Wednesday, 27 February 2013

(Windows) 8 Deadly Sins

After the marathon that was getting Windows 8 onto my Mac, I am now finally in a position to comment on the usability of the desktop experience. It's nearly as painful as getting the thing installed in the first place!
I am flabbergasted by number of UI sins it commits. Here are the 8 of the most 'deadly':

1. Removing the Start button

For some reason Microsoft have been obsessed with 'cleaning up the desktop' for some time. The Start menu just grew and grew until it dominated the whole offering. It now feels like a shroud over the desktop - which we all thought was the main work area. But Microsoft wants to retrain us into using full-screen apps in the Metro 'style'. (Metro is a name they were using for the tiled Start Screen, which got dropped before release.)
We used to talk about getting 'lost in hyperspace' on a website when we were left on a page with no links. Metro apps will give you the feeling of being left in a vacuum.

2. Cornered by Edge cases

After getting completely lost and not knowing where to go, you might start moving the mouse around the screen. The hotspots are in the very corners of the screen. There is no visual indication that the corners are hot and significant. You're somehow expected to 'know'. Without this knowledge, you'd be hard pressed to guess. You might be lucky and stumble across them. But why not indicate. It would be easy to highlight the hot corners with some kind of visualization as the mouse pointer neared the corner. Microsoft has gone for visual simplicity and clean interface to a fault here. Where ar the visual cues we need to follow our intuition? What would be wrong with just placing a start logo (or even a partial one) in the bottom left of the screen?
What's more, when you finally get the bottom left corner trick, you get a thumbnail of the start screen. As a mouse user, you might, like me, instinctively, move away from the corner to click in the centre of the icon. However, if you move you're dead. The icon disappears and you end up clicking on whatever was behind it! Talk about punishing the user. It feels like a slap on the wrist for moving the mouse.
And up in the top left corner, it's just as confusing. Somewhere the system has a list of apps or processes that are running. You get a thumbnail of the next process appear, which, when you click will switch to that task and the preview will change to the next one in the rotation. Why oh why don't you show me a list? All I want it is my familiar Windows 7 taskbar back! (On further investigation I discover that Windows key + TAB shows the very list I want. Why doesn't the top left corner hotspot work this way? It's a complete mystery!)
Now, to get system level configuration options. Move to the top right or bottom right corner - to get a panel that fills the whole right-hand side of the screen. Why can't get this panel when I move the mouse to anywhere along the right edge, top middle or bottom?

3. No going back - I can't Escape!

One of the most frustrating things I've encountered with Windows 8 is the feeling of hopeless isolation when I'm in a Windows application with no apparent way out. In just about every other environment I've worked in, the ESC key is my back-out clause. Not here. ESC does nothing. Try Backspace. Nothing. Try just about any other key. Hopeless. The last thing I try is the Windows key. (Command on my Mac!) Well, what do you know, I'm back on the home screen.
Stuck in a application and I can't get out of it. Windows key - obvious, Not! All it does is toggle between Start and the App I was in. How do I get back to the desktop?
(Now I know, I'll tell you: Press Windows-D, or Windows-Tab repeatedly until you highlight the desktop. Seems Microsoft realized what a problem this is, because just before release the added a desktop tile on the Start Screen as well.)

4. Displaying things that just aren't there!

The finance app tile shows an article "Apple still has magic innovation", Strangely a woman handling meat is the thumbnail. On clicking it I find a feature article about horse meat being introduced into beefburgers in Europe. Nowhere can I find the article about Apple innovation.

5. Consistent Inconsistency

The only thing consistent about this UI is the blatent inconsistency.
- scrolling up and down to go sideways.
- In settings there are three word commands: Start Tiles and Help. But Start is disabled! At the bottom there are 6 icons: 5 bars (network) shows the name of the network connected to. Speaker (Sound) shows the volume. Sun (Brightness) shows the word Brightness - inconsistent. Card with greeked words (Notifications) shows Notifications. On/off switch icon (Power) shows Power. ENG icon (Locale/Keyboard) shows description US. If I change it to French (Canada) it changes the icon to FRA and the description to Keyboard! If I change it to English (Canada) Canadian Multilingual Standard the icon changes to ENG and the description to CMS.
Underneath this it says Change PC Settings. This might seem like a sub-title. But it's actually a clickable command! And what's more - it's the most significant command. And it appears last in the list, right-aligned. A sure way to imply that it's insignificant.
- Pressing Windows key when the OS loads will do nothing. However, if you have an app open, it will switch to that app, and then pressing again will toggle back to the Start Screen. Why doesn't it just switch to the desktop instead of doing nothing?

