Windows 8, Some Essential Apps

I’ve been using Windows 8 since December 2011, developing a game which has been released just before Windows 8’s launch. It didn’t take long, but I very quickly learnt to love the operating system. The improvements to the core desktop have been solid, and the metro interface is becoming more useful as more apps become available. This is my pick of apps with ‘Metro’ interface support:

Wordfeud

This hit iOS/Android game has been in the Windows 8 store for free for a long time now. As an avid player, this was my first regular metro app. Playing during the morning commute on my Android phone, and responding to the same game in the evening on my laptop. The game’s really polished, and the developer has definitely done a great job making it work on the bigger screen.

Wordfeud

When my boss sees this he’ll know what letters I have.

Can be found in the store.

Google Chrome

Yes, this is a metro app. Somewhere around August, Google pushed through an update to Chrome’s desktop app adding Metro support. Given that I normally use it on the desktop, I didn’t initially notice. Until I clicked a link in a Metro app, and it asked me whether I wanted to use Internet Explorer or Chrome. No doubt, I wanted to use Chrome, and it happily opened a fullscreen Metro app. It’s also almost an exact copy of the desktop version, and includes account synchronizing.

Google Chrome

I am in no way hinting that you should look at my new website. Which can be found at davidgoemans.com.

This one isn’t in the store but can be downloaded from Google, as it’s included in Chrome’s desktop version.

Booking.com

I swear I had just made a conscious note to start using airbnb instead of Booking.com as my primary accommodation site, but then I saw this app. Beautiful.

It’s about time I took the wife to Italy

Google Search

Google has come a long way as a search engine, and now you can pretty much ask it a bunch of questions. Combined with windows integration, you end up with the ability to ask Windows those questions. This blows my mind.

This is my test question whenever I’m messing with voice search on my phone

This is in the store.

Evernote

As usual, these guys have a great experience on a new platform. It’s familiar, but still looks native to Windows 8. The important stuff is there; it syncs with your account and allows you to take notes. During the development of Rocket Riot 3D, we found this was one of the few apps that actually integrates sharing properly, and as such we made it possible to share both text and screenshots to Evernote.

Evernote

I bet Microsoft won’t like this note I took during Unite 2012.

It’s in the store.

Windows Search Functionality

I mentioned in passing that Windows integrates search functionality. While this seems like a cool thing, it’s worth considering the implications of this. When I hit the start button and type what I want to search for, I can do it via any range of applications that support this. What this means is that I can search for “How cold is it in London” in Windows 8, and direct it to use Google! This kind of integrated system means you have a unified environment from which you can get any information. In a way, this is like your web browser, but extended with extra native functionality from sources of your choosing. It’s a matter of time before someone makes apps that let me set alarms by typing in the search bar. That’s almost like Android and iOS let you do, except it’s in Windows. In your primary OS†. That’s big.

The only thing I really know about Chicago is that it’s where Oprah did her show.

Note that these were the apps that I could review pre-launch. Skype made a brief appearance in the store, but got pulled, so I haven’t had a chance to look at that or plenty of other apps which will be out when Windows is launched. If these apps are any indication to the future of the Windows Store, I am very excited at the prospects!

† I know, <blah blah custom app> allows you to do this in <any OS you can think of>. Sure, but it’s not integrated by default. What that means is that there are official, in the system APIs for using this. Developers can easily plug into this without having to support <blah blah other third party app>. That’s really important to make it feel native, and so that every app implements it.

Is the Windows 8 hate justified?

When things change, people get unhappy. Except fan boys of course, but that’s to be expected. Microsoft are launching a new OS soon, and the tech blogosphere seems to love hating on Windows 8’s new Metro UI. I don’t understand why.

First I need to clear some things up. I am not a Microsoft fan boy. In fact, I am very much an open source geek, and ex-Desktop Linux enthusiast. I still love Linux, it just doesn’t like me, my profession or my hardware. I do love Android, and think Windows Phone is bland and ugly. Windows 8 doesn’t particularly appeal to me visually ( like Ubuntu 12.04 does ), but practically, I think they’re catching up big time. I feel like i can say this with confidence, as I’ve been using Windows 8 for the last 6 months as my primary work OS. Windows 8 comes with a large bevy of improvements, including (finally) a much better copy dialog that stacks with other copy dialogs and has a pause button, improved Windows Explorer with a ribbon menu that doesn’t suck, ridiculously fast boot times especially with UEFI ( which I’m not sure I agree with on a moral ground ) and much better performance and memory usage, improved default app handling and notifications. And then there’s Metro.

I love this copy dialog

I love this copy dialog

There are many articles expressing hatred for the Metro UI, often with tricks of how to get your start menu back. The problem with almost all these articles is that I can’t seem to see a solid reason for the dislike of it as start menu replacement. On a touch device, most bloggers seem to agree that Metro is great. And I have used it on a touch device regularly and it’s great. Snapping – the ability to run 2 windows docked side-by-side, one at 30% one at 70% – seems like a feature iOS and Android could do with. I could really see the use in having my chat window open on the side while reading my feeds or playing a game. The share and settings charms provide consistent, context based sharing & settings, and developers can register their apps for types of content. Overall, a good user experience.

That said, I don’t see myself using Metro apps on the desktop. Because that’s not what they’re intended for. Metro apps are for touch interfaces. Many next-gen ultrabooks will ship with touch screens, so that’s something that Windows 8 is built for. For hardcore desktop users, there’s still traditional apps with full desktop support. Removing it in favor of the clunky old start menu is, in my opinion, just going to far.

My main reason for writing this post, is that i think the Metro dashboard is arguably the best replacement for the traditional menu system i’ve seen so far – with Ubuntu’s latest Unity shell being the counter. Windows 7 introduced the pinned apps to the taskbar. This is something that initially i hated, but after using it, realised that it was Apple’s dock done right. You always know how many windows of that app you have open, and it replaces quicklaunch for the apps you actually use. If there’s something you need that’s not in there, hit Windows key and type. That’s how people work, right? At least that’s how I work in Windows 7.

Windows 8 takes this last bit a step further. Your start menu is now full screen, and centered around your keyboard. You simply hit the windows button and type. You navigate with your arrow and tab keys. You can instantly find control panel settings ( Metro and desktop ), apps ( Metro and dekstop ), and files that are in your libraries. Hit enter, and it launches your selection. Everything is navigable by keyboard. And yet almost every single blog has gone on about how it sucks for the pc. Rather than learn a bunch of obscure Windows shortcuts, you can now get any app, file, or setting open with the Windows key. Why would you – especially as a developer – not want this? It’s just as good as the current iteration of Unity, Ubuntu’s desktop shell. If only Microsoft added the functionality to get menu items with the keyboard!

Searching for Settings

Searching for Settings

I think people need to spend some time with Windows 8, use it on the desktop for day-to-day usage instead of messing around for 20 minutes and then ranting about why it’s unusable for PCs. Sure, it took me a day or two of adapting to the new way but once the mindset of Win+”what i want” was there, i struggled to go back to my Windows 7 home PC. A colleague of mine is running it on his primary home PC as well as his work PC. The only reason I haven’t upgraded at home is because I don’t want to reinstall when it’s actually released.

Windows 7 is a good, solid OS, but Windows 8 outdoes it by far. For touch devices, Metro apps and the Metro UI is good. I don’t like the visuals, but from a usability and developer perspective, it’s really solid. For desktop devices, the Metro dashboard is a more capable, super slick, lightning fast start menu replacement. I see the best of both worlds here, ready for dual input devices like some new Ultrabooks, and Transformer type tablets. If i’m missing something obvious, please tell me. Because i really don’t see what people dislike.