Wrestling with Windows

The last time that you met my wife, a couple of days ago, she had just managed to board the Eurostar back to London, having dropped her passport somewhere in Paris Gare du Nord. We have not been abroad since, though for unrelated reasons.

In the summer of 2013 we agreed on a less stressful holiday, for me at least: she would attend an Open University residential course in Nottingham, whilst I would continue to commute into the day job, looking after the cat each evening.

The snag with this otherwise promising arrangement was that she needed to take a Windows laptop with her, loaded with MathCad with which to develop mathematical models with her fellow students. Had she intended to use Mathematica on our MacBook Air, I might have found an excuse to attend her course as an assistant, but the combination of MathCad and Windows was just too daunting.

I did think seriously about setting up virtualisation or Boot Camp on one of our Macs. But given the deep discounts offered on Windows 8 laptops I felt transiently elated when we walked out of our local PC World the new owners of a rather plush HP touchscreen model, for less than the cost of a basic iPad with Retina display.

Of course it lacks most of the niceties of our MacBook Air, sporting a slimline 500 GB hard disk rather than SSD, and is considerably more heavy and chunky – more Raymond Loewy than Sir Jonathan Ive.

With almost every computer or device in the house running OS X or iOS, and during the day still warping back in time with Windows XP, this was the first time that either of us had used Windows 8 intensively. It has its upside: my wife’s Text Twist addiction was almost cured for good as a result of the severe attack of gorilla arm sustained when trying to play it using the touchscreen.

If you really think that touchscreen laptops and Windows 8 have got it right, then I challenge you to play a game like Text Twist for longer than 15 minutes without a mouse. Perhaps she should have pre-trained by doing one-handed pull-ups from a door lintel.

It is also wonderful to see how far Microsoft has come with Windows, to the point where most of the time it is quite tractable and pleasant. But this only serves to highlight its annoyances: opening Control Panels, for example, or even the simple act of shutting the computer down.

The latter seems a knack that I have yet to acquire: how to trigger the floating tool pane at the far right of the screen. Like so many knacks, the more frustrated you get when trying to do it, the harder it seems to become. But until we installed the 8.1 update with its quaintly retro Windows-logical Start menu, several commonplace tasks felt like drowning in honey.

Although there were widespread fears that Apple was converging OS X and iOS, those have so far proved unfounded; OS X has steadfastly retained its original controls and tractability with traditional input devices like the mouse. The suspicious might see this as merely reflecting the fact that Apple’s laptops do not yet have touchscreens. On the contrary, the efforts that Apple has put into developing sophisticated gestures for iOS and its OS X trackpads demonstrates its commitment to enhancing the WIMP interface, not supplanting it.

Innovative though Windows 8’s Start screen appears, it has forsaken windows for touch tiles, betraying its very name as well as many of those trying to use it. If Microsoft cannot even convince users to buy its Surface tablets, forcing them to use a bastardised interface on computers will win no friends.

The best news is that I have hit on a way of recouping our investment in this laptop: after a week of long days manipulating equations using its touchscreen, my wife should be ready to arm-wrestle local farmers for money. Who needs a wimpish Wii when you have a Windows 8 personal trainer?

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 29 issue 10, 2013.