Jul 30, 2015

Posted by in Editorial, Software | 0 Comments

Windows 10

windows-10-logo

Windows 10 was released yesterday, to great fanfare relatively little fanfare. We users on Windows 7 or 8.x have been staring at that tray icon that allowed us to reserve a free copy for several months now, and although there was no official time given for the release to be made available, we  were stuck staring at the icon waiting for the “go” signal to pop. Apparently for some/many/most, it didn’t, which lead to a whole lot of shared links where folks can kickstart the process themselves or download the ISO and install it that way.

I upgraded my Surface Pro 1 yesterday from an MSDN copy extracted to a bootable USB stick. However, the Surface was having issues booting from the stick, so I just used it as mounted media and installed it the old fashioned way. I wasn’t expecting a lot of gain because of the aged Surface hardware, but I was very surprised: it ran better than 8.1, and both the desktop and tablet mode were comfortable to use on a tablet…the exact opposite of the 8.1 experience on the desktop with an OS obviously designed for a touch input. I still need to download Surface-specific drivers and fiddle with things a bit; I booted it up this morning, or tried to…the battery was dead, and it had been at 100% as of last night. Apparently the power saving features aren’t set properly for the tablet.

The desktop situation was another matter entirely. I started the process when I was home for lunch, and when I left work the PC was ready to go…sort of. Windows 8.1 had been upgraded, but the video was wonky and the secondary monitor wasn’t online. I logged in and tried to right the ship, but there were all kinds of hardware driver popups going on that frustrated the hell out of me, and it was then that I remembered that I had never wanted an upgrade anyway. I wanted a fresh install.

The solution I had heard for this situation was to upgrade 8.1 to 10, and then use the Restore feature. One of the best parts about Windows 8.1/10 is the “flatline” ability. Rather then reformatting your hard drive and installing from a bootable USB/DVD, doing a baseline restore will effectively reset everything to factory settings which is more or less like a reformat and reinstall. You have the option to keep your “perishable” items (My Documents, Videos, Music, etc) and just reset the system, or to go nuts and carpet-bomb the whole thing. I opted for the urban renewal package, since I had already backed up the perishables.

Everything seemed A-OK at first. The initial issue was with the sound. The headset and mic (plugged into the on-board audio) seemed to be OK, but my X-Fi card power the desktop speakers wasn’t working. I couldn’t get any Creative drivers to acknowledge that I even had hardware installed. I fought with it for a while, tracking down unofficial drivers and all that, but eventually just removed the hardware from the Device Manager and let it find it again which seemed to do the trick.

The more obnoxious issue was that my network connection would only stay online for 15 minutes at most. I’d have to reboot, and use that variable window of time to track down an answer. Some other people had the same problem, and the common thread was that most everyone reporting similar issues had a Broadcom NetLink on-board Ethernet controller. My system is pretty old — circa 2009-2010 by my reckoning — and it’s an Alienware. Alienware didn’t have drivers due to the age of the thing, so they kicked me over to Dell’s website. I downloaded the “official” drivers for the network controller from their support site, and that cleaned up the issue. In the end, it wasn’t a terrible situation, but it was made significantly worse by the fact that I couldn’t stay connected long enough to research and solve the issue without rebooting several times in between. As quick as Win 10 is to boot up, my BIOS still takes forever to post.

So, is it worth the update?

A lot of people are genetically wary about upgrading Windows any time there’s an upgrade to be had. First off, I’ll tell you that if you upgrade your install, you can roll back to the previous version if you don’t like the new one for the first month after install. There’s an option in the same place you find the Restore to go back to 7 or 8.1, no questions asked, and all you lose is time. I’m of the mind that to get the best performance you should flatline the system, but that’s a choice you can make after you decide whether or not you want to stick with it. Upgrade it, play with it, and either keep it as it, go for the flatline version for maximum cleanliness, or roll back to your previous OS if you don’t like it.

I’ve not studied the blogs about the inner workings of the OS, but from my understanding and starting with Windows 8, the OS has been designed to work with the least common denominator, which is tablet hardware. To do that, the OS has to be able to perform with minimal specs: lesser processors, lesser RAM, and smaller hard drive space. Having used it on the Surface, I can say that it works very well. When you take that same core codebase and put it on a high powered desktop or laptop, you’re going to get performance boosts because of the expanded leg-room. Windows 8 ran pretty good; Windows 10 runs really good.

