Saturday, January 26, 2013

Windows 8: Designed by Idiots, for Idiots

Now that I have your attention... I don't really think Windows 8 users are idiots, nor do I think the Microsoft Windows 8 designers and developers are idiots.

But Windows 8 is moribund. DOA. Stillborn. It reminds me of something one of my most respected colleagues once said, "If you make something foolproof, only fools will want to use it". Microsoft has acknowledged that Windows 8 is not as successful as they had hoped. They're blaming everyone but themselves.

I am a software engineer by trade, and one of the most fundamental principles is, "Don't remove features!" The corollary is, "Try not to force users into a particular way of doing things". I've watched Bill Gates for thirty years. I know that he understands these principles. Under Gates' direction, Microsoft understood. But with Windows 8, they threw both of them under the bus. Bill Gates would be spinning in his grave, but he's not dead yet.

Windows 8 offers a new start screen, optimized for touch screens, such as the ones found on tablet computers and phones. Windows 8 needs to support these new technologies. But Microsoft still has many millions of customers who use traditional desktop machines. People with jobs that require them to sit at a desk and type on a keyboard.

I believe Windows 8 would have been much more successful if Microsoft had done two simple things:
  1. Don't remove the Start button! It would have been fine if the Start button had been disabled by default, but give us the option to re-instate it if we want. The total removal is dictatorial, pure and simple. People want control of their lives. They don't like dictators. 
  2. Don't force us to use the Start screen! If someone's job involves desktop apps, don't make them have to dismiss the big green screen just to start working. Put the Start screen on the same footing as the desktop. In fact, the Windows behavior could change based on the computer's capability, and/or the docking state of the main computing unit. 
Microsoft used to understand this. For four Windows generations, users could still use the Windows 95 look and feel. Many of my co-workers still use this, because it gives higher performance, and they just like the old design. 

People are asking Microsoft to re-instate the Start button, but I'm afraid that ship has left the barn. That cow has sailed. Even before Windows 8 hit the streets, at least two (now six) independent software vendors introduced products designed to replace the Start button functionality in Windows 8. If Microsoft were to restore that feature in the OS, they would be in direct competition with these very popular products. Maybe MS could license them, but really Microsoft doesn't need third party software to implement something as simple as a pop-up menu on the task bar. To avoid lawsuits, they'd probably have to pay the Start button ISVs for damages. 

Sorry Microsoft, it was an idiotic move. We're your customers. You're not the boss of us. You're just another OS vendor, in competition for our dollars. Customers vote with their dollars. I am typing this on a shiny new computer that I just built. I had a choice of purchasing Windows 7 or Windows 8. Guess which one I chose. I thought Windows 7 was the best Windows ever. It was Vista done right. Windows 8 could have been a continuation of that theme, but noooo...

Update: Microsoft is reportedly re-instating the Start menu in Windows 8.1. It is also reportedly going to add a "boot to desktop" feature. I won't say, "I told you so", but those were the two things I was ranting about.

Update: Um, no. I just installed 8.1. Microsoft did not re-instate the start menu. They merely re-instated the start button. It takes you to the Metro screen. Whoopee. No dice, M$. I didn't like your shiny new schizophrenic OS, and I still don't. I'm running Start Menu 8, and will continue to do so until M$ pulls their heads out. Why a company would alienate an installed base of millions is beyond me.

One last update: Microsoft got one thing right with the reinstated start button: you can right click it, and get a menu of some fairly useful stuff.
  • Programs and Features
  • Power Options
  • Event Viewer
  • System
  • Device Manager
  • Network Connections
  • Disk Management
  • Computer Management
  • Command Prompt
  • Command Prompt (Administrator)
  • ----------
  • Task Manager
  • Control Panel
  • File Explorer
  • Search
  • Run
  • ----------
  • Shut Down or Sign Out > (the usual options)
  • Desktop (cancels the menu?)
Okay, so that's almost useful. Worst case, I'll be right clicking for the run dialog all the time.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Windows: Choppy Audio and Poor Performance

A computer system running Windows XP (yes, it's that old) had been running fine for several years, when all of a sudden it started feeling really sluggish, and most annoying, the audio playback became very burbly. The audio buffers were not getting filled as fast as the sound card emptied them. As a result, the sound card was looping sporadically on the same buffer. This happened mainly when disk activity was occurring.

After trying several time-consuming and pointless exercises to fix the problem, I happened on the solution more or less by accident:

You can see that the Current Transfer Mode is Ultra DMA Mode 5. This is what you want. What I found was PIO Mode. PIO stands for "Programmed I/O", and it is the slowest transfer mode, which requires the processor to stop what it's doing (like playing audio), and move the data from the drive controller to memory and vice-versa. DMA stands for "Direct Memory Access", which allows the processor to set up the transfer, and then allows the DMA controller to actually move the data from the drive controller to memory and vice-versa, so the processor can keep working on other things.

When your disk drive performance suddenly seems sluggish, and especially if multimedia performance becomes jerky and choppy, check your IDE channel properties, and make sure it's running in DMA mode. In Windows XP (and on Vista and Windows 7 as well), select Computer Management/Device Manager, and expand IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers, and make sure they're running in DMA mode.

How does the controller get into PIO mode in the first place? Several reasons. The most common one is that there have been too many drive read errors, and after several of these, Windows reverts to a "fail safe" mode. Unfortunately, it doesn't alert you about it. So yes, you might have a disk drive failure looming. Other reasons include a faulty or improperly plugged drive cable or power cable. After you have verified that everything is connected properly, and maybe run chkdsk, use Device Manager to uninstall the lobotomized controller and then restart Windows. Windows will re-install the controller automatically. In the process, it should revert to DMA mode if the drive is responding properly.