A Brief Foray Into Windows

I just had a rare occasion to use a Windows XP machine here in the lab. Oy, was it painful! All I wanted to do was take three simple screen shots — just three — for an instructional article I was writing for our community. It took a half an hour.

I started, of course, by logging in to a Windows box. That went fairly smoothly. Type my name and password, and, sure enough, I get in. So I open a new window by going to the Start menu and clicking "My Computer," although it's not my computer. It's anything but. Still, "My Computer" gets the new window open. I take my first screen shot by hitting the "Print Screen" key. Yes, Windows has a dedicated screen capture key called "Print Screen." Hit it and it sends the entire screen to the clipboard. Not to a file, mind you. To the clipboard. Next you'll need to open up some kind of image editor. I chose the venerable Photoshop CS3. Opened the app, created a new document, and hit control-v to paste my screen grab in. Good (if a bit of a pain in the ass) so far. Next I made some settings in my open window, and made another screen grab. And once more for good measure.

In Photoshop I decided that it would be best to save my files to my centrally-located network home account, so I hit the save button and navigated there, named the file, and... The Save dialog crashed. After waiting about five minutes I decided that the only thing to do was to force quit Photoshop, which I did, losing all my screen grabs and necessitating beginning the entire process anew.

Windows XP: Definitely Not My Computer (click image for larger view)

The next time around I saved each of my screen captures locally as I went, and that seemed to go okay. Next I just wanted to copy these documents to my network account so I could access them from my office Mac, but the copy failed, producing a meaningless error message. Looking through my files, however, it was clear what the problem was. Apparently, during the crash Photoshop had spewed about three thousand temp files all over my home account, and these needed to be deleted before Windows would copy anything over.

So, I began the process of deleting these three thousand or so files by selecting about six hundred of them and hitting the delete key. I kind of like that Windows' delete key actually deletes stuff. That's a nice touch. What I didn't like was that deleting 600 zero byte files was going to take four minutes. But what was I to do? I went ahead with the file deletion. Four minutes of sitting and watching that miserable, 8-bit trash deletion progress bar — you know, the one where the trash files fly through the air and dissipate in a big pink sparkle — is enough to turn just about anyone's brain to mush. Which is probably why, after it was all over I went ahead and switched to list view (though there seems to be no way to make this setting stick across windows) and selected the remaining 2400-or-so files, right-clicked and hit delete.

Eleven minutes?! Argh!

With some time to kill I decided to log in to an adjacent Mac. Once logged in the Windows brain-fog cleared and it dawned on me: I could just delete the files from the Mac! And it won't take eleven frickin' minutes!

And by golly, that's just what I did.

Eleven seconds later I was able to copy up my files from Windows to my network account and get on with my life.

When I think of how easy all that would have been on a Mac I'm appalled. Absolutely appalled. Windows is ugly, flimsy and crash-prone by comparison. And the user experience is dead-awful. It's no wonder I avoid it like the plague.

God help the Windows Admins! You have my pity.

The Dark Side Part 4: System Restore? What a great idea!

I'm trying to be as positive about my Windows experience as possible. It's not easy. But as the popups and virus alerts have subsided, I've managed to poke around and find some really useful stuff on my Windows system. Stuff that doesn't exist on the Mac. One of the most impressive of these is the System Restore feature. I haven't actually tested it yet, but from the looks of it, the way it works is, you open the System Restore application, and there are two options: either restore your system to the state it was in at an earlier date, or create a restore point, which is essentially a record of the state of your system at this particular moment in time. System Restore actually creates restore points on its own, at regularly scheduled intervals as well. On the fly. In the background.

Now I don't know how well this works, but it's a great idea. I would absolutely love something like this for Mac. On Mac, if you want to "restore" your system, you're essentially relegated to the "Archive and Install" procedure, which, you know if you've ever done one, sucks. Hard. Wouldn't it be great if we Mac users could apply the latest OS update, for instance, and, two days later, when we realized some key functionality is broken, simply run a System Restore-like application and be back to where we were in a few short minutes? I think it would. And I'm sure you agree.

