2015
In other words: no tablets were harmed in the making of this article.
Really, I’m asking (myself) two questions here:
Is there anything awesome in Windows 10 that Linux can learn from?
Are there enough awesome things in Windows 10 that I, as a Linux user, am missing out on by not running it as my primary operating system?
Let’s dive in to the areas I think are most noteworthy for helping to answer those questions. If I leave a feature out, it’s likely because it was just not relevant to those two questions.
Windows playing catch up
There are two noteworthy new features in Windows 10 that many Linux desktop environments have possessed for years (nay… decades): Virtual Desktops, and effective, tiled window management.
I mention this because it shows that Microsoft is paying attention and implementing some excellent features found in competing systems. Sure, in the case of Virtual Desktops, Microsoft is a good four decades behind its competition… but better late than never, right?
The implementation of this feature in Windows 10 is completely, absolutely, 100% adequate. You start out with a single “desktop” and can add new desktops one at a time. Application windows can be moved between desktops, desktops can be removed… everything that you would expect. It doesn’t feel quite as polished and smooth as the implementation in, say, GNOME Shell. But it’s an acceptable first attempt at catching up with the Linux world.
Likewise, the improvements to window layout and management are nice. Called “Quadrant Snap,” it’s basically the ability to “snap” open windows to a “quadrant” of the screen. It’s been updated in Windows 10 to be a bit more flexible – for example, one window can take up the whole left half of the screen, with the right half containing three windows stacked vertically, each taking an equal amount of vertical space. It’s similar in many ways to the functionality of many of the tiling window managers out there, such as xmonad or awesome.
Nothing mind-blowing here, but good features that we’ve been enjoying on Linux since before the first episode of Friends was a gleam in Jennifer Aniston’s eye.
Windows taking the lead
Perhaps that should read “Taking the lead… with caveats.”
There are two areas where I feel Windows 10 is doing things that are better (or at least in a more ambitious way) than what we’re doing on Linux. Unfortunately for Microsoft… they’re not really nailing these features as well as they need to.
The first is “Cortana.” This is to Microsoft what Siri and Google Now are to Apple and, well, Google – a sort of personal information search service with some support for natural language input and voice recognition.
In Windows 10, this functionality is interfaced with a little search box that sits right next to the Start menu (more on that below). Voice dictation is an excellent feature of any system. As is voice synthesis. And, heck, having a central spot to see things like your to-do list for the day, weather, traffic, etc… that’s all quite handy.
Unfortunately, in my testing, Cortana was just not fun to use. And I’m not bashing it for lack of functionality (this is still a “Technical Preview” of Windows 10, after all) or bugginess (though it was plenty buggy). My issue with this feature is that using it to do just about anything was significantly slower than using a mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen to accomplish the same tasks.
For a great demonstration of how maddeningly inefficient Cortana can be, see this video from the WinBeta folks. Take note of how long it takes him to set a simple reminder alarm. This experience seems to be the norm.
You see? It has amazing potential… but if it’s no fun to use, it doesn’t much matter.
The second feature that is almost fantastic (emphasis on “almost”) is the Windows Store.
It is exactly what the name implies. It’s a software store, in much the same vein as the Google Play store or the Ubuntu Software Center. The design is fine – easy enough to search and navigate (many similarities to Google Play here).
But, and this is a big “but”… there’s simply not a lot of software available, as it’s limited to “Metro” style applications (read: not classic Windows software). This takes what could be an amazing feature and makes it rather…meh.
Right about now you may be wondering why I included this feature as an area where Windows 10 is “taking the lead” over Linux. And that is because the majority of Linux distributions lack a solid software “store” experience. Even the Ubuntu Software Center leaves a lot to be desired. It’s rather slow, has a very limited selection of software for purchase, and what’s there isn’t overly easy to discover.
If Microsoft were to open up the “Windows Store” to applications built for classic “Windows”…this would be a very handy feature. And I see no reason why they couldn’t do exactly that. Though, as it stands, I’ll stick to my declaration of “meh.”
