On the 26th of October, I made a rash decision. I picked up a Windows 8 upgrade and said to myself “Let’s get dangerous.”
I returned to my desk and planned my evening in my head, centred around the installation of a brand new, contentious operating system, on my primary gaming rig, in place of the perfectly stable build of Windows 7 that I was totally happy with. Suffice it to say, I felt justifiably concerned, but I allowed my concern to fall beneath the weight of my aversion to boredom, and a spanking new commission from our Editorial Overlord.
I then proceeded to leave my upgrade disk on the bus, like some kind of moron.
The resulting delay in my plans gave my concerns a chance to resurface. “This is crazy, right? I’m about to become an early adopter of Windows 8, which — traditionally speaking — could land on the wrong side of Microsoft’s awesome/atrocious release schedule.” Let’s look at the trend for the past few Windows releases: Windows 95 was widely liked, Windows ME was a joke. Windows 98 was incredibly popular, Windows 2000 was a confused mess. Windows XP was rad, Windows Vista was the literal worst. Windows 7 was the most popular version ever, having sold more than 525 million copies as of January 2012. Now Windows 8 stands bright-eyed before us with its feature list in hand, like a hopeful child presenting their report card to parents who are unabashedly most proud of their older offspring.
What follows is a journal of my first month of gaming with Windows 8, an experience that has been surprising in more ways than one.
I argued with myself about whether I was going look into performing a clean install of Windows 8, or try an upgrade for the first time ever on a critical machine. In the end, limited time made the decision for me. I backed up some critical files, copied the installation files to a local hard disk in order to speed up transfers, and clicked ‘Yes’ when offered the lazy upgrade route.
Installation was painless, surprisingly so. Not only did the installer gracefully handle the fact that I was running the files from a hard disk, rather than the DVD or a bootable USB drive, but it was over in the space of about twenty-five minutes. I logged in, using my pre-existing Windows Live account, and clicked through from the Start screen to the desktop. I was struck by the fact that I felt as though I had never left. My backgrounds, desktop icons, preferences, and ALL of my applications were still there. They all seemed to run without any issues. I had expected to be bombarded with a series of incompatibility messages on login, as now-unsupported background processes failed to start, but there was nothing.
With priorities clear, I started Steam. I grimaced my way through the connecting dialog, but the expected BSOD did not present itself. All of my installed games were still listed, so I impetuously ran Dishonored. Suddenly I was Corvo, once again silently stabbing all obstacles between me and my next objective marker. The game seemed to be performing as it was before the upgrade, there was no perceptible improvement or degradation.
Next, I futzed around with the Start screen. Here some of my expected snark and derision found a home. Sure, it is pretty. The smooth lines and bold, open typefaces are definitely appealing, but it is clearly designed to be a touch interface first. There is precious little to be gained here for mouse and keyboard users, a point that is most keenly felt when considering common design elements and aesthetic decisions. The default font DPI setting for
Metro oh I’m sorry Microsoft, “Windows 8-style” applications, is insultingly large when displayed on a PC monitor, which only serves to waste inordinate amounts of precious screen real estate. Twitter applications are the most obvious example of this, to my mind. The Windows 8-style version of the ever popular MetroTwit only shows eight tweets per column on a 1080p display.
Suffice it to say, the Start screen failed to impress beyond its capability to act in place of Windows 7’s Start menu indexed search. As you may or may not be aware, Windows 8 has ditched the Start menu in favour of the new Start screen. Though, given that the only use I ever had for the Start menu was as a way to quickly launch applications via keyboard input, I don’t miss it. In this capacity the Start screen performs admirably.
When using the desktop, my first impression of Windows 8 was that it was a smoother, snappier, more modern version of Windows 7. Which, as it turns out, is because that’s exactly what it is.
I didn’t have much time for games during week 1, so week 2 was going to be all about stretching Windows 8’s legs. I spent time with a varied group of games and installation methods, hoping to surface some incompatibilities. I lost a part of myself to a blood soaked, drug-like trance in Hotline Miami (Steam); I was reminded just how amazing Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit looks on PC at more than sixty frames per second (Steam); I clicked on every damn thing in Torchlight 2 (Steam); I could never seem to place enough benches in Theme Hospital (GoG); I fought, looted, and crafted my way through a few hours of Guild Wars 2 (disk install); I flirted with the risky alpha of Prison Architect (downloaded executable); and I stabbed Redcoats and Patriots alike in Assassin’s Creed III (disk install with Uplay).
Much to my surprise, all of this went off without a hitch. I was gaining confidence in Windows 8 as a gaming platform, and as far as I could tell it was just as stable as its predecessor.
Late in the week, I sat down at my PC and reviewed my notes. Things were looking good! Suddenly, a blue glow washed over the page before me. A chill formed in the pit of my stomach as I looked up from my notebook to see Windows 8’s somewhat gussied up, but still contextually grotesque Blue Screen Of Death. My building confidence took a hit, but I put it down to teething problems. Early adopters take risks, and the odd BSOD during idle isn’t anything to freak out about.
I preloaded Hitman: Absolution the day before it was due for release. The hands-on demo at EB Expo 2012 was enough to convince me that it was still my kind of crazy, despite what pre-release marketing and trailers would have me believe. On release day, I quickly discharged my evening house duties and sat down, eager to once again baldy and stealthily solve murder-puzzles as Agent 47. I made it as far as the main menu before my PC completely locked up.
The awful, giant, sideways sad-face was on the screen, once again calling out DPC_WATCHDOG_VIOLATION as the cause of my ruined fun. This was the first time that I’d experienced a BSOD on Windows 8 while actively using the machine. Up until this point all previous examples had occurred while the machine was idle, giving me hope that the cause was in power-saving, or another non-essential feature. Alas, it seems that the problem is not so easily ignored.
Multiple BSODs, all attributed to DPC_WATCHDOG_VIOLATION, played across my monitors over the course of the week. Sporadic, lacklustre googling didn’t turn up any simple fixes. I looked into updating my SSD firmware, only to learn that it wasn’t simple if updating the drive containing my OS. I continued to put up with it, but couldn’t escape a niggling dissent, “Windows 7 was rock solid.”
“Jason, you have made poor choices.”
In conversation, I generally recommend Windows 8. Ignoring the Start screen (quite rightly), the user experience improvements are genuinely impressive if you’re into that sort of thing; it is shiny and clean in ways that no version of Windows before it has ever been. If you run with multiple displays, Windows 8 has also improved on Windows 7’s support. The task bar now extends across both displays, and the Start screen can be simply switched to a different display should you desire.
The instabilities that I have been experiencing on my gaming rig could well be a configuration or hardware issue. The fact that they weren’t a problem with Windows 7 at the helm is rather damning, however. I should note that my work laptop is also running Windows 8, and has not missed a step. It does have the benefit of a clean install, thanks to a provided copy of the Enterprise edition.
When you really sit down and compare the two, Windows 8 doesn’t include any features that cause it to stand far enough apart from Windows 7 to make it a must-have upgrade for non-touch devices. Windows 8 is little more than a fresh set of curtains bordering a view that you’ve seen over your breakfast bowl every morning for the past three years. Sure they look nice, but ultimately they only really serve to remind you that you’d forgotten how much you used to enjoy that view, and how now maybe you want to hang the old curtains back up.