Here’s some bullet points, because otherwise I’m going to end up with 5000 words that no one will read (assuming you got this far in the first place)

  • Start Menu: I’ve never personally understood people’s infantile attachment to the Start Menu, so I never really missed it in Windows 8 since, you know, I learned to use the Search box. But for those who whined, the Start Menu has returned in a more familiar guise, while also retaining some of what you apparently hate so much.  It’s now more of a quick launch option which allows you to pin application tiles to the fly-out portion for quick access. I like this mechanic because it reduces the reliance upon the Desktop as a shortcut dumping ground, and the Taskbar as a quick launcher.
  • Notifications: Awesome feature! Sometimes toasts fly in from the side and you miss them, but they’re all archived on the right side of the screen. You can access this center by clicking on the speech bubble next to the clock in the system tray. It also includes shortcuts to several nice features, mostly useful for mobile/tablet/laptop users. You get info on friends who come online, email, scheduled appointments, system messages, and probably a whole lot of other things that you should know about.
  • Edge: I’m really hoping people will give it a shot and not automatically carry over the Internet Explorer Hate, but I also hope that people will stop being snarky assholes and I am routinely disappointed on that front. I used the Edge browser extensively yesterday while trying to troubleshoot, and performance was fast and solid. The only issue I noticed was that because it has a different agent reporting type, websites can’t/don’t recognize it and/or will purposefully exclude it because it’s a Microsoft product. Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty good improvement over what we had before.
  • Cortana: How many times have we shouted at our PC and wished it would do what we’re asking it to do? Now it can. I messed around with Cortana using my webcam mic, and the results were pretty damn good. She can open apps, set notes and reminders, check on news and weather, and probably other things. What she doesn’t do is interact with the Xbox App, which we’ll talk about…now!

The Xbox App was originally incarnated as Smartglass, and was supposed to be a “tablet companion” for the Xbox wherein  you could play, say Halo Whatever on the TV and have your Smartglass app display a map. A good idea in theory, but when you’re trying not to get shot up, taking your eyes off the screen to refer to another device is the best way to ensure that you will get shot up.

On the desktop, however, the merging of Xbox with Windows brands is moving ahead. In theory, the Xbox App is the Windows 10 “Game Center”. It’s not quite Steam and won’t replace it any time soon: there’s a link to the Games section of the Windows Marketplace, but it offers more of a hub experience than Steam does.

The first benefit to the Xbox App is the GameDVR. If you have an Xbox One you’ll understand this, but for everyone else, the GameDVR can be set to constantly record action in a recognized game so at any time you can have the XBA save the last 30 seconds, one minute, 5 minutes, whatever. You can then “share” this video to XBLive. Since it’s local to the PC, you can also archive it, upload it to YouTube, post on social media, and so on. The GameDVR features also include flat out hot-key recording and screenshot abilities. I really wish Cortana could interact at this level, because the Kinect allows you to shout at the Xbox to save a video clip. Not allowing Cortana to do that is a massive oversight, IMO.

The second is a friends list. If you have Windows 10 and play a lot of games on the PC, it may seem odious to you to have to sign up for a free XBL account if you don’t have an Xbox. Because of the integration, however, you can see other Windows 10 gamers — and XBox gamers as well — in the XBA friends list. This allows you to see what they’re doing (game wise, or Xbox wise), message them, and start a party with them.

Parties are what I had high hopes for, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t deliver. I saw my brother playing Destiny last night (on the Xbox), so I started a Party (on the PC) and invited him. When he joined, we were able to use voice chat, cross platform. I’d hoped that you could use this feature not just been PC and Xbox but also between PC and PC, and while I haven’t tried it, I’d be flabbergasted if it didn’t work that way. The PC to XBox Party is pretty stellar, because it doesn’t matter where you are, you can connect with anyone, anywhere (within the Microsoft gaming ecosystem).

And of course there’s Xbox One streaming, which is the icing on the cake. In short: it kicks ass. It seems to be leagues better than the PS4 to PSTV streaming experiences I’ve had. All you need is a USB hookup to an XB1 controller on the PC, an XB One (duh), and ideally a wired connection (I’ve not tried it wirelessly, but plan to via the Surface). You connect to the XB One using the XBox App, and then choose Game Streaming and you’re off to the races. Controls are pretty solid, with no noticeable lag in my tests. Your network may vary, but the implications are that you could be working on a boring ass spreadsheet in your home office because the spouse or kids are on the only TV in the house. But you see your friends are having a great time on the Xbox One, shooting or racing or Tetris…ing…whatever kids do these days. Just plug in the gamepad, fire  up the Xbox App, and remote-start the XBox One, and you can be right there with them (don’t forget to save the boring ass spreadsheet, though).

Some downsides, then, to be a bummer. Some people don’t have an updated XBox App, and it doesn’t seem to want to update. This is not a Windows Update situation; it’s a Windows Marketplace situation. Open the Windows Marketplace app and root around for updates, or just search for “Xbox”. That should allow you to update (and you might find other day-0 app updates as well).

During the reveal, it was shown that the XBA would pick up on all kinds of games you had installed, including those downloaded via Steam. I had no such luck. One or two of them were identified, and you can search for games you have installed if they are installed outside of Steam (like Skyforge), but simply being recognized for listing purposes doesn’t actually register the game as “official” with the XBbox App (and Skyforge) couldn’t even bring up the Game Bar that allows for screenshots and video hot-keys.

The bigger bummer is that for all of the coolness of GameDVR, if the XBox App doesn’t organically recognize the game you’re playing, you’re limited to what you can do with the content. Some games will allow you to Share the video and images on XBL, but most won’t because they won’t be seen as “official” games by the system. You can still work with the local saved media (so no more wondering where those screenshots are saved), but you’ll have to “sneakernet” it to your social network of choice.

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