Sunday, 28 October 2012

Windows 8 on an old laptop

On the left, XP SP3 on a Thinkpad X60. On the right, Windows 8 on a Thinkpad X61.

"Some things in life are bad", sang Eric Idle, in the classic comedy film Life of Brian (1979). "They can really make you mad; other things just make you swear and curse". Which brings me to Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft's popular PC operating system. Over the last year or so it has provoked lots of swearing and cursing, and people have got mad about it. Is it as bad as they say? After a lengthy evaluation period it was launched to the public a couple of days ago, and so - as a member of the public myself - I decided to see what it was like. See, and hear. But not touch, because I don't have a touch-screen computer.

My conclusion is that most of the criticism is waffle. Windows 8 has quirks; everything has quirks. The same people who have no problem typing sudo grub2-install --recheck --root-directory=/ /dev/sda to get things done suddenly find it appalling that people have to move their mouse to a slightly different part of the screen. Thanks for reading, goodbye.

Rather than bother my main computer - which runs Windows 7, and is doing perfectly fine - I installed it on one of my laptops, a Lenovo Thinkpad X61 running Windows XP. The X61 was launched in 2007, and is a Core II Duo machine running at 2.0ghz, with a 1024x768 screen. If you're an Apple fan, the specification is very similar to the second wave of Intel Macbooks. My X61 was originally shipped with 512mb of memory, but has since been expanded to 3gb. Apart from the resolution these specifications are more than enough for Windows 8.

With half a dozen tabs in Firefox, and GIMP running in the background, this elderly hardware - launched just as Facebook was becoming the hot new thing - is just ticking along.

Windows 8 is a kind of franchise reboot for Microsoft. Franchise reboots have been all the rage recently, and not just in Hollywood. Open source operating system Ubuntu had a soft franchise reboot in late 2011, when it adopted a controversial new interface. Back in 2006 - one year after Batman Begins revived the Batman franchise in top form - Apple made an even more drastic change when it rebooted its Macintosh range with a new range of Intel-based processors. This is a tenuous metaphor which I will immediately abandon. Let's move on to the next paragraph.

Whilst all that was going on Microsoft was going through a bad patch. The company was finding it hard to move on from Windows XP, which had been launched way back in 2001. Pre-XP versions of Windows generally had one or more fundamental issues that made them feel incomplete. NT was stable but incompatible with lots of hardware, whereas 95/98/Me were widely-supported but prone to falling over like a drunken old man. XP unified the two codebases, and although it had numerous issues at first, a couple of service packs polished it to a plateau of general competence. Even today, in 2012, it apparently runs on roughly 40% of PCs, which is an impressive feat of longevity.

On a personal level I still have XP installed on a couple of machines, and I only upgraded to Windows 7 because I wanted to move to a freshly-installed 64-bit operating system running on new hardware, not because XP was an obsolete pile of junk. On a conceptual level XP still has problems - a poor security model is the most obvious - but otherwise it works on a huge range of hardware and can run on relatively modest computers. It was very popular with netbooks, for example, which frustrated Microsoft, because XP's designated successor ran poorly on low-spec hardware.

Microsoft's first attempt to replace XP was originally called Longhorn. It had an unusually long development cycle, spanning the first half of the 2000s, and was eventually torn to bits and reborn in 2007 as Windows Vista, after several delays.

I was alive then and I can remember the launch. It didn't impress me much. It didn't have the moves and it certainly didn't have the touch. It didn't keep me warm in the middle of the night, because I didn't buy a copy. It definitely wasn't Brad Pitt. That's enough of Shania Twain. Vista's major new innovation seemed to be Aero, a flashy graphical interface that had transparent windows. There was some controversy as to whether it was a massive resource hog, or not - but I don't like the idea of the operating system taking up resources that should go to Photoshop instead. And otherwise Vista seemed to offer nothing new, so I skipped it.

Lots of people skipped Vista. There were widespread concerns that it was bloated and user-hostile. To be fair, plenty of computery types were desperate for Microsoft to fail, and were happy to put the boot in. With Vista, the seagulls (critics) finally had a chance to peck at the sardines (to criticise) that had been thrown into the water (the PC ecosystem) by the trawler (Microsoft), and also there were sharks in the water, swimming around, waiting for the sardines too, so that basically as the sardines flew through the air they were pecked at by the seagulls and then when they sank into the water the sharks got them. There was blood everywhere - fish blood - and it smelled horrible.

Microsoft's trawler sailed on, although I imagine that the man who was in charge of throwing sardines out the back was given a stern talking-to by the skipper. Vista's successor was launched only two years later, in 2009, at which point the trawler had entered calmer waters. Windows 7 was by most accounts Windows Vista done right. It proved to be very popular, and is currently overtaking XP in terms of PC installations. XP is on a gentle downwards slope into retirement.

