An Architect's View

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An Architect's View

A Year With Windows 8

November 30, 2013 ·

About a year ago, I bought a Dell XPS 12 "convertible" with Windows 8, and I've been meaning to write up the experience for a long time. My Microsoft acquaintance, Matt Harrington, asked me back in June how I was getting on with it and, in particular, how I was liking it for Clojure development.

As I said at the time, my initial impressions were very positive, especially for someone who has been an Apple customer for two decades. How has it held up over the twelve months since purchase?

Overall, I'm still very impressed with this machine / O/S combination. Shocking! The flip-screen still makes people stop in their tracks, and it gets a lot of attention at conferences, which amuses me no end, given how prevalent Macs are in the tech community these days!

It hasn't all been good news tho'... The reliability of the wifi has been appalling, to be honest, right up until the recent Windows 8.1 update. I'm so used to Apple's rock solid wifi behavior on every machine / device I've owned that this was a real pain point - and it was one of the major issues I had with my Ubuntu netbook too in the time I had that. The Windows 8.1 update seems to have resolved the problems: I've had no problems at all with wifi since that update. Thank you Microsoft!

The touch screen stops responding to touch. This was pretty common before the 8.1 update but all sorts of things made it come back to life and, at worst, I'd just put it to sleep and wake it up, so it wasn't as annoying as the wifi issue. That said, I've only had it happen a couple of times since the 8.1 update so maybe that's been partially addressed too (although I'd point the finger at Dell here, rather than Microsoft).

I use this machine almost every day. I use it for casual content consumption most evenings while watching the TV and when I'm on public transit, or flying. I read books, I play games. When I'm online, I do email and surf the 'net. The keyboard is comfortable, with decent travel. The touch pad is large and responsive, but I still can't get used to it not working well with a combination of left and right thumbs which works flawlessly on Apple touch pads. I've used it for presenting at conferences and user groups and, compared to Apple laptops, it's definitely not as "plug'n'play" and the experience is still a bit quirky and unreliable, with poor screen alignment and weird resolution selection. As an e-reader, it's a bit big and heavy but the high resolution screen and the built-in PDF reader make for a very nice ebook reading experience in portrait mode. I wish the battery life were better tho' - four hours tops is not enough to cross the country on a plane!

As a development machine, I struggle with the lack of full *nix command line support: GOW (Gnu On Windows) is a reasonable substitute, and using Emacs as my primary editor really helps (since it has "shell" and "eshell" packages). I also have "Git Bash" and I use Console2 as a basic command line replacement, and those both help too. A year ago, I mentioned I had a problem with Ant doing variable substitution differently on Windows. I never got to the bottom of that but I rewrote that part of the Ant script in Clojure which side-stepped the problem. I have a ton of different language systems installed now: Clojure (obviously), Scala, Groovy, Racket, Node.js, Haskell, Python, Ruby, Erlang and, yes, CFML via Railo on Tomcat. And of course Java (but who uses that?). Once I'm inside Emacs, it pretty much doesn't matter what O/S I'm running so the answer to Matt's question is "Emacs".

The Windows 8.1 update was a major improvement all round. I can do without the stupid "start" button (why did Windows users get so upset about this going away?), but the ability to run multiple "metro" apps side-by-side is awesome. The new "metro" mail app is great (although I'd really appreciate an obvious way to do the equivalent of Gmail's "archive"). The overall feel of the operating system is much improved.

On the hardware side, Dell have done a great job with this machine: it's light yet solid, reasonably ergonomic, and the screen is great. It also stays fairly cool on my lap which is more than I can say for any of the Apple laptops I've owned. My only criticism of the hardware would be the very "sticky outy" power cable which, compared to Apple's magnetic adapter, is very old school and has already gotten bent a little.

A year in, for $1,600, I'm still happy.

Tags: wifi · windows8

6 responses

  • 1 Sean Corfield // Nov 30, 2013 at 11:09 PM

    I suppose I should have included Internet Explorer in this. Windows 8 came with IE10 I think? 8.1 brings IE11. It's mostly fairly good these days but for several sites it's a complete fail whale. Tweetdeck makes it grind to a halt. MangoBlog (which powers this site) is completely incompatible with IE10/IE11. I do like that the "metro" (full screen) version of IE disables Flash - I have that disabled in almost every browser on all my machines now.
  • 2 Michael Zock // Dec 1, 2013 at 1:23 AM

    The problem wasn't the start button but how they replaced the start menu with a half-baked wall of tiles that was missing a ton of basic functionality. Most people couldn't care less about the button, but the menu is much more inefficient than the old way. Change for the sake of change, no matter the damage.