I really hope Apple has something in the pipe like this. Since my first broken Mac OS X update, I've longed for a tool like System Restore, and it's been one of the few things I've actually envied the Windows folk for having.

The Dark Side Part 3: Stealing Focus

This will be a very brief update on the progress of my Windows foray: I just want to say, I'm on the train, and I'm trying to write this, but every 10-15 minutes a popup appears from the Wireless Network Connection do-dad on my "Taskbar." Unbenounced to me (I am not a touch typist, and need to look at the keyboard when I type), this takes over my mouse focus, and anything I type after that point misses the document and flies off somwehere into the ether. To be fair, the Mac does this from time to time too, and it's equally annoying on that platform. (No, that was not a train pun.) But the Mac does it less frequently, and more obviously, such that I rarely lose whole paragraphs of text I thought I was typing. So add one more to the count of things I have to turn off or on before I can be at peace with my Dell, and another to the list of nice things about the Mac. I have to say, the Mac is really well thought out and configured, straight out of the box.

And that, my friends, is why design matters.

And for the record, I have now discovered yet another program for accessing wireless networks. That makes a total of three -- count 'em, three -- programs vying for control of my wireless card: Quickset, by Dell; Intel PROSet/Wireless, by Intel; and the Wireless Internet Connection Control Panel built into Microsoft Windows XP. WTF?

The Dark Side Part 2: MusicMatch

Inserted my first cd in the Dell today. Musicmatch fired up.

Musicmatch, in the middle of my CD listening, brought me to some message window telling me how to get to the "Now Playing" window, which I was already in. It said, "When playing CDs... Click here for Now Playing," and it has a little arrow pointing to the track title. Funny, I thought the best way to get to the "Now Playing" section was to press the "Now Playing" button. But I guess the Musicmatch people think I'm wrong. Fortunately they saw fit to tell me in this message window, whose "Close" button does nothing. There's actually a "Close" button -- it says "Close" and my cursor changes to the hand icon when I roll over it -- but pressing it does nothing. Might be nice if a message window came up telling me how to close Musicmatch message windows.

Windows and the accompanying software are like some medieval torture system.

I'm switching to iTunes.

Filed Under: Windows

The Dark Side Part 1: First Impressions

I've been using computers seriously now for eight years. I first started in grad school, where I studied Electronc Arts, and have been going strong ever since. The whole time I've worked on nothing but the Macintosh operating system. I've even made a career of the Mac, and am currently a Mac SysAdmin.

Two days ago, my Dell laptop arrived.

My decision to buy a non-Macintosh computer was a practical one: I want to learn. Specifically, I want to learn other operating systems, particularly Windows and certain flavors of Linux that will (currently) only run on non-Apple hardware. I'm tired of living with blinders on. As a SysAdmin, I feel compelled to see what lives on the other side of the computing street.

So, after two days of Dell ownership, I wanted to record my initial impressions with the new system.

First off, Windows does, indeed, suck. I'm shocked at how primitive and arcane it is. Doing anything in Windows seems to take twice as many clicks as it does in Mac OS X. Some configuration panels have nested windows that, when opened, close thier parent windows, forcing you to navigate the filesystem to return to the original configuration panel. There are inconsistencies like this throughout the OS that make using it maddening, particularly when you've been working on the Mac OS for so many years. And it's slow and ugly. I've spent much of my time trying to get the look of the GUI somewhat more palatable, and it's gotten better, but it's still nowhere near as attractive as the Mac.

The Dell hardware is also comparitively ugly, but for the most part, my Inspiron 600m seems well built, and has a decent keyboard and a nice monitor. Most of my usabilty troubles come from not being familiar with the key commands for this system. I'm a bit surprised at how sluggish the machine seems comapred to my aging 867MHz PowerBook Titanium, but this may be due to the Dell bloatware that comes preinstalled. We shall see.