XP, Vista, and 7 were united by their interface, which boiled down to a desktop screen with a bar at the bottom that showed all the programs that were running at the time. In the bottom-right there were some status icons and a clock. In the bottom-left there was a Start button that popped open a menu that launched applications and recently used documents. The interface made its debut in 1995, with Windows 95, and was generally unproblematic. Microsoft was very proud of it at the time.

Windows 8 does things differently. Instead of a start button, it has a dedicated start screen, which can also run applications independently of the desktop. The start screen is unusually functional in this respect; if you just want to surf the internet or watch movies you don't have to use the desktop at all. Unless you want to surf the internet and watch movies at the same time, because multi-tasking is awkward on the start screen. Still, you can turn on the PC and - paf - you're in the start screen, clicking on tiles and doing stuff without bothering with that computery stuff with directories and so on that they had in the past.

The start screen is clearly modelled on the interfaces that drive tablets, and Microsoft hopes that Windows 8 will go great guns in that market. The company also makes a Windows 8-esque operating system for mobile phones - Windows Phone 8 - which shares the start screen interface. On the PC the idea of a full-screen launcher isn't new. Apple's mid-1990s At Ease and Packard Bell's contemporary Navigator had a similar concept, and more recently the custom interface for the popular Asus Eee netbook wasn't all that different. Windows 8's start screen is slicker than any of those examples, and much more functional. It has nonetheless come in for a huge amount of criticism, mainly because of the context; the Eee was a portable netbook intended to surf the internet and take notes, and not much else - even though it could, at a pinch - whereas Windows 8 is intended for general-purpose desktop machines. An attractive, tablet-esque launcher seems faintly ridiculous on a computer otherwise used to run Autocad. Having used it, I am of the opinion that it needs work, but it's not nearly as bad as internet commentators opine, and indeed you can, for the most part, ignore it.

Previews of Windows 8 have been around for months, but I didn't want to tie up a machine with something that might be rubbish, and I have a long-standing aversion to version nought point anything of anything. It's like looking at a lady before she has put on her makeup. Although I've read about it, I haven't actually, you know, done it yet. So I put it on my X61, which is almost but not quite fully compatible with Windows 8. The limitation is the screen resolution, 1024x768. This is slightly smaller than the 1366x768 resolution quoted as the minimum.  In practice Windows 8 installs and works fine; the only functional omission is snap, which allows for two start screen applications to appear on the screen simultaneously.

Snap, running on an external monitor

It's no great loss, because snap isn't very useful. When turned on, one of the two applications has a fixed width of 320 pixels, which is a curious limitation. And I can't say I have ever used two start screen applications at the same time - beyond the example above - so it's irrelevant anyway. Even if you were just free to split the screen up horizontally it would be more handy - movie in the top window, internet in the bottom. But no. Not yet.

Microsoft's Popular PC Operating System

Odd word, popular. The Beatles were popular. They sold a lot of records, and people liked them. Madonna has sold a lot of records too, even though lots of people detest her. In the 1980s she was dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan copy of Cyndi Lauper. People liked Cyndi Lauper, but even her fans had to admit that she only had two great pop singles in her before she started doing schmaltzy ballads. If there was a boxing match between The Immaculate Collection and Twelve Deadly Cyns, people would feel sorry for Cyns, and it would be knocked out in the first round. The lesson is that you don't necessarily have to be of-the-people to be popular.

If you owned a PC during the last thirty years, it probably ran one of Microsoft's operating systems. DOS in the early days; Windows 3.1 and 95 in the 1990s; of late Windows XP and Windows 7. At work you might have used Windows NT, or 2000. By and large most people didn't think about the operating system their machine ran. It was there, it worked. For all the opprobium slung at Microsoft, their operating systems have generally worked. You turned on the computer, logged on to your corporate network, opened up Word or whatever proprietary application you used and it loaded and ran. You tried to print stuff and it didn't work, but that wasn't necessarily Microsoft's fault.

At home the story was the same. You played games under Windows XP, and used the same applications that you used during the day. Your printer worked most of the time, except that occasionally it just stopped working for no reason. But you survived. The computer you bought at PC World came with Windows something-or-other on it but you didn't care, you had more important things to worry out. Mortgages, relationships, work.

There are a few portions of the electronic spectrum that a Microsoft operating system has not dominated. Mobile phones, for example. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s mobile phones ran their own proprietary operating systems; now they tend to run Google's open source Android or Apple's very own iOS. Microsoft makes a mobile phone operating system as well, but it is nowhere close to dominating the market. The company hopes that Windows Phone 8 will slowly change that.