6. One OS cannot rule them all

It's clear that Windows 8 is designed for touch screens. This may be Microsoft's biggest mistake yet. Their primary audience is clearly desktop users, but here we have a UI which is designed for touch, but 90% of the users will be on desktop PCs. If they had only spent more time testing this on desktop PCs using mice and not on their precious Surface tablets - which may end up selling less units than Blackberry's Playbook!

7. Right click - it's just not right!

One of the most useful features of traditional windows is the right click context menu. It's intuition in a bottle (once you know it's possible!)
However, right-clicks on this beast are a completely different experience. Right-click with either yield no result, or give you a pop-up panel, usually at the bottom of the screen, with very few options. It feels like all the power in you middle finger has been taken away.

8. Search

Everything about search is wrong here. First off, did you know that you can start searching the PC just by typing on the Start screen? This might be a good thing, if Windows searched the whole system. For example,  I had a problem with the screen brightness on my MacBook Pro being too dim. Search for 'brightness' - no results. But under Settings (just below the Search box) you can see that there's an option for Screen brightness, the very word I searched for!
The search paradigm is all wrong here. The principle of type to search is very powerful. But the problem here is that all the search categories are on the right. It's hard to know straight away that your search is within a domain: Apps, Settings, Files, and other categories which look very much like Apps. The results appear on the main area of the screen on the left, but with your attention on the left of the screen, you don't intuitively realize that the control panel is on the right.
Eventually you might realize that Windows-Q brings up the App Search, and Windows-F brings up File search. But they behave differently. As you type to search for apps, the Apps are filtered in the left hand pane. As you type to filter for files, the list appears underneath the search box, and the left pane remains blank, until you hit the enter key. Inconsistent and disconcerting!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Quest for optimal MacBook Pro with SSD+HDD combo dual-booting Windows 8

One Laptop to Rule them All

One of the reasons I finally pulled the trigger about a year ago on a > $2k Mac was the promise that I could run all current popular OS configurations on it: OSX, Windows and Ubuntu Linux.
I finally parted with my cash in December 2011 (note that date - it will be relevant later), and my shiny silver MacBook Pro arrived just before Christmas.

Setting it all up

It took me a little while to get used to OSX, and one of my first projects was to fire up a VM or two. Being a bit cheap, I opted for VirtualBox instead of Parallels, a free product I had grown to like a lot while I was working at Sun (but is now owned by Oracle).
Ubuntu was easy. Download the ISO, create a new VM and point it at the ISO. Done.
Windows created more of a challenge. Partly because I wanted to see if I could make my old laptop 'virtual'. I imaged my laptop's disk and attempted to convert it for use in the VM. I was almost successful, but lets just say I don't use that VM - it's just there in the list to remind me not to waste time on stupid things in future...
So then I thought I'd finally use that Windows 7 upgrade disk I got shortly after purchasing my Vista desktop PC.
But how to do it?
I went through all my disks trying to find a full version of Windows. Finally I found one that would install so I could use the upgrade. After way too much wasted time, I had a Windows 7 VM on my Mac!
Then, a short while later, Windows 8 release preview comes out. Thankfully this was much easier to install into a VM. (It's relevant - see later...)

SSD Mecca

Fast forward a few months - it's nearly Christmas again, and to my complete delight I see an Intel 480Gb SSD on sale for $329. That will make my Mac sing, I thought! (In actual fact it made it groan before it sang...)
My mistake was to get storage greedy and purchase an OptiBay drive enclosure. The idea is that you take out the little-used DVD 'super' drive and place a second hard drive in its place. You then place the DVD in an enclosure and plug it into your USB port when required. (Actually, you might need to occupy two USB ports, especially when writing to DVDs, because they consume more power than your average USB device.) Which brings me to another beef with my Apple - why only two USB ports? Would it kill them to put another one on each side of the laptop, making 4?