    There are tools that and make it usable again, but when customers first need to install third-party software to fix an OS so even some of the most basic stuff works, you know something's wrong.
  • 3 Justin Scott // Dec 1, 2013 at 8:44 AM

    Regarding the start button, it wasn't that they took the button away that threw people off, it's that they took away what happened when you pressed it, namely removing the start "menu" in favor of the new start "screen". For desktop users the issue was that when you press the start key (on the keyboard initially but now the "new" start button on screen as well) it forces you into the metro interface. I wasn't thrilled about this myself (I'm still on Windows 7 Pro) but I have been using the interface on Windows Server 2012 (and 2012 R2) and am finding that the context switch isn't as jarring as I thought it would be. There are still a lot of people that never want to see that new interface on a desktop computer, however.
  • 4 zakoops // Dec 1, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    But basically, for someone on the fence like me on an old Windows XP box and looking up for a Mac (iMac or Macbook Pro), what's your take? (like you, I do a lot of programming)

    It feels like you don't regret OSX and are quite satisfied with your setup. Is it really the bottom line?

    This morning, I'm looking at these stats ( and feel like a mere 7% or 8% of market share for OSX does not put a lot of pressure on major software companies...
  • 5 Sean Corfield // Dec 1, 2013 at 2:03 PM

    @Justin, I really like the tile-based interface (although I don't like Apple's equivalent "launcher") and I really like the full-screen apps, esp. now I can run several of them side-by-side. It's a nice, clean UI for content consumption and casual content creation, especially with the touch screen.

    @zakoops, if you're looking to do hardcore development, OS X or Linux is the way to go in my opinion (unless you plan to only develop for Windows - in which case the VS suite of tools is the way to go :)

    @all, I would not want to run Windows 8 on a non-touch device. The gestures work well on touch screens but do not translate well to mouse movements and clicks. Even tho' I have a Windows 8 VM on my Mac, I use it less than my Windows XP VM, primarily for that reason.

    A couple of folks on Twitter asked why I went with Windows at all so I'll refer folks back to my blog post where I explained my requirements and why no Apple device measured up:
  • 6 Bruce Kirkpatrick // Dec 6, 2013 at 6:35 PM

    I think laptops have reached the point that you don't need a desktop anymore. I used a desktop exclusively since 1996 when I got my first computer. My new Lenovo W530 laptop was amazing for just $1200 ($1800 retail) refurb off ebay 6 months ago. Intel 520 SSD, faster i7 cpu. Supports 32gb ram. Has hard drive password to support the SSD's automatic fast encryption feature. fingerprint boot / login option, great 1080p screen.

    Hardware Encryption / TPM features were not supported in touch hardware 6 months ago, which is a requirement to me. Touch devices also were all 8gb ram or less, which is not enough for me. I wanted to make data theft as hard as possible in case someone stole my laptop. Also wanted to be able to play games, and this one has a fast nvidia GPU. It's really amazing how far we've come with integration in such a small package.

    I wouldn't recommend running linux environment as host OS. Run a guest VM that has your development environment. It is much safer, it and gives you a way of testing an upgrade without risking a problem with your host OS that could impact your ability to be productive / enjoy the computer.

    Windows 8 and all previous versions of windows have always been an improvement despite what the mainstream press likes to say. I've used every version since windows 95 fairly soon after release. Once your hardware has a stable driver, you should be running the new OS. I'm only had 2 driver issues on windows 8 and 8.1. It's just my smart card driver, and fortunately the manufacturer is going to patch and send me a fixed driver soon for 8.1. I use rsa key for remote ssh linux login with my smart card storing the key, and that still works. But the windows CSP API must have changed in 8.1 which broke my windows login via smart card. I have multiple layers of fairly inconvenient security on the laptop, but I do that just to be more responsible with other people's data. I love that you can do this affordably (I spent around $70 for 3 smart cards (feitian epass2003) and $70 for eidauthenticate). Bitlocker and other software solutions are relatively less secure, and slower performance compared to the SSD's built-in encryption. When I found that Intel's SSD drives encrypt all the time, but aren't secure without the bios hard drive password feature being enabled, I hunted pretty hard to find a compatible laptop and found only business class workstations listed it as a feature (hp elitebook, dell latitude and maybe xps, and the lenovo w series). I found that wasn't available on any of the touch devices I liked. Maybe there will be touchscreen workstations sometimes. But you could also get cheap windows tablet as a toy if you really want to browser the internet from bed rather then pay for an overpriced touch screen that you work on all day.