And there are tablets, the wonder-products of the last few years. The irony is that Microsoft was pushing tablet versions of Windows long before the iPad was a gleam in Apple's eye. The original IBM Thinkpad 700T of 1992, for example, could run a tablet-optimised version of Windows 3.1; Microsoft revived the concept in 2002 and again in 2005. For a variety of reasons none of them took off. By the time Apple had a go, in 2010, the hardware had advanced enough to cram a powerful computer into an attractive, lightweight slice of aluminium. Apple had an application market up and ready, and the iPad was a smashing success. Nowadays everybody wants a slice of the tablet pie, Microsoft included, and Windows 8 is their... big spoon, or something. The applications are whipped cream (or gravy, if it's a meaty pie). What are the peas? Not sure. Your mouth, your teeth, your gullet are the consumer marketplace. What is your toe? It's the public transport network, of course!

In the tablet and mobile phone markets Microsoft is in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up. It has always had to share its dominant position in the PC market with other big beasts, but it generally manages to either embrace or exterminate them. The first beast was IBM, who built the hardware on which Microsoft's operating systems first ran, but over time PC hardware has become mostly generic, churned out at low cost by anonymous factories in China. We have instead entered a post-physical age, an empire of the clouds in which the new masters - Google, Amazon, enfant terribles of the internet age - make their money from data. Human souls.

Apple and Microsoft are like England and France; mortal enemies who are much alike, and have occasionally fought on the same side. Google and Amazon are something else. They are creatures of the internet age and are no great friends of their dinosaur cousins. Let battle commence.

Windows 7, Only Better

In the UK, Windows 8 costs £24.99 if you download an upgrade for XP, Vista, and Windows 7. You can also get it on old-fashioned physical media, but dammit this is 2012. My laptop doesn't even have an optical drive. For comparison, Windows 95 sold for $205 in 1995, and Windows 7 upgrades ranged from $119-199 depending on which version you got. At launch there was just one version of Windows 95 - it was called Windows 95 - with Windows NT 4 as its professional counterpart. Microsoft subsequently developed a fetish for releasing different versions of its OS. Vista came as Starter, which was aimed at poor people, plus Home Basic and Home Premium, which were aimed at different types of ordinary people, and there was Business and Enterprise, which were aimed at professional people, and also Vista Ultimate, which was for suckers. There was also a limited, numbered Vista Ultimate Signature Edition, which had Bill Gates' signature on the front of the box.

Windows 8 has slimmed this malarkey right down. There is plain Windows 8 for most people; Windows 8 Pro for slightly fewer people; Windows 8 Enterprise for the many businesses that will be rolling out Windows 8, and also RT, which isn't aimed at PC people at all. It's a special version for ARM-powered tablets and you can forget about it. I got Windows 8 Pro, because I was running XP Professional. In fact I got 32-bit Windows 8 Pro, because there's no way to upgrade from a 32-bit version of Windows to a 64-bit version. In practice an upgrade from XP is actually a fresh install, although you can ask 8 to back everything up. It sticks your old installation of XP into a windows.old directory, and retains your hard drive's directory structure. Your old My Documents folder now becomes a subfolder within your new User folder, which can be confusing (I now have two Google Drive directories, for example, only one of which works).

The press doesn't think too much of Windows 8's chances in the enterprise market, which is fair enough given that so many businesses are only just moving to Windows 7. I don't know what Windows 8's server version - Windows Server 2012 - is like, although this chap thinks it's the bee's knees. As a point-of-sale or front-of-house proposition, Windows 8's start screen interface would be a natural fit - for example, the typical GP or dental surgery could replace their receptionist with a large Windows 8 tablet. The patients would book themselves in, perhaps by holding their printed appointment notification or mobile phone up to the tablet's camera so that it can read the QR code. In a science fiction future the tablet could use the location-awareness of other tablets and mobile phones in order to book the patients in automatically as they approach it. The GP or dentist could then either sack the receptionist or - and this is even better - threaten to sack her unless she works longer hours for less money. That way the GP or dentist saves money whilst still having someone to order about, which is a double win.

This kind of front-of-house application could have been done with XP and 7 - it could have and was done with Windows 3.1, even the GPS thing - but Windows 8 integrates all of this technology together with a set of standard tools. It can't be all that hard on a conceptual level to write a start screen application that interfaces with a GP's appointments management system; difficult, laborious, frustrating, but not conceptually challenging.

Although my X61 is old, it's not prehistoric, and so Windows 8 installed quickly and without fuss. There were still a few residual quirks, though. I couldn't get a second monitor to work until I had upgraded the video drivers (by right-clicking on the desktop - advanced settings - properties - driver - update). Presumably Lenovo are working behind the scenes to update all their Thinkpad drivers for Windows 8, which might explain why they don't have any available on their website yet. After installing a couple of trial applications I had to download some old Visual C++ 2003 DLLs. Other than that, it appears to work. It boots faster than XP, and I can get to the desktop faster with Firefox running, even though I have to go through the start screen. Let's have a look at that start screen:

You can make it smaller, which looks sad. Those poor icons! Adrift, alone in the endless night:

The start screen replaces the start menu and has been very controversial. You can generally ignore it. The first thing that struck me when starting Windows 8 was the new design language, which makes heavy use of flat-shaded rectangles, vaguely Art Nouveau details, and Segoe, a friendly airy font.