Back to the OptiBay story:
Issue #1 - OK, I'm about to mess with drives here - better be prepared for the worst - where's my OS recovery disk? Can't find it. Call Mac support - don't need a disk - go to some obscure website and download the OS, create a recovery USB.
"Why do you need it?" They ask.
Innocently, I reply: "I want to install my own hard drive and install OS X on it."
Apple guy: "It'll void your warranty."
Me: "But I did my own memory upgrade."
Apple guy: "That's OK, we let you do that - but don't even think about putting your own hard drive in, it'll void your warranty unless you get an authorized Mac Dealer to do it. and BTW, it can only be an SSD make  & model we approve of, which you purchase through our Dealer."
Seriously?! Forget that, I'm doing it my way.

Issue #2 - Open up the Mac, locate the drive. Undo some screws only to find that some won't unscrew. Look closer - it's a different kind of screw with a star shaped head!  Check Optibay documentation - use provided Torx bit - Torx Size 6 to be precise. Only they didn't provide one...

Issue #3 - Finally found right screwdriver bit - try again. Slot SSD into OptiBay slot and boot up. Drive is recognized - time to format it. Format successful. Check disk - disk has errors! What? Format it again. Disk does not have errors. Check again 2 secs later - now it has errors! What?!?@#?$?@!
Browse forums - eventually discover that the Optical bay slot will recognize a 6Gb/sec drive, but doesn't support it - on my particular MacBook Pro 8,2 late 2011 model. Earlier models will accept the SSD and run slower, newer models will accept the SSD and run fine at full speed. See compatibility notes on this page. Solution: swap the drives. Finally with the SSD in the main slot and the HDD in the OptiBay slot I'm finally up and running with close to 1Tb storage.

Issue #4 - Microsoft emails me offering Windows 8 Pro upgrade for $40, because I downloaded the release preview. Pretty good deal, no? Do I need it? Well it would be nice to dual boot - enter the wonderful mystery world of Apple's BootCamp. How will I get this onto Bootcamp? Plan A - Burn Win8 Preview to DVD, run Bootcamp, create Windows partition, plug in external DVD drive, re-boot and load up the Windows installer. Easy, right? Except Bootcamp won't let me proceed - no optical drive. Yes there is - it's plugged in right there! Forget this: reboot anyway. Disk whirs, blank screen. Wait several minutes. Disk spins down. Nothing. Hold down power button for a few seconds. Remove disk from USB port. Restart system. "No bootable media found - press key to try again." Insert USB drive again. Press key. Nothing - it's frozen. Reboot again. Same thing.
At this point I'm really worried that I might be screwed. Thankfully I knew about the option key boot option. Restart system, hold down option key, breathe relief when your Hard Drives show up and you can get back into OS X.
So what can I do? How about booting from a USB? Surely that works - many MacBook Airs and Pros don't have a DVD drive. Surely that must work.  So I use Microsoft's Windows USB Loader program to create bootable USB. Plug it in. Try again. Nope! "No bootable media found."
Then I find out you can also press the C key on boot to force it to boot from CD/DVD drive. Nope. "No bootable media found."
Seriously? Burn gparted to DVD. Try again. Hold down C and gparted boots up Linux no problem. But not Windows. Hmmm.
Search forums online. Some people can, some can't install Windows via Bootcamp. Then I discover that someone put their DVD drive back into the Mac - it worked!
Open up Mac, replace HDD in optical bay with DVD drive containing Windows setup disk. Close up Mac. Reboot. Hey presto, the Windows logo appears!
So the evidence here is that Apple has specifically locked MacBook Pros with Optical drives from booting via USB. What's with that?!!

So in summary:

  • Put your SSD in the main drive bay, and if you want a second drive, place that in the optical bay, especially if you have a late 2011 MacBook Pro.
  • Make sure you have the right screwdriver bits before dissecting your Mac. (Including a Torx 6 bit.)
  • If you took your optical drive out, and you want to dual-boot Windows, put it back in before starting Bootcamp. It will save you a lot of grief and time.
  • If you didn't have Windows already installed on that bootcamp partition, the official line is that you won't be able to activate it unless it's a license for a brand new full version of Windows. (An OEM version you got with an older PC may work. Then you should be able to upgrade it once loaded. If you're really stuck, see this Microsoft community thread.)
  • If during setup, Windows doesn't recognize your Bootcamp partition, use disk tools in Windows Setup to format your bootcamp partition as NTFS before proceeding.

Now I finally have Windows 8 on my SSD on my Mac, I'll be able to tell you what I think of it in my next post.