Anyway, I'm not going to go into too many details at this point, as I'm still quite the newbie, but I did want to document the out-of-the-box experiences and problems I've had thus far. For the record, the system is a Dell Inspiron 600m, Pentium M 1.6 GHz, with 1.5 GB of RAM and Windows XP Professional pre-installed. Here we go:

1. Firing up the Dell, the first thing that struck me was the immediate sense of paranoia accompanied by the experience. You are instanly greeted with a number of popups warning you to upgrade your OS and your virus and privacy software, and check your firewall settings -- stuff I've only secondarily had to worry about on the Mac because its' either not an issue, or it's well configured in the first place. I find it ironic that the software that's supposed to prevent others from taking over your computer does so much taking over itself. I could hardly use the machine for the first few hours as I was so busy responding to popups and alerts. On the Mac, when you log in for the first time, there's nothing but peace and quiet.

2. I had hoped that updating OS, antivirus and privacy sofware would be fairly easy. It wasn't. (In all fairness, updating third party software is always a pain, even on the Mac.) The first -- the absolute first -- thing I installed was Firefox. I've had instantaneous problems with Explorer on Windows (yes, I have a tiny bit of Windows experience) and even I know not to use it. And getting Firefox was a breeze. In fact, it's almost exactly like it is on Mac. That's nice. Go Firefox! Updating the OS was weird and confusing. I was first alerted to my update needs by one of those little icons in, to use Mac parlance, the toolbar at the lower righthand portion of the screen. Then I was taken to the Microsoft site, where the software began downloading. I was never quite sure what was going on after that, but apparently at some point, the software installed itself, as I was alerted that it had completed and prompted to restart. During the download and install procedure, other popups appeared alerting me to third party updates.

3. Attempting to download and install the third party updates was even more mysterious and vexing. The bundled antivirus software warned me on numerous accounts that I had security holes, but never gave me clear advice on what to do about them. They just said vague things like "Make your computer more secure," which, when clicked, took me to a website where I could download updates for my antivirus software. I have no idea what these updates included. Were there new virus definitions? I don't know. Everything seems obfuscated behind the idea of making things "easy" for the user. The problem is, you never really know what's happening on your machine.

4. Another update I was alerted to was a driver update for my graphics card. This also led me to a website, complete with instructions. The instructions told me to look for the downloaded update in C:\DELL\DRIVERS\r98704, but this folder does not exist on my system. I have no idea where the update was downloaded, nor whether or not it was installed. But the alert has gone away.

5. Making a wireless connection proved challenging as well. It turns out that either Windows or my wireless card is not capable of WEP 128 bit encryption. Once I figured this out (and I will admit, the popup alert from the configuration panel was helpful towards doing so), I was forced to switch my wireless network to WPA. This is actually okay with me. I prefer WPA and had only switched it to WEP because of bugs in Mac OS X Tiger that initally prevented me from using WPA. (These bugs appear to be fixed as of Mac OSX 10.4.2.) The other problem with connecting to the wireless was that Windows and the Dell-bundled software were competing for control over the network card. So at some point, I went to the network configuration panel and there were no wireless netoworks. They had seemingly disappeared. What had actually happened was that the Dell-installed software had taken over the connection. Turning off that software fixed the problem. But this is a big part of the reason why the Mac experience is so much more seamless. You rarely see third party software competing for control over hardware or OS level functionality. It's all handled by the OS.

6. I will say this. There is one feature of my Dell machine that I truly appreciate, and that is the trackpad tap-sensitivity control. This is something that has been absent on the Mac forever. I like using the touchpad for clicking, but on the Mac it is far too sensitive for my style, the result being that I end up clicking when and where I didn't mean to, and causing general mayhem. On my Windows machine, I can configure the tap sensitivity to my liking. And doing so makes tap-clicking very usable. It's nice. And I already miss it on my PowerBook.

So, at this point, all the alerts seem to have subsided, and I'm just trying to learn and acclimate myself to the new machine. Now that everything's updated -- at least to the best of my knowledge -- let's see how it goes. I'll be reporting more on my experiences in the future, particularly when I get to installing Linux, so stay tuned.