Microsoft calls it the Metro Design Language, and it encompasses the operating system, the packaging, Microsoft's website, its logo and corporate image. Graphic designers will no doubt pooh-pooh it for being bland and unchallenging, but it is at the very least not offensive. I find it quite attractive. Earlier versions of Windows had a "look", but they were never stylish and always felt like an imitation of Apple's interface designs from a couple of years before fed through a blandifier. Aero, the much-hyped resource hog from Windows Vista, has now been torn out and thrown away, and also kicked and spat on. Microsoft now derides it as dated and cheesy, and to be honest it was dated and cheesy when it was new. It was the all-in-one hi-fi with an LED graphic equaliser of the interface world.

In the picture of the start screen above, if I click on the Firefox icon - sorry, tile, they're tiles now - Window 8 launches an instance of the desktop with Firefox running on top. If I then close Firefox I'm left on the desktop, I don't go back to the start screen. Generally this is Windows 8's biggest quirk; it operates in two worlds, and has a habit of tossing you between them and leaving you there. For example, if you decide to open a photograph from Explorer running on the desktop, you get three choices, viz:

One of those is a start screen application. Which one? Let's pick "photos". Aha, it was that one:

The lovely Helene Atsuko

And now I'm running the start screen's Photo application, which is similar to the Windows Photo Viewer but with fewer controls. If I dismiss Photo - you grab the top of the screen and swipe down, which isn't at all obvious - the start screen is where I go:

Where's my desktop? It's still running, but in the background. This is confusing at first. The solution is not to bother with start screen applications. They are simplistic, limited things. Your touch-screen cousins might enjoy them, but you have more powerful alternatives. Spare a thought for the folk who are running Windows RT on an tablet; the desktop exists on that platform, but it's a walled garden that exists as a launcher for approved desktop applications.

Windows 8 is intended for tablets and desktops alike, although the design team seem to have had touch-screen tablets on the brain. When I plug in a USB stick I get the following message:

No amount of tapping my X61's screen worked, so I clicked on it with the mouse instead. My suggestion: just have "choose what happens with this disc". The user is smart enough to know that he or she has to activate that control. How they do it is up to them.

Another example. If you try to open an unfamiliar file in XP, you get this:

The first option never works, the second is more helpful. Try the same thing in Windows 8, and you're directed to the store so that you can buy your way out of trouble:

This is why Ubuntu is so much better - Ubuntu would never compel you to buy things

There might not be a solution now, but Microsoft hopes that an army of developers will spring up to build one for you. They are certainly busy.

The old start button is actually replaced with two things. The start screen is a general-purpose application launcher that you can mostly avoid. If you move the mouse to the top-right or bottom-right of the screen you get the Charms menu, which is a more direct replacement.

It's how you shut down the computer, for example. You move the mouse to the bottom-right, settings - power - shutdown. As opposed to the pre-Windows 8 way of doing things, which involved moving your mouse to the bottom-left, start - turn off computer - turn off. This change has provoked a lot of angst on the internet, which seems comical because it's not a huge thing. There are far greater horrors in the world.

Click on the search button and you can just type in the name of an application to find it. Alternatively, you can scroll across the Apps screen, which is generally more useful than the start screen.

In this example, OpenOffice and VLC are grouped into the Windows 8 equivalent of start menu folders, whereas on the start screen they're just dumped into the icon soup on the right. For comparison, here's how XP deals with an installation of Google Earth:

 And this is what the Start screen does with it:

As you can see, the uninstall option has gone. You're supposed to do that with Windows 8's control panel. Overall the combination of Charms menu and Apps screen basically makes the Start screen superfluous unless you enjoy looking at Live Tiles. Live Tiles are reminiscent of Active Desktop, which you might not remember, except that they aren't actually on the desktop. Now that everybody is plugged into Facebook 24/7 they make a lot more sense that Active Desktop, I admit.

Windows 8 also brings in the ribbon bar from Office 2007, which is now part of Explorer. I'm in two minds about this. It eliminates a lot of the "click on every menu until you get the thing you want" guesswork, but it's visually cluttered. I suspect over time I'll grow to ignore it.

At this point I've used Windows 8 for two days, on a laptop. I generated most of this blog post with it. I can remember when I transitioned from XP to Windows 7, which was essentially seamless, and from 98 to XP, which involved disabling a lot of things. Windows 8 is more of a conceptual leap, but it's far from the disastrous skyfall that internet blowhards have claimed. It doesn't seem to have affected the machine's battery life noticeably, and feels generally faster than XP (Windows 8 includes "readyboost", which can use an SD card or USB stick as a cache - it seems to have sped up GIMP, but I haven't timed it properly). As a desktop replacement the X61 is limited by its old-fashioned X3100 GM965 integrated graphics chip, which was rubbish for games in 2007 and is no better nowadays. The maximum resolution for an external monitor is 2048x1536 - coincidentally the same resolution as an iPad 3 - so if you have a console for games the X61 and other Core Duo machines from the late-mid 2000s are still perfectly viable for productivity and so forth.