Windows not doing as much as I thought
Which brings me to two features that were simply underwhelming, the ones that had been outed rather heavily and which I expected to be the shining examples of the quality and innovation of Windows 10: the new Start Menu and support for ultra-high resolution displays.
First, let’s talk about the new Start Menu.
In Windows 8, Microsoft killed the Start Menu – that simple, nested menu that let you find and launch applications (a paradigm used in operating systems since the days of the Pharaohs). Microsoft opted instead for a full-screen display of animated tiles, which, as every four-year-old can tell you, was both annoying and stupid.
In Windows 10, the Start Menu is back… kind of. There’s no more full screen of animated tiles (Windows users dodged a bullet, there). But what Windows 10 has now isn’t all that much better. Other than the fact that it’s not, technically, full screen.
The new Start Menu bears little resemblance to what you might remember. On the left side of the Start Menu is a list of all of the software on your PC. In alphabetical order. With no categories. Have a lot of applications installed? Too bad for you, because that list is going to get crazy long.
On the right side of the Start Menu you’ll find the grid of animated squares that you had hoped were burned alive. No. That’s not fair. This is an improvement. In Windows 8 you had a full screen of squares that accomplished nothing… in Windows 10 the Start Menu is simply filled with those squares – and is, hence, annoyingly larger and stupider-looking than it should be.
Luckily, the good folks at Microsoft provide a “full screen” button that makes this new Start Menu take up the entire screen. For those moments, I suppose, when you feel you could be more annoyed by the Start Menu… if only it took up your entire field of view.
The second feature to let me down, HiDPI support, really let me down in a big way.
I used the Dell M3800’s 4k screen (3840×2160) and, based on the noise Microsoft has been making about support for upwards of 8k screens (!!!), I expected the experience to be awesome right out of the gate.
It wasn’t. (It’s not the fault of the M3800’s screen…which is gorgeous.)
In order to make most applications usable – on that high of a resolution on a smaller screen, text and buttons can quickly become unusably small – I had to set the DPI scaling in the control panel fairly high. And even then, things weren’t all roses and candy bars. (Is that an actual saying? “Roses and candy bars”? Probably, right? Hell with it, I’m sticking to it.)
Toolbars in some applications became distorted and unusable. Text in other applications became jagged and funky-looking. Other times, things simply became pixelated and ugly. (To be completely fair, sometimes the DPI scaling worked excellently well. But only sometimes.)
Windows 10 isn’t alone in having issues with HiDPI screens.
MacOS X, last time I used it, had similar problems with many applications. Admittedly, this was several years ago, so that may have changed. I tend to not use Apple products. I respect myself too much for that.
And many Linux desktop environments encounter similar difficulties. GNOME Shell and Ubuntu’s Unity, for example, both handle scaling to those ultra-high resolutions fairly gracefully… until you start using software that isn’t bundled with the environment itself. Then all hell can break loose – buttons too small to click, mismatched text sizing within a single application, all sorts of shenanigans.
The fact that Microsoft is touting this HiDPI functionality so highly, yet not really providing anything more interesting than what Linux has had for a few years, is rather – what’s the word I’m looking for – meh-worthy.
“Meh” seems to be a running theme in Windows 10. Which is quite the opposite of “awesome.”
Did I answer my own questions?
Having a good-looking software store is pretty critical. And that’s something still lacking in non-Android Linux-based systems right now. Even Ubuntu could use some serious improvements in its software store experience.
Am I missing out on anything by not running Windows 10 as my primary operating system?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Are you kidding me? I couldn’t repartition that drive fast enough and re-install Linux.
But I’m glad I spent the time in Windows 10 Technical Preview. Maybe when the final version of Windows 10 ships, I’ll take it for another spin to see what they’ve improved. The reality is that, for being a “Technical Preview,” this was fairly stable and quite peppy. Not Linux-levels of peppy, mind you. But not bad, either. Not “awesome,” but not bad.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hide in my bunker and hope that the steel-reinforced doors can keep the Windows fans at bay.