Anything else? I use an operating system to help me gets things done, rather than as an end in itself. Bearing in mind that I have generally ignored the Start screen, in which case Windows 8 gets out of the way. The lack of a recently-used-documents window is irritating. Local search is terrible, but then again it was terrible in Windows 7 and latterly in XP; the DOS command line is still there (it identifies Windows 8 as "Version 6.2.9200"). I use my X61 as a large netbook, and in that respect Windows 8 is a much more natural fit, because I only use a couple of applications at once.

Looking back, it's almost as if history went wrong for a while there. Windows 8 would have been a natural fit on netbooks, but they came and went whilst Microsoft was messing around with Vista. Still, if you have XP running on an older laptop, a Windows 8 upgrade is a cheap way to bring it up to date without dropping compatibility for Windows applications.

Of course, you could just leave XP on the laptop and spend the £25 on other things. It's not as if XP is "out of date"; it still works just as well as it did two days ago and drivers for it are almost universally available. When I switch between the two the only thing I really notice is XP's slower boot. Is Windows 8 more stable, more secure? I would hope so, but then again it hasn't had a service pack yet. My advice is that if your machine is loaded down with years of applications and personal files, leave it be. It's not worth the hassle. If you bought the machine second-hand with a mostly-wiped disc, or you only ever used it to surf the internet and run one or two applications, it's up to you; you gain slightly faster boot times, a more attractive interface, and perhaps there might be something in the shop you'll enjoy.

The future? There was a time when people used their desktop PCs for a wide range of things, but people are a lot simpler now. Desktop PC sales have been moribund whilst tablets have taken off. The mass market, looking to buy a fresh new tablet, will wonder what Windows 8 gives them that they don't already have with an Android or iPod; the answer is, not a lot. As such, Microsoft will have to compete on style or price, which will be difficult. Yes, there's still a place for dad's big desktop PC sitting on a table in the study. But over time the big desktop's relevance has eroded, beyond simply having a larger screen. Tablets and laptops are for the most part just as powerful. Less customisable, sure, but the same is true in other fields, outside the computing world, and in any case there's less need.

Whilst writing this article I was also writing a history of the IBM Thinkpad range, and there are parallels between IBM circa the turn of the millennium and Microsoft today. They both generate the bulk of their income from providing services to businesses, with the consumer stuff as an important but slowly fading market for them. In IBM's case, the hardware was undercut and overwhelmed by cheaper, more efficient competition, and so the company decided to exit the hardware business and concentrate on services instead. It was a brutal cut, effected effectively, but it worked, and IBM is now doing very well indeed. It briefly had a higher market capitalisation than Microsoft earlier this year.

Over the fence, Apple charges a nominal sum for its operating system, but makes the bulk of its revenues from selling iPhones and iPads. Microsoft is caught in the middle of this, and can go two ways. It is currently trying to compete with Apple's hardware by selling the Microsoft Surface tablet, but I can't see Apple being too worried about it. People want a cheap tablet or a laptop or an Apple product, Surface is none of those things. It's not new and different enough to carve out its own market, although it is very attractive.

Alternatively Microsoft could follow IBM, and ditch or split the consumer business. Aim squarely for the corporate market. In which case Windows would become a tiny thing, which would be awkward because it requires a large development team and a lot of work. Still, splitting Windows from Microsoft would head off some of the anti-trust complaints that Microsoft has endured over the years. Office is now a cloud-enabled subscription service that is essentially independent of the computer's host operating system, which means that Microsoft can make money from every computing platform, not just Windows. In a cloud-enabled future the operating system is mostly irrelevant, and so perhaps there is no future for Windows at all.

But then again, things change. There was a time when Apple was lambasted for concentrating on hardware sales instead of licensing its operating system for other platforms. If only there had been a PC version of System 7, they said, Apple would be a giant instead of a has-been. Of course, it didn't turn out like that. Apple couldn't beat Microsoft at Microsoft's game, they didn't have it in them. Instead they concentrated on extending what they were good at, and did it really well.

Over the years Microsoft has shown time and time again that it can build and sell operating systems and the software that runs on them. When IBM gave up its PC business it gave up nothing of consequence. It left behind residual traces, just as the British Empire left behind residual traces; railway gauges, a language, Marmite, the PS/2 mouse port. In contrast, if Microsoft gives up Windows, it gives up its chance to shape the future.

In summary, then, is Windows 8 a good thing or a bad thing, or just a thing?


The desktop feels responsive and snappy, and at the very least it's not noticeably slower than XP. It used to be that each new version of Windows demanded fresh hardware, and if you wanted to bring older hardware into the modern age you had to install Ubuntu. Windows 8 bucks that trend. It definitely boots faster. I admit that I haven't done any formal tests, but these people did back in August, and they agree with me. The men from Microsoft are very proud of Windows 8's fast boot.In fact, running on my 2ghz Thinkpad X61 it boots to the internet faster than 64-bit Windows 7 on my 3.3ghz i5-2500K desktop. Of course, the i5-2500K is much more powerful when it gets going, and fast boot is meaningless on a desktop machine - I generally turn it on once a day. In this respect Windows 8 is a good fit for laptops, because it spends - get this - less time churning and more time earning. That phrase is copyright Ashley Pomeroy 2012. Certainly the under-the-hood engineering is very clever.

It Looks Nice
For the first time, Windows has style. For some users this is irrelevant, and if the rest of the OS was a clunky broken mess the visual style would be a kick in the teeth. Why didn't Microsoft spend its time fixing things? Stupid sexy Microsoft.

Fortunately Windows 8 is solidly built, or at least the individual bits are solidly built. The look doesn't take anything away from the experience, and human beings are emotional creatures, after all. I know I am. If it makes me feel nice, what's so bad about that?

It Works
After installing it on my Thinkpad X61, it worked. Not perfectly. I had to upgrade the graphics drivers manually in order to enable a second monitor. But otherwise it just worked. The old software that I have reinstalled works. Firefox works.


Driver Support
Possibly specific to older laptops. Lenovo hasn't released many Windows 8 drivers yet for their legacy Thinkpads, so I've had to use some Windows 7 drivers instead. Beyond that, Microsoft seem to have learned from the Windows Vista affair; I can't say I've seen mass reports on the internet of Windows 8 falling over because of old drivers. Next.

No XP Mode
I upgraded to Windows 7 Professional specifically for XP Mode. Windows 8 doesn't have XP Mode, and never will. Over the course of two years I've only used it in anger three times, bu it was useful (there's always VMWare, of course, but you still need to supply a legit copy of XP).

The Metro/Desktop Dichotomy
This is a common criticism of Windows 8, and it feel redundant to repeat it. Every review of Windows 8 points it out. The individual elements are pretty good. The desktop is fast and responsive, the start screen interface likewise, although it needs another pass. Here's what you get if you try and use the store without an internet connection:

See that arrow in the top-left? Guess what happens if you click it. That's right, it changes colour. And that's all that happens. It doesn't take you anywhere. It doesn't do anything. The arrow is a lie.

The two interfaces have separate control panels, which control some of the same things, but not others. I don't know what happens if you set the start screen control panel to compensate for DST, and the desktop panel to not compensate for DST. I'm not going to try. The charms menu adds nothing to the desktop's control panel, and pops up whenever you move your mouse into the corners; it would be nice if there was a way to turn this off, but I suspect that Microsoft's desire to make the desktop seem like just another app is almost religious in its fervour. To be fair, the powers that control Ubuntu don't care about your opinion, either.

How would I fix it? Add an option to reinstate the start menu; it was present in the early previews of Windows 8, it can't be a lot of work to put it back. Disable the start screen hotspot in the bottom-left corner of the screen, and move it to the bottom-right. And then make the top-left corner of the screen the charms menu hotspot. Problem solved. That'll be £12,000 please, Microsoft, for my consulting fees.

My rationale for those three changes are (a) the two menus can coexist, people will find their own way and will feel happier for it (b) people are unlikely to click accidentally in the bottom-right corner of the screen (b) the top-right of the screen should be sacred, because it's where people shove the mouse when they want to close a window. To be fair, the Charms menu doesn't prevent that from happening - you can still shove the mouse to infinity and click the button, and it will activate the window close button instead of the Charms menu - but it's visually distracting.

Those few tweaks would have eliminated the vast negative buzz that has grown up around Windows 8. It would have gone from being the well-engineered but slightly superfluous Windows update with the kiddy interface to The Slim, Trendy-Looking New Windows That Really Works. There are some people who will always hate Microsoft, for what they are, what they have done, what they embody. Their opinions are set in stone, and there's no point trying to reach them. The rest of us would happily sup with the Devil (Microsoft) if he was handing out hot dogs (a nice new operating system) on a cold day (such as today; I'm writing this as a storm is smashing New York). Or, to use another metaphor, Steve Ballmer's milkshake would have brought all the boys (and girls) to the yard, instead of some of the boys - and they would have drunk his milkshake, drunk it all up... with a short spoon. Straw.

EDIT: In fact Classic Shell basically fixes all of these problems - it adds a start menu and can disable the hot corners, and even boot straight to the desktop (although this isn't totally seamless, as you still get a flash of the start screen). With Classic Shell, Windows 8 is a mutha. You have to question the wisdom of making the new start button look a bit like the logo of Shell Oil, though. I would be wary of offending a major oil company.

What's the Point?
In the past, it was a lot easier to rationalise upgrading to a newer version of Windows, although as time went on this became harder to do. Windows 98 SE felt like Windows 95 finally done right, in one handy package. Windows XP was a lot more stable than Windows 98, and brought in a bunch of handy new features; built-in support for wi-fi networking, for example, plus a built-in firewall, a higher memory ceiling, multi-processor support, and so on. On a conceptual level it was finally extinguished Windows' legacy as a shell that sat on top of DOS. Windows 7 was less compelling, but it did bring in generally seamless 64-bit support. XP and Vista had 64-bit support, too, but Windows 7 had a much more thorough set of drivers.

Windows 8 is less compelling. The speed boost is nice to have, but I don't imagine it making a truly ancient laptop - anything pre-Pentium M - usable again. It doesn't add any major new features. Wikipedia's summary makes it seem like Windows 7 SE with a new skin. Unless you plan on using Microsoft's app store, the "new skin" is essentially superfluous. You'll probably use the app store once, to see what it looks like, and again a week later to see if anything has changed. Beyond that, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense on a laptop. None of the start screen applications leap out at me. There are cut-down portals to websites that you could just as easily visit from the desktop. There are casual games, none of them compelling enough to grab me. And there is the kind of shareware shovelware that has been around since time immemorial - unit converters, translators, notepad replacements, the developer's final-year university project, that kind of thing. All of these things have analogues on the actual, grown-up internet, which is just a click away. Feel pity for Windows RT users, for this is all they have.

Given that the store is the only way to install start screen applications, it's fair to say that the start screen exists to support the store. Take away the store, and you take away the start screen's raison d'etre. The buttons, the scrolling, the pretence that this is a replacement for the start menu; it's nonsense. It exists solely to support the store. Which is a very tablet-centric way of viewing things. Tablets are devices on which you spend money so that can spend more money. I use a computer to do stuff (points to rest of blog). Still, as I say, you can mostly ignore the start screen. I find the lack of a start button less irritating than I expected. But, then again, as this is a laptop I only have a few applications. If I had to scroll five screens to the right to find my software, I might not be so sanguine.

"Sanguine". References to Aubrey Beardsley. Colourful pictures. Paragraphs. Truly, I am a superior blogger. A superior blogger am I.

The Number 8 is Yellow
I don't like that colour.

In summary, it adds a few new things that will amuse you for a while before you tire of them. It generally does no harm. It's a little bit faster. It looks nice. It's only £25.

Little man, what now?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Beacon

More music, this time a 190bpm drum and bass tune performed with Audiomulch, running on a Thinkpad X61. The cover photograph is a crop from this image of the lovely Lydia Morgan, from a while back (plus bonus image!):


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Turbine II

Whilst on holiday I had a chance to radically overhaul Turbine, and add more beats, louder ones. In that post I toyed with the idea of using Hellflower St Germain as my rock name. This month I've come up with some alternative names which I will present after the music:

Alternative "Rock" Names for Ashley Pomeroy (Me)
1. Kangaroospine
2. Ramshoal Andantier (which I used a very long time ago)
3. Fragment of Lice
4. Transport Participation Box
5. Quoup
6. Bridge of Pies

Number five is my Warp Records name. As before, the track was performed live-in-the-studio with Audiomulch running on a Thinkpad X61. The matrix looks like this, shown here running with an external monitor:

If you trace the contraptions you can see how it works, and how Audiomulch works. On the left, for example, you can see LoopPlayer1, which is playing the bassline that begins at 1:25. The bassline is fed into SupaTrigga, which cuts it into little pieces and regurgitates it into Glitch, which cuts it into little pieces again. Then it goes through DigiGrunge, which dirties it up, and then it passes through a flanger, which makes it go whoosh. Thence to the mixer and out into the physical world through a compressor. The process of making music with Audiomulch is almost exactly the same as the process of turning cattle into spam, or worms into birdfood.

As you can see, even with an external monitor the display is still cramped. Like most laptops the X61 only supports a maximum of one external display, although there are ways to get around this. Matrox makes a device called DualHead2Go, which splits the external display across two monitors - it fools the computer into thinking that it's connected to one very external large display - and a company called DisplayLink makes a multi-monitor USB hub. Does it work? I don't know. But this man does. Yikes! Matrox's DualHeadEtc is very popular but the X61 only supports a maximum resolution of 2048x1536, which is plenty for one screen but not very much for two. This is one of the few things that dates the X61 (that and the old-fashioned VGA connector) but I still love it. I'm going to give it a hug right now.

(hugs laptop)

Ouch! It's sharp. And suddenly I've turned into Mark Prindle again.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Life in Venice

Boy with Frog, Venice, with a cruise ship passing in the background
Mamiya C3, 65mm f/3.5, Kodak Ektar 100

In the last post I had a look at the cemetery in Venice. Venice doesn't just have dead people, though. It has living people as well, passing through. The main island is probably the most-photographed patch of land on Earth if you think in terms of photographs-per-square-foot. Not counting the Lido it's roughly the same size as Heathrow Airport, a quarter the size of Manhattan, and almost every squre inch has been photographed hundreds of times. Unlike either of those places it doesn't have a Starbucks.

In fact, Italy doesn't have Starbucks at all, anywhere. There's a Starbucks clone in Milan called Arnold Coffee, which uses the same iconography, but it's not a national chain, just a few shops. Can you imagine that? A whole country without coffee?

This was underexposed a bit - blue shadows are apparently an Ektar thing.

In the UK Starbucks is all over the place. Britain is famous for its instinctive debasement of the finer things in life, Italy not so much. According to this article in the New York Times Starbucks has tried hard to penetrate France but without making a profit so far, and it has shied away from Italy. There are plenty of international fast food chains in Italy, I guess they just don't like coffee.

Venice is a bubble. A bubble within a bubble, because northern Italy traditionally pooh-poohs the poorer, more rural south. A short while after I came back there was a small rally for the cause of Venetian independence. "Activists want to carve out a new country in north-eastern Italy which would comprise Venice, the surrounding region of Veneto and parts of Lombardy, Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia", which has a population of about five million people, almost as many as Scotland. They would have an international airport and no shortage of places to berth ships. Can five million Venetians build a nation more effectively than five million Scottish people?

Fuji Velvia 100

Ektar again, with a photograph that countless millions of people have already taken
Here's more or less the same scene from 1952

For my trip I took along my Mamiya C3 TLR and a box of Kodak Ektar 100. Kodak could do with the money. The company is down to its last $345m. The most recent film they have discontinued is T-MAX P3200, a 3200-speed black and white film. No great loss; it was expensive, no-one used it, and it made everything look like oil. Which of Kodak's eight remaining films will go next? Portra 800, I reckon.

It's fascinating to go back and look at Kodak's website circa 1996, via the Internet Archive. Odd, mystical names such as VericolorEktapress, and Advantix, which was Kodak's range of APS films. All of these things are gone. TMAX and TRI-X are there, of course, and will presumably live as long as film.

Kodak's advertising signs, dotted all around the world, will stay up, fading away until people can be bothered to climb up a ladder and take them down; until people on the other side of the world realise that Kodak no longer sends them things. Kodak will go the way of IBM, but much smaller; it will still be there, but for the man in the street it will be a memory of something that was around in the 1960s.

Venice, meanwhile, won't notice. It will carry on being Venice.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Death in Venice

The Isle of San Michele, Venice / Original by Mario Vercellotti

The islands of Venice only have a small resident population, but there remains the problem of burying the dead. There isn't enough room for the bodies and there isn't enough acid to dissolve them, Breaking Bad-style, besides which where would the acid go? Into the lagoon, but what of the fish? And so in the early 1800s the isle of San Michele was picked as the designated dead person storage area, a function it retains to this day. It's a small, square island to the north of San Marcos, a short trip on the 4.1 or 4.2 to Murano. I decided to have a wander around with my Mamiya C3.

San Michele
Mamiya C3 / 65mm f/3.5 / Kodak Ektar 100

Mamiya C3 / Fuji Velvia 50

Death is forever; burial in San Michele is not, as the bodies are removed after a few years and transferred to the mainland. It makes for an odd tourist destination. The atmosphere is calm, vastly different from the hustle-and-bustle of San Marco, but it's impossible not to feel something of an interloper. Much of it resembles Brompton Cemetery in London, overcrowded and in a state of elegant ruin, although there are obvious signs of constant work and fresh flowers.

Some of the burial arrangements are similar to Manarola, on the Cinque Terre, with above-ground sarcophagi. For example, here are the burial plots at Manarola:

Manarola / Yashica Mat / Fuji Velvia 50

And here is an equivalent scene in San Michele:

There are also traditional gravestones in old-fashioned soil, and a modest chapel complex in one corner. The sculptures are seemingly designed to illustrate the ever-watchful presence of Death, who is not choosy about his next travel companion. Young, old; man, woman; he has a place for you within his cape.

Mamiya C3 / 65mm f3.5 / Kodak Portra 160VC

I mention feeling like an outsider. San Michele has a few famous graves, but the vast majority of people buried there are ordinary people like you or I, who admittedly lived in a much nicer environment and got to be buried in Venice, rather than dumped in a mass grave. The famous dead folk include top ballet pimp Sergei Diaghilev, classical upsetter Igor "Eye-Gor" Stravinsky, and Ezra Pound, fascist. Stravinsky's wife is also buried there; if you stand on her tombstone you can get a better view of Igor's.

There's also a new, partially-empty section, which is still under construction. Death doesn't stop; he will never stop.

"We get to carry each other"

I come back to this picture every so often. There's the man, his wife, one two three four five six seven eight children. The girl on the left looks strong. Ten people